Opinion: Chinese New Year is all about food, customs and family

Lim is a retired English professor from San Diego City College and is the co-president of the San Diego Chinese Women’s Association. She lives in Carlsbad.

Growing up in Tucson, Ariz., during the 1960s, we did not have a bustling Chinese community, but we did have a network of Chinese grocery store owners who had kids around the same age. We would get together to celebrate Chinese New Year with a big potluck party in our backyard. The feast would include home-made dumplings (representing wealth), whole steamed chicken, roast pig, roast duck, noodles (for long life) and steamed whole fish (representing prosperity) — prepared with scallions, ginger and a splash of sizzling soy sauce and oil.

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My brother delighted in eating the fish eyeballs, collecting their hard white cores, and placing them into a plastic box; this was as valuable as his rock collection. We also had assorted Chinese vegetables with black mushrooms, sticky rice and Buddha’s Delight: vermicelli noodles with seaweed that looked like “black hair,” gingko nuts, black fungus, red dates, lotus seeds, bean curd sticks (“foo jook”) and numerous other Chinese ingredients.

Traditional desserts included “niangao” (glutinous rice cakes) that signified a higher income or promotion. Other desserts were sweet bean soup with sweet rice balls and good fortune fruits (tangerines). The sweet rice balls represent “family togetherness.” My mom would plead, “Come help me make the rice balls. I cannot make hundreds of these myself!” The kids found the sweet bean soup to be too foreign for their taste, but we liked making the little rice balls, rolling them with the palms of our hands. It was fun smashing the squishy rice balls, like playing with Play-Doh. After dinner, the kids would play ping pong or board games, and the grown-ups would chat the night away while playing mahjong (like rummy, but with tiles).

Besides food, there are superstitious customs that accompany the new year.

We had to wear red for luck and good fortune. New clothes would have been a treat, but since we were poor, we only had clean hand-me-downs. My mother would tell us, “Do not wash your hair, it is bad luck.” Other superstitions that would wash away the good luck included no sweeping, washing of clothes or breaking anything. My rebellious sister never listened to my mom, and she would always wash her hair on New Year’s Day (Is this why my sister never married or had children?) My mom always scolded her “Sui nui” (stubborn girl). All the children’s favorite custom, of course, was receiving the “hung bao” or red envelopes with various amounts of money in them. Our rich relatives from the Bay Area would send us $20 — in the past, we could haul in $200 during Chinese New Year.

Fast forward to the present day, and times have changed.

My daughter’s only memories of Chinese New Year are of working at the San Diego Chinese Women’s Association booth, selling sponge cakes and butterflies during the two-day Chinese New Year Fair. The ladies in the association would fry and package the butterflies (wonton skin, slit in the middle, tied into a bow tie and deep fried, and then coated with powdered sugar). My daughter loved sprinkling the powdered sugar and would become a fairy dust by the end of the afternoon. When business was slow, we would make the girls hawk our baked goods in the streets throughout the fair. This was where my daughter learned her marketing savvy, her people skills, and how to deal with money. She would follow the lion dancers with their clanging gongs and knocking drums, see Chinese magic acts and martial arts demonstrations, and delight in the traditional Chinese dancers with their flowing dresses and billowing sleeves.

The San Diego Chinese Women’s Association (sdcwa.net) is still going strong as we celebrate our 40th anniversary this year. But it has stopped making its sweet confections and no longer participates in the Chinese New Year Fair. My daughter’s grandparents passed when my daughter was 2 years old, and estranged relatives no longer observe the “hung bao” tradition. And once you turn 21 years old or marry, you stop receiving money. Nowadays, with kids being so isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic and after two years without large gatherings, it seems more of the cultural traditions have lost momentum. Consumed with technology, video games and cell phones, children have become more self-absorbed and lack awareness of their cultural heritage. Increasingly, younger adults who move away from their families do not value the old-fashioned traditions and prefer to be with their friends, rather than coming home to celebrate the new year with family.

This Year of the Tiger 4740 (on the Chinese lunar calendar) officially begins Feb. 1.

Tigers are brave, confident, competitive and charming. The Year of the Tiger represents strength, vitality and growth. It is my deepest wish that these predications will come to fruition and that individuals and communities will continue to thrive to overcome challenges we face this year.