Gong Hei Fat Choy!

Every February, Singapore (and Chinese people around the world) celebrate New Years. Streets are adorned with paper lanterns and filled with music, loud drums, and fireworks for the entire 15-day period. It’s an opportunity to gather with friends and family. An opportunity to start the new anew with a fresh outlook on life. And more realistically, an opportunity for me to gain at least three pounds/1.4 kilos from all the food being passed around.

This year’s Chinese New Year started 16 February (the Year of the Earth Dog!). Chinese New Year is cool, not only because it gives us expats a four-day weekend to travel, but also because of its many interesting traditions (many of which are intended to exemplify moral lessons). Here a few of the ones I find most interesting:

  • During the Chinese New Year period, the married or the elderly give red envelopes, or yasui qian, to children, unmarried juniors (SHAME!) to bring them safety and good fortune
  • On the fifth day of the celebration, it is believed that the gods of prosperity come down from the heavens. Businesses will often participate in setting off firecrackers as they believe it will bring them prosperity and good fortune for their business. My business did not but it would’ve been LIT if it did (get it?)
  • The dragon is present in many Chinese cultural celebrations as the Chinese people often think of themselves as descendants of the mythical creature. On the fifth day of the New Year when many people have to start going back to work, they will also have dancing dragons perform in the front of the office building
  • The 15th and final day is known as the Festival of Lanterns and marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. All types of lanterns are lit throughout the streets and often poems and riddles are often written for entertainment.

It would be very off-brand if I published a blog post that didn’t have a single mention of food, so let me talk about some of the traditional dishes that are served during Chinese New Year. For me, they’re the real standout (shocker).

The Chinese New Year’s Eve meal is the most important dinner of the year. Typically, families gather at a designated relative’s house for dinner, but these days, many families celebrate the dinner at a restaurant (and many restaurants require reservations months in advance). Many families rotate celebrations between homes of their relatives (and friends). I’ve done two of these meals so far, and my dear friend Yi Rong has done six already!

Each of the dishes served comes with deep-rooted meaning (here are just a few):

  • Yu – Fish: Fish is the Chinese word for “abundance” or “surplus” in Chinese, which means it’s the *star* of any Chinese New Year meal. The dish is served super crispy, with the whole head and tail in tact to symbolise the year’s beginning to end. Tradition also has it that you should deliberately leave some of the fish uneaten to truly represent the “surpluses” of the coming year. I did not find this out until afterwards, and I had been fasting all morning in preparation for this epic meal, so you can’t knock me for breaking tradition here.
  • Chang shou mian – Longevity noodles: Allegedly, the longer the noodle, the longer the wish for a long and healthy life. To boost the longevity wishes, noodles are cooked with mustard greens, which symbolise long life for parents (I ate extra for you, Mom and Dad).
  • Yu sheng – Raw fish salad: Yusheng in Cantonese translates to “raw fish,” but also symbolises abundance. It’s made up of a combination of condiments such as plum sauce and sesame oil, on top of shredded fresh vegetables and raw strips of fish or seafood. There is even a tradition on how to serve this one! First, the base ingredients are served. Then the leader amongst the diners or the restaurant server proceeds to add ingredients such as the fish, the crackers and the sauces while saying “auspicious wishes” as each ingredient is added, typically related to the specific ingredient being added. For example, phrases such as niánnián yŏuyú (年年有余; “may there be abundance year after year”) are uttered as the fish is added. When all the ingredients are added, all diners at the table then stand up and proceed to toss the shredded ingredients into the air with chopsticks while saying various “auspicious wishes” out loud, or simply “lo hei, lo hei” (meaning “scoop it up, scoop it up”). According to tradition, the height of the toss reflects the height of the diners’ growth in fortunes, thus diners are expected to toss enthusiastically. If you’ve ever seen me play sports and understand my competitive edge, you know I hit the ceiling.

Chinese New Year is undoubtedly the most important event in the Chinese calendar, and one of the most exciting times to live in Singapore. The mood throughout the island is so lively and festive, the city is adorned so beautifully, and everyone is just plain happy (either to be celebrating with family or to be traveling with friends on a long weekend!). But most importantly, it’s a great opportunity for expats like me to get a peek into such a rich and beautiful cultural tradition (I swear I don’t just like it for the food).

Until next year…gong hey fat choy (congratulations and prosperity in the New Year)!

Some photos from this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations: