Each year, a significant population of Australia celebrates the Lunar New Year. Often referred to as Chinese New Year, it is a time of festivity marked by lion dances, delicious food, and welcoming in a new year of good fortunes. In many East Asian countries, Lunar New Year receives its own public holiday, allowing people to travel back to their homes for big family reunions. Whilst Australia may not have this same perk, Chinese New Year festivities and traditions still remain to be a major part of the lives of Chinese people residing in Australia. ‘To be Chinese is to celebrate Chinese New Year’, says a young Hong Kong migrant in Sydney.
Living in westernised culture, we asked some of our Chinese migrant friends how they and their families continue to honour Chinese New Year traditions, and what it all means for them in today’s modern era.
Why do you choose to celebrate Chinese New Year?
Celebrating Chinese New Year is not quite a matter of choice, but a matter of upholding family tradition. Whilst the lunar new year has ties to the cycle of the moon, Chinese New Year celebrations are seen as a cultural tradition passed down from generation to generation. More significant than collecting red packets, and munching on delicious sweets, Chinese New Year is really all about the reunion of family members. Chinese New Year is the one time of year where everyone is expected to return to the household of their parents, making it a truly special time for families with adult children who have moved out of home or even out of the country.
How does your family celebrate Chinese New Year?
Preparing for Chinese New Year is more than just preparing good food and decorating the house. Traditions around Chinese New Year revolves around a fresh start to the year, bringing in good luck, and sharing prosperity with others.
The first step is to prepare the house with a thorough clean. My Malaysian Chinese mother in Sydney, reflects on how her mother taught her to ‘sweep away the bad luck, so good luck can come in. But it’s important to do all the sweeping before Chinese New Years Day, otherwise you’ll be sweeping away the newly arrived good luck!’.
With a clean house, the next step is to adorn the house with decorations. This commonly involves red coloured decorations which symbolises good fortune and joy. Amidst hanging lanterns and posters with auspicious sayings, some households will also buy a few pots of specific Chinese New Year flowers, which similarly have auspicious meaning. For tips, check out this link here.
On the family dining table, there is also likely to be a collection of delicious sweets which are eaten before and around the Chinese New Year period. These sweets however, aren’t just to be kept for a single household to enjoy. It’s a custom to create food hampers for relatives and friends filled with a whole variety of foods from fresh fruit and vegetables, to chocolates, sweets, and cakes, then delivered on New Years Day.
In Australia, major cities will often celebrate Chinese New Year too, with decorations throughout Chinatown, lion dances in restaurants, or even having floats of the zodiac animals parading down city roads. Whilst these festivities are definitely exciting to be part of, the epitome of any Chinese New Year celebration is the New Years Eve Dinner, aptly coined as the ‘family reunion dinner’.
What are must-have foods for Chinese New Year celebrations?
The family reunion dinner on New Years Eve is marked by a large feast of symbolic food. A Hong Kong tradition, a must-have is dried oyster, symbolic of good luck. A separate family’s tradition is to always have a whole poached white chicken, symbolising togetherness.
Another meat selection on the menu, is white belly pork specifically cooked with the fat still on, as this symbolises prosperity or wealth. ‘When I serve the pork belly, I also lay it on a bed of sang choi, which brings prosperity’ says a grandmother of Hainanese heritage. The significance of sang choi, or lettuce, derives from a play on words. In Cantonese, the word ‘sang choi’ is similar sounding to ‘to grow luck’. Thus the common vegetable becomes a greater symbol of hope for a prosperous year ahead.
For Malaysians celebrating Chinese New Year, the prosperity toss is a fun addition to the New Years Eve dinner. Known as Yee Sang, it is a salad mixture of various shredded vegetables and pickled gingers, but beyond its ingredients, the Yee Sang dish is served in a unique way. Often served as the entree to the meal, Yee Sang first involves the head of the family adding in symbolic ingredients and sauces, whilst saying auspicious words. Next, everyone at the table stands together and as a family, joins in a communal tossing of the salad with their chopsticks, whilst continuing in exhortations of good luck.
What do you look forward to, every Chinese New Year?
It is without a doubt that ‘delicious food’ is the first thing which people love about Chinese New Year. With the incredible selection of sweets, cakes, and specially cooked meals, Chinese New Year is a great festival of food and sharing these delights with close relatives.
Being able to come together as a family is a significant yearly occasion on Chinese New Year, and continues to be cherished as children become adults. And of course for the younger children, receiving red packets are definitely a highlight for Chinese New Year, as older close relatives such as parents and grandparents distribute money to children in red envelopes - the red symbolic of life or energy, happiness, and good luck.
However you celebrate Chines or Lunar New Year, we here at FoodFaith, wish you Kung Hei Fat Choi!