26 January 2012

enter the dragon

Gong xi fa cai! Gong hei fatt choy! Xin nian guai le!

Now what's all the differences you ask?  Well, these 3 greetings are probably the most common you'd hear in NZ.  The first being loosely translated to 'wishing you prosperity' in Mandarin, the second being the same  greeting in Cantonese and the last being 'happy new year' in Mandarin.  I speak two other dialects (although not very well any longer!) - Hokkien (paternal ) and Hainanese (maternal), and the greetings are the same with the exception of the differences in pronunciation of the words of course...but I won't bamboozle you with all of them!

So its the start of the Year of the Dragon.  I may not be as excited as some (let's say millions of other chinese) around the world since I believe in the chinese horoscope as much I believe in the western zodiac and the existence of fairies in the garden.  But if you were into horoscopes, let me summarise what astrologers and geomancers are predicting around the world for 2012:

  • The Dragon sign is the luckiest and mightiest of the 12 signs
  • Luckiest sign to be born under - so they predict a baby boom all around the world for 2012.  Hmmm...maybe I should retrain as a nanny and charge loads.  Just a thought.
  • There's going to be loads of prosperity and good luck all round.  Well, except for the following...
  • Europe will struggle economically (errr, if you've been following the news...no shit sherlock?!)
  • More natural disasters in the form of storms and floods in asian countries such as India, China, Thailand (no, you don't say) and Pakistan.  Don't they always? Anyway??
  • Apparently a prosperous year for those born under 'metal' signs (me).  Does this mean I will actually get my dream job?  And a little girl waits...
  • There's meant to be travel for me as well.  But!  Yes, yes.  Always a 'but'.  It seems I should be cautious of contagious diseases and colds when travelling.  So travels to the jungles of Congo is out for me then?  You know, just in case I get bit by a monkey and contract something hideous.  And I could always have a pack of Coldral on me for 'just in case'.  Not for the hideous contagious disease silly!  But for potential colds.  For the former, I could always buy a hazmet suit online and take it with me on my travels.  For 'just in case'.
  • This is the clincher for me - the Dragon is the only legendary animal of the 12 signs.  So all in all, this year is the year of make-believe.  Based on an animal that may/may not have existed, depending on who you talk to, and if they've taken their meds for the day.  Just another thought.

Now, now. I don't mean to be all cynical (or do I?). ;-)  I'm just seeing all this from the other side of the coin.  The funny slightly whatever side.  And I promise you I DO enjoy celebrating Chinese new year.  It is in my blood afterall.  However, its the food and traditions that I enjoy, not so much the superstitions and astrological believes.  Though some will argue that it's a fine line between tradition and superstition - and I agree!

My gorgeous younger sister in the photo, lucky mandarin oranges and an 'ang bao'
(red packet)

What was I saying again?  Oh yeah.  Food and tradition.  Oh and new clothes.  New pjs in particular.  Isn't it the same whichever kind of new year you celebrate?  It all revolves around food, tradition and for some, new clothes.  The new pj thing?  I'm not entirely sure that every chinese has this new year tradition, but in my family it's definitely 'the' thing to do.  Every year after the all important Reunion Dinner on new year's eve, we'd troop out to chinatown to soak in the crazy, busy, noisy, brightly red-dy atmosphere.    And yes, to those of you who ask - there are chinatowns even in asian countries!!  We'd buy new year sweets, snacks, more decorations (huge discounts to be had on the eve!) and new pjs .  We won't be allowed to wear the new pjs though until the next night - i.e. in the new year.  And if the pjs were days earlier, they would still sit in the cupboard all washed and ready for the new year.  Even now living in NZ and as adults, my mum still buys us new pjs or gives us the money to go buy them for ourselves.

And then there's the traditions.  As I said before, the line is pretty thin between tradition and superstition when it comes to Chinese new year.  I won't list ALL the ones that are observed by my family.  But here's a few:

  • Don't wear black or white but red - red is for prosperity and good luck, whereas white is a mourning colour for us and black, well black is just bad.
  • No using of the knife, scissors or anything with blades.  The cutting action of the blades equates to the cutting away of luck and also cutting and dividing joy and happiness.  So what happens if you needed to cook, you ask?  Well, that's why most family will have a MASSIVE (I do mean massive) cook-up on the eve, so that hopefully the food will last for at least the first 3-4 days of the new year.
  • No using of the broom - it sweeps away good luck.  I still maintain that you could get around that one with using a vacuum cleaner - it sucks in instead!
  • And whatever you do, try not to break any glass.  The whole shattering into bits is major bad juju.
  • Throw open all windows and doors and turn on every single light in the entire house just before the new year arrives - to let the old leave and the new come in.  This is one tradition I like to keep.  Now in Singapore that was easy, not so much in NZ.  In Wellington on Sunday night (new year's eve), it was windy southerly and around 8C.  So we flicked on all the lights and only threw open all the windows and doors at 11.50pm and these were all promptly shut at 00.15am.  I reckon that was long enough for the old to leave and the new to come in!

The there's the food.  Oh the FOOD.  Now that's what I miss most living now in NZ.  For me, if it wasn't the food, it wouldn't be Chinese new year.  The food makes it.  Just like every other festive or religious celebration around the world, there are certain dishes and foods eaten just during that time of the year.  And for Chinese new year, most, if not all of the dishes have specific meanings attached.

Cashew & Peanut Cookies

Most of the dishes are seafood based (whole fish, prawns, scallops, lobster, abalone, etc) with a few chicken and duck dishes and some more unusual ingredients that you wouldn't use in daily cooking (e.g. fat choy, which is a black hair-like algae often cooked with Chinese mushrooms).  There's also specific vegetables and fruit like leeks, broccoli, mushrooms and mandarin oranges.  Basically, all the dishes have meanings attributed to prosperity, good luck, health or happiness.  Though to be honest, most of it is about prosperity.  You know what us Chinese are like... :)  Even desserts, sweets and baking for this festive period have meanings attached to them - like the Pineapple Tarts I made, which the name in the Hokkien dialect sounds exactly like 'prosperity come'.  See what I mean with the whole prosperity thing?!

Pineapple Tarts

Ultimately the Chinese new year dishes, desserts and baking one grows up with is often based on the dialect group you belong to.  For me, it's been a mish mash of all sorts as I grew up enjoying both Hokkien (paternal) and Hainanese (maternal) dishes and as a teen Cantonese (stepmother).  And just to confuse you further - the country you grew up in can make a pretty distinct difference in the dishes as well - what a lot of families would eat in Malaysia and Singapore can be quite different from those eaten say in China.

Some store-bought Chinese new year goodies - clockwise LR: crispy egg rolls, cashew cookies, almond cookies.

If you're interested in knowing more, just Google key words 'Chinese New Year food/dishes'.  And here's a couple of links you could check out from noobcook, Rasa Malaysia and good old Wikipedia.

It was a relatively quiet new year celebration for me this year - by choice.  I had a big and stressful Christmas and didn't really want a repeat, so low-key it was.  Instead of the usual big Reunion dinner bonanza, we just went for lunchtime yum cha with my bestfriend and her family.

I also decked the house up with (after taking all the Christmas decos down - sheeesh!) and made some of my favourite Chinese new year cookies - Pineapple Tarts and Cashew & Peanut Cookies.  Will post about these soon!

Now I'm just umming over whether to close the new year (strictly speaking it lasts for 15 days) with Yu Sheng.  Basically a massive dish of shredded vegetables and raw seafood (fish and jellyfish) tossed with a dressing made of oil, sesame oil, sesame seeds, plum sauce and crushed peanuts.  And yes, you guessed right - it's ALL about prosperity.  An abundance of prosperity to be exact!

Happy Chinese New Year!! X.


  1. Loving that it's meant to be a prosperous year for us metal signs... I'm a metal monkey, yay! Great post and Happy new year to you too :-)

    1. It's about time I reckon! Glad you like the post. :-)

  2. I love this post!! Except for the part where you contemplate eating something with jellyfish in it, that just gave me the willies. :) But it's very cool to read about how people still celebrate their cultures in New Zealand. And I love your "tree" with all the Chinese decorations hanging from it. Happy New Year!

    1. Thanks Christina! I'm not a huge jellyfish fan myself - a few strands is all I will have. If I make this dish, I might sub it for thin slices of raw squid (calamari). Much prefer that! Glad you like me CNY tree - a dead tree branch and a can of gold spray later...voila! ;-)

  3. It's been a while since I last celebrated back home. Great festive photos, love how comprehensive your post is. Happy Chinese New Year!

    1. Happy new year to you too Leaf! Oh...I haven't been back for Chinese new year for yonks as well. Can't even remember when it was the last time! Maybe next year...


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