Kung Hei Fat Choy! (Part 2)


Welcome back to part two of my mini-series celebrating the customs of Chinese New Year.

Yesterday saw me in the familiar role of storyteller when I recounted the legend of the monstrous Lin and the origins of many New Year traditions. Today, I’ll take a more personal approach and give some examples of the ways my extended family commemorate this holiday. I will also touch on alternatives ways in which the greater community celebrate.

Chinese New Year lasts for a period of fifteen days, some of which are treated as public holiday throughout Asia. Some countries hold events over the whole fifteen days, but most have key days which are celebrated. Almost everyone celebrates the first day.

For my family, the first day is (usually) a tame one. We dress in an item of red-coloured clothing to welcome good luck and do not empty the bins, or clean any part of the house, lest we throw it back out. We also give out red packets (Li See*), containing money, to junior and unmarried family members (see below) and this is where my son makes his next big score after Christmas.

Red Packets (Li See)
Red Packets (Li See)

Local businesses and larger community groups throw elaborate parties during this time where they light firecrackers and invite lion dance troupes to perform and drive away bad spirits/luck. This day is one for honouring family and ancestors and it’s traditional that visits are made to the eldest members of the family e.g. grandparents, great aunts and uncles.

Our main celebration takes place on the first Sunday of the festival when we visit my wife’s family and take them out for a celebratory dinner, usually Dim Sum. This is reflected throughout the Chinese communities making the New Year a very busy time for restaurants.

Food plays a major role in the holiday festivities and the cuisine consumed takes on almost allegorical roles. For example, part of our Dim Sum meal often includes dumplings (gow zi) which, owing to their ingot**-like shape, are associated with prosperity; fish, a Chinese homophone for ‘Surplus’; and noodles, representing longevity and long life. We eat and even gift oranges for luck and fortune. My mother-in-law will also make Lin Go, a New Year pudding made of rice flour, wheat starch and mountains of sugar which is pan-fried before eating and is accountable for at least 70% of my yearly sugar rush. For safety reasons (namely my own), this is kept away from my son.

Lin go
Chinese New Year Cake (Lin Go)

The celebrations of this holiday are spectacular, full of vibrant colour, music and tradition. If you are lucky enough to live near to a large Chinese community, I urge you to go and experience all this for yourself. It’s something you’re not likely to forget.

Kung Hei Fat Choy!

*Red Packets (Li See)
Li See are little red envelopes containing money of various, even-numbered values. They are given by married couples and the elderly to their unmarried juniors. Like most New Year traditions, the giving of Li See is seen as a way for lucky couples (synonymous with being married) to share their good fortune and perpetuate their own luck. Most Li See are given without being asked for but there is a Cantonese rhyme that some children say (tongue-in-cheek) when greeting elders: ‘Kung hei fat choy, Li See tau loi, penny mm oi, bong jee doy lok doy doy.’ (“Congratulations and be prosperous, now give me a red envelope, I don’t want pennies only [English] notes.”)  It’s considered extremely unlucky for a couple not to give a Li See if they are asked for one.
To show respect, those who are offered a red packet should accept it with both hands and it’s frowned upon to open it (or, for that matter, any gift) in front of the person who gave it. Traditionally, Li See were kept under a pillow and slept upon for seven days after the festival before opening it.
**ingots are an ancient form of currency typically gold and silver

3 thoughts on “Kung Hei Fat Choy! (Part 2)

  1. Pretty, pretty interesting. My sister married Chinese too. Well, Chinese-American and I don’t think they’re very traditional.
    I really like the way you tell the stories.

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