Ah, Chinese New Year.
Food, lion dancing, animal zodiac signs… food. Fireworks. More food. Red packets. FOOD. Most of us are probably familiar with that time of year (around January or February – this year it falls on the 16th Feb), when the Chinese celebrate the start of a new year. However, with a greater number of Chinese living in other countries, you might not be familiar with how some of the customs have evolved into their own identities. With that in mind, welcome to Julie and Andy’s handy guide to (or rather personal experiences of) New Year celebrations of the Chinese diaspora. Far out. (Literally.)
Julie (Archaeology and Bartlett Libraries)
I was born and bred in London (quite specifically, the south of London) but my parents were born in Mauritius. My grandparents (and beyond) were from South China, a place called Meixian in the Guandong province. The Sino-Mauritian population is small, at around 3%, but the diversity of Mauritius is such that Chinese New Year is still celebrated throughout the country, and in fact is a festival celebrated more widely than Christmas – something I was always bemused by. Having experienced CNY over there for the first time a few years ago, however, I can see why; it was certainly an experience I want to relive again soon (waistline be damned!).
Unsurprisingly, CNY is a time for the family, so we spent a lot of time visiting the proverbial extended family and, everywhere we went, we would eat. The Chinese have a special Chinese New Year cake called nian gao, but in Mauritius it’s called gato la cire. (“That sounds like French!” I hear you cry. Well done! Mauritians, like myself, speak Creole, which is like a slang form of French, and gato la cire literally means wax cake.) We will also eat some Sino-Mauritian snacks, many of which are fried (they love frying food over there). A few of my favourites are tien yen nain (round sweet balls made of glutinous rice, sweet potato and sesame seeds), Chinese laughing balls (fried dough balls covered with sesame seeds) and a simple fried cracker made of dough and sesame seeds known as crammy’s crab. That’s a lot of sesame.
Of course, these will all be supplemented with classics such as prawn crackers (which we call sipek) and dumplings. You’ll notice that some names are French, some English, and some Chinese – being a multicultural country, all Mauritians, whether of the Chinese, Indian, African or European persuasion, will be familiar with the big holidays such as CNY and will enjoy the food, so they will all have their own names for them. The names I use here are the ones I’m most familiar with!
We keep to quite a few of the well-known traditions too. Chinese New Year can be a lucrative time for children (or, technically, anyone who isn’t married yet!), as they receive those all-important red packets of money known as foong-pao. (Note, foong-pao is the Hakka Chinese word for what is known as lai-see in Cantonese). Another important aspect of CNY is the lion dance. Go to the West End’s Chinatown in London on the Sunday nearest to CNY and you’ll see acrobatic lions outside the restaurants heading for a cabbage before ‘eating’ it. Likewise in Mauritius, shops, businesses, or perhaps even a rich family(!) will have a lion dance outside their premises, accompanied with clashing cymbals, drums and gongs, to ward off evil spirits and bring in good luck.
Similarly, Chinese families will also set off firecrackers in front of their homes, the idea being that the loud noise will scare off any evil spirits. Firecrackers are set off at certain times of the day, and throughout the day the sound of firecrackers can be heard across the island. Visiting relatives, I remember seeing red confetti all over the streets of Mauritius, where a Chinese family had set off their crackers. Perhaps my most memorable experience of CNY in Mauritius was being stood outside my uncle’s house as he set alight a stream of crackers, vaguely concerned that the largest cracker at the top was about to detonate and I was caught between an impending explosion and a much-taller-than-me wall. It was… intense.
Andy (Library Finance)
Julie, thank you for sharing such a wonderful insight into the Chinese/Mauritian New Year.
My parents were fortunate to embrace CNY when in Jamaica and enjoyed the celebrations much as you have described. Similarly, the festival was an important date in the calendar.
Unfortunately, since arriving in the UK in the 50’s, they broke tradition having lost contact with the Chinese Jamaican community.
So despite both my parents being half Chinese, some of the oriental traditions have been lost and I’m having to relearn the culture. Shameless to say, even my 8 year old, who is also of German/Hungarian extraction, may be ahead of me. Only this week he was preparing for today saying Happy New Year in Chinese and describing the beautiful customs that you highlight. In particular, foong-pao …….but he cleverly left out the cleaning of his room!
A few weeks ago I asked a friend what he was doing for CNY and the reply was “helping to clean the house.” I thought, that seemed a little strange, especially as my memories of a traditional Jamaican New year was very different. An all night party from 31st December with rum punch, curry goat and guests from what seemed like ‘all of North West London’.
The penny eventually dropped, although food and drink is at the centre of most New Year celebrations, the Chinese New Year philosophy also entails ‘Spring cleaning’. All the old useless things are discarded and the home given an overhaul to bring in the year new. It’s a very special time for family and friends to enjoy, like playing Mah Jung and celebrating health and prosperity. The traditional party lasting as long as 15 days!
Kung Hei Fat Choi to all our Chinese colleagues and I hope our fellow Library staff might also get the opportunity to celebrate this weekend too!!
Links for Further Reading!
Discover your animal zodiac and what lies ahead for you this year here.
Superstitious? Here’s a handy guide of what to avoid during CNY…!
Fancy joining the celebrations? Time Out has a few suggestions here.