Traditions part of Chinese New Year celebration

DANVILLE – Kathy Lan sometimes misses the good old days of her childhood in China.

The Danville Area Community College sophomore would like to get another red envelope like the one she got when she was 8.

Lan received a large amount of money from her grandmother and other adults, part of a tradition for older adults to give children and young single people money to help with their education or to be used during the upcoming year.

"The red envelope is for mostly small children to start your savings. It was given to you from married couples or the elderly," she said. "We also got new clothes. It represented a fresh start for the year to come."

"Oh, yes," agreed Shih-Mei Carmody, Urbana Free Library children's librarian. "First you had a bath and then you put on new clothes from top to toe."

Carmody organized a Chinese New Year celebration last Friday at the library with entertainment that emphasized the cultural side of her heritage – singing, dancing, instruments and, this year, the lion dance.

"It makes me happy to share our culture," Carmody said. "For many people, it would be hard to go home to China or Taiwan. To have a community celebration really makes it good for the people staying here."

Carmody said about 170 people attended, less than last year, but the weather may have discouraged attendance.

Traditionally, children are encouraged to use their money wisely and consider the red envelope gifts like an allowance, Lan said.

"It's always in even numbers," she added. "Odd number amounts are for funerals."

Red posters adorn the house with blessing poem messages about bringing fortune to the family. A particular character letter for luck was hung upside down for luck to come down to your house, Carmody said.

"Red is the color of fortune. It is the symbol of joy, virtue, truth and sincerity," Lan said. "Even brides used to wear red. White was bad luck, the color of surrender. You see a lot of red for New Year's.

"We celebrated for 15 days, too."

The Chinese New Year starts with the new moon on the first day of the new year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. Days of the holiday were to be shared. The New Year's Eve meal is huge with as many of the family as possible coming together.

"There were no decorations on the table," said Daisy Liu, Lan's mother and co-owner of Green Island Chinese Restaurant in Danville. "It is all food. No room for decorations."

On New Year's Eve, the immediate family gather. If you are married, you go to the husband's side the first day and the second day to the wife's side. If you are single, you go home to your parents.

"The meal is like Thanksgiving here. It's always the most food. You never had to worry about being hungry," Lan said. "After, we would stay up all night playing games."

In the evening, there were be fireworks.

"Not like here. Big fireworks," Lan emphasized, swinging her arms up and out like a fan arch, "and they would go on and on. They symbolized blowing up the past, a new beginning and scaring off any demons."

Many of the foods served tie back to having good fortune in the new year.

"Chicken. You would have the whole chicken. It symbolizes the family all together," Lan said. "It was steamed or boiled and then shared all around the table, a circular table, a symbol of unity as a family."

Other comparisons and traditions included dumplings, clams and spring rolls, which were shaped to represent gold bars; noodles to represent long life and it is bad luck to cut them. Fish was also served with the head and tail to symbolize good luck from beginning to end in the new year.

"Sticky rice cake for dessert is known for its sweetness," Lan said. "It's about a rich, sweet life. The layers are for rising abundance and it's round like the family in reunion."

Some dishes Liu's husband and Green Island co-owner, Ken Hoey, likes to fix now include a teriyaki chicken, using all the meat that he marinates in his own sauce, a combination of ginger powder, ketchup, soy sauce, sugar and cooking sherry.

"Marinate it overnight, then I grill it in a wok," Hoey said. "But I grill very hot, like 500 degrees."

The same goes for the fish that Hoey breads with potato starch.

"When it is fried very hot, the oil won't stick to the food," he said.

Potato starch is his secret ingredient in a lot of his dishes. It is used as breading as well as a thickener for soup. He gets it from a vendor in Chicago.

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