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  • Writer's pictureKathy Chin Leong

Chinese New Year for Everyone

February 12th 2021 - February 26th 2021

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

This is the standard Happy New Year greeting in the Cantonese dialect. While western and European countries celebrate Christmas for one day, Lunar New Year lasts 15 days with gifts and meals and special decorations and parties. Without a doubt, It is hailed as the most elaborate and meaningful holiday of them all in Asia. Other Asian countries also celebrate the new year based on the lunar calendar. Vietnam calls its new year Tet Nguyen Dan. Tibet’s is Losan. Korea dubs its new year Seollal.

Chinese New Year sweeps in every winter, taking on a life form of its own. In San Francisco, everyone celebrates with the famous Chinese New Year parade (cancelled this year due to Covid-19), organized by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The parade features more than 100 organizations and is considered the largest night parade in North America. The route is a little more than a mile long, but the event lasts at least three hours. It is a time to honor the Chinese in America, local politicians, and the Chinese schools and organizations throughout the Bay Area.

Chinese New Year purists keep track and adhere to the traditional dos and don’ts, what to eat and not eat, what to wear and not wear. In days of old, it was a holiday that catered around the schedule of farmers, and the season lasted 15 days so people had enough time to travel long distances to pay homage to relatives. It is a time of reflection, family unity, and joyous, unlimited hope. The date moves around every year, for the tradition follows the lunar calendar. It falls between Feb 12 and Feb. 26th when the new moon appears which is one or two months after China’s winter solstice.

In 2021, the holiday begins on Chinese New Year’s Eve, Feb. 12, and concludes on February 26. For many Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area, keeping the traditions associated with the season is important in passing on the values to the next generation and vital in honoring the older generation.

Laurene Chan, Cameron House director of youth ministries, continues to honor the holiday with her clan. To prepare for the first day of the new year, she fills a box with Chinese and Western treats that are symbolic. For example, she will include nuts like the pistachio which translates to a happy nut since the half-opened shell appears to be smiling. Says Laurene, “The first thing each of us in the family is supposed to do as soon as we wake up is to get a sweet from the box and then wish each other a new year blessing. The belief is that all year long, then, only sweet things will come from our mouths!”

During this time, Chinatown hosts a flower festival the weekend before Chinese New Year in order for families to purchase lucky blooms. Chinese supermarkets in the suburbs with large Asian populations load up on the significant ingredients to promote business success, health, well-being, and prosperity.

And if you want to join in the festivities of the Chinese New Year season, here are a few traditions detailing Dos and Don’ts.

  1. Decorate your home with Chinese couplets and characters on red paper which speak of blessings and prosperity. Add symbolic plants such as a lucky bamboo tree, kumquat tree, money tree, orchids, and potted flowers, never cut flowers. Peach blossom branches and pussy willows are also considered good luck.

  2. Gather your family together for a feast on Chinese New Year’s Eve, Jan. 24., and serve the following seven items at your dinner table: a steamed fish with the head and tail, dumplings, glutinous rice cake or niangao, longevity noodles, spring rolls, oranges with the stems and branches, and sweet rice balls. Other families also add a steamed chicken with head and tail for unity and strong foundation.

  3. Wear new clothes from top to toe, from underwear to coat, on New Year’s Day to represent newness and hope for the upcoming year.

  4. Give red envelopes called hung baos in pairs if given by a couple. The enclosed bills must be new, never used. Never give any amount associated with the number four, as the word sounds like death in Chinese. Banned gifts include: shoes, sharp items, clocks, pears, umbrellas, handkerchiefs, mirrors, and cut flowers.

  5. Remember to greet one another with Gung Hay Fat Choy!

In the busy Bay Area, not everyone has time or desire to adhere to all the ancient rituals. In Campbell, California travel agent Lin Low says she still gives hung bao to her grown children, but prefers eating out for the holiday rather than cooking. In Los Gatos, Becky Wong will prepare a Chinese meal but refuses to put Chinese couplets all over the house because the papers only gather dust.

Calvin Yan, aide for San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, was the first generation from his family to move to the U.S. in the 1970s. He recalls not doing much during the holiday since “we didn’t have too many family and friends to celebrate Chinese New Year with. All of them were still in Hong Kong. “

Over the course of time, however, as he has become more involved with Chinatown affairs, he has created his own rituals. He works annually with a team of volunteers to organize emcees along the Chinese New Year parade route. “Volunteering at events has become my way of celebration,” he says. “I do not participate much in the Chinese traditions – visiting family or going to temples, but I have adopted a new tradition with the community.”

In the melting pot of the United States, people borrow traditions from each culture, and the spirit of Chinese New Year can be celebrated by everyone. Whether its greeting others with Gung Hay Fat Choy or having a Chinese meal with friends, the intent of wishing others a prosperous year is good practice for all.

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