Culture

Beyond the hongbao: How these Chinese Canadians embrace Lunar New Year customs today

Three women on their favourite family and food traditions and how they observe Chinese New Year.

Three women on their favourite family and food traditions and how they observe Chinese New Year

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

For me it was the hongbao or lai see (red envelope) and the crisp, lucky money carefully stuffed inside. Growing up in Vancouver and Calgary, there were certain customs that my immigrant family followed during Lunar New Year, and the giving — or in my case, receiving — of hongbao was my (and practically every Chinese kid's) favourite custom.  

However, once I moved to Toronto for university, my steady stream of hongbao suddenly came to a halt. The fact that I was unmarried — a qualifier for the gift, according to tradition — seemed to evade my parents. They insisted that lucky money was only doled out to children who still lived at home (benefitting my younger sister, much to my chagrin).

Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival and referred to by many as Chinese New Year, is celebrated on the first full moon in the first Chinese lunar month. This year marks the Year of the Pig, which falls on February 5. For those of Chinese heritage, the Lunar New Year usually begins with tuan nian fan (New Year's Eve) dinner. This feast features a range of auspicious dishes eaten for their symbolic meaning, which is based on the pronunciation of the food's name or on its appearance.

My family would gather to feast on a number of dishes that usually include jiaozi (dumplings), a perennial favourite of mine and staple of celebrations in Northern China. The boat-shaped food is thought to resemble silver or gold ingots, and according to custom, consuming dumplings is said to bring wealth. The saying goes that you'll amass greater fortune the more dumplings you consume, but I'm still waiting for this wish to come into fruition given my voracious appetite and love for dumplings. (Similar blessings in wealth and prosperity are said to come from eating chun-juan (spring rolls) which symbolize gold bars, but those weren't as common in our household.)

Nian gao (glutinous rice cake) — a favourite of mine since childhood — is a speciality from China's rice-producing south, even though it's eaten almost everywhere in the country. Steamed, sliced into pieces, or coated with egg and pan-fried until it develops a thin, caramelized crust, these sticky cakes have an almost bubblegum-like texture (like a tackier version of Japanese mochi) that I still find addictive.  

I always knew that our Lunar New Year's Eve meal would wrap up with chang shou mian (long noodles), another celebration staple, which symbolize longevity. Stir-fried or boiled and served in a broth, you're meant to slurp up the long strands, because cutting or biting down on them is considered unlucky.

Tangyuan (glutinous rice balls) (Courtesy of Renée S. Suen)

Twist my rubber arm if the closing act was tangyuan (glutinous rice balls), especially if they were plump with brown sugar, sweetened black sesame, red bean or taro paste. It wasn't until I asked an elder why we ate them that I realized that not every dish was related to money. Apparently, the round shape represents family reunion. Go figure!

Some superstitions include cleaning the home, and washing or cutting your hair before New Year, never during, were enforced by elders. "You'll sweep/wash all the good luck away!" was the warning. Wear new clothes, preferably something red, because it's a lucky colour. I don't hold on to many of the customs too dearly (being able shower is a hygienic practice I have a hard time giving up). I find customs far easier to comply with when they're associated with delicious food.

I wondered how other Chinese-born Canadians — playfully referred to as "CBCs" — observed Lunar New Year now; which of their family's traditions they upheld, which had evolved.

So I connected with two women with distinctly different perspectives: a CBC who had a more relaxed observation of the festival, and a Chinese-Canadian who was born and raised in China.

For Carol Lee, a second-generation Chinese Canadian, Lunar New Year celebrations from her childhood were subdued. "We didn't have anything traditional-traditional, because my parents were also born in Canada," explains the entrepreneur and philanthropist, though her family did observe tuan nian fan dinner.  

"The whole family had to be there — it's the equivalent of Thanksgiving," she says. "We didn't do very much, but the big thing we all remember growing up [was] the red packets of money."

(Credit: Jonathan Desmond)
(Credit: Jonathan Desmond)

Committed to the revitalization of Vancouver's Chinatown, Lee serves as a board member to numerous organizations, including the Chinatown Foundation, which she helped establish. Lee is also the owner-operator of Chinatown BBQ, a siu mei (Hong Kong-style barbecue) restaurant. The latter aims to capture the spirit of historic Chinatown, while keeping food affordable to the low-income people living in the neighbourhood.

Despite the strides Lee's making in preserving the area's heritage today, she admits that interest in her own cultural background only ignited after a move to Hong Kong in 2001. Seeing the festival play out in the city was a sensory-overloading experience of brilliant lights, extraordinary fireworks displays, social events, flower markets, a colourful night parade…. "Celebrating Chinese New Year's in Hong Kong was so beautiful," Lee remembers. "It's hard not to embrace it when you're there because it's the celebration. It's everywhere."

Back in Vancouver, Lee now decorates for Lunar New Year with this spirit in mind. In lieu of the mandarin orange trees she saw in hotel lobbies around Hong Kong ( the citrus fruit is a homophone for "gold" and "luck"), Lee ties hongbaos to cherry blossom or pussy willow branches in her home. "I think as you get older, you develop a greater appreciation for tradition and customs," she says.  

For New Year's Eve, Lee's family would always eat out. One of the musts was a whole chicken. The chicken represented happiness and reunion, she tells me, and keeping the head and feet symbolised completeness and unity. Fish was another staple on the Lee table. Pronounced "yu," the word sounds like surplus or abundance. The saying nián nián yǒu yú, implies that by eating fish you'll be blessed with "abundance year after year."

They only ate vegetarian meals on New Year's Day. "You don't eat meat in honour of the animals," Lee explains, adding that they'd usually eat jai (also known as Buddha's Delight), which is a complex, meatless dish of vegetables, mushrooms, nuts and noodles that's rich in symbolic meaning.  

Today, Lee still goes out for New Year's Eve dinner — only now, she's now the one who hands out hongbaos to children and her restaurant's staff.

A twist on tradition

Karisa Lui was raised in a very traditional Chinese household. She moved to Toronto from Hong Kong two decades ago to take on the role of assistant manager of marketing for the Hong Kong Tourism Board, and we chatted about how busy her family would be leading up to and during the first two weeks of the festival.

"This is the time of the year that families would see each other to wish each other well," Lui explains. "It's kind of a reunion: we'd greet guests, exchange gifts and lai see, or go out to pay respects to senior family members."

Like Lee and myself, food was the most important aspect of the celebration for the Lui family. "I come from a big family and our family had to prepare so much Chinese New Year's food before the festival," she says.

Although Lui isn't always able to make the annual pilgrimage to her family's Hong Kong home, she and her Toronto-based expat friends do gather for a New Year's Eve feast, exchanging foods gifts like "homemade nian gao; radish, taro and water chestnut gao … and deep-fried pastries that symbolize fortune."

She also makes sure to have traditional sweets within reach. Visit most households (minus mine), and you'll likely find a variety of New Year's confections kept in a chuen hup (Tray of Togetherness): a circular box that's usually separated into eight compartments (an auspicious number that symbolizes prosperity), which Lui says is a "must-have during Chinese New Year."

This "assorted candy box," as Lui calls it, is traditionally offered to every guest that drops your home by for the entirety of the Lunar New Year festival. "Everything symbolizes happiness, good fortune and success," she explains.

The counter-friendly snack box can contain everything from familiar bites like gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins to unique sweets such as edible rice paper–covered White Rabbit and/or chewy Sugus — fruit-flavoured candies. Then there's the traditional stuff: red-dyed, roasted melon seeds (for happiness); young coconut (togetherness); winter melon (good health); kumquats (prosperity); red dates (also prosperity); and candied lotus seed (fertility — a must, according to Lui).

There's also a candy corn equivalent in the chuen hup: lucky, strawberry-flavoured candies. Wrapped in red envelope-like foil packaging, the hard candies look just like hongbaos.

I ask Lui, the traditionalist, if there were practices she's abandoned or modified since moving to Canada. "We try to do as much as possible like cleaning the home, wearing something new, and calling and wishing every senior family member a good and healthy year," she says.

But when I bring up my gripe about the not-showering superstition, Lui chuckles and replies: "I'm not that strict now that I'm not home and [being watched by] my mom or aunt!"

No longer receiving hongbaos during Lunar New Year, I've transferred my anticipation in recent years to something equally red and auspicious, but packed full of umami: homemade XO sauce.

Made from conpoy (dried scallops, which resemble old coins), dried shrimp (pronounced "ha," to allude to laughter), chili peppers, Jinhua ham, garlic and oil, the spicy seafood condiment is a fragrant and fiery annual treat that a group of friends and I spend a weekend preparing. I liberally spoon the savoury, mouth-watering sauce over basics such as soupless noodles and stir-fries for the rest of the year (at least until I abruptly run out).

It occurs to me that this has become my new tradition, and like some of my family's culinary customs, it's one I eagerly look forward to embracing every Lunar New Year.


Renée Suen is a Toronto-based freelance restaurant and travel writer/photographer who searches the world for memorable tastes and the stories behind the plate. You can find her work and culinary adventures at www.reneesuen.com and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rssuen

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