Festivals and events

5 Generations Reflect on the Meaning of Chinese New Year

We assembled a pack of those born in the Year of the Rat to share what Chinese New Year means to them

Chinese New Year is a time to come together and look at the year ahead with those you love the most. No matter if family are flying to Hong Kong for Chinese New Year, or the new year’s coming to them, these people are looking forward to a truly special season.

Zachary & Ava Jang, born 2008 (Earth Rats)

Hong Kong

They’re turning 12 this year, and twins Zachary and Ava Jang know exactly what Chinese New Year is about: ‘Spending time with my family, hiking and playing cards, mahjong and board games. Not having to do anything special, but generally just hanging out with my family,’ Zachary says.

‘We always visit the Chinese New Year fair in Po Lam before the holiday. We all pick flowers to buy – usually daffodils and pussy willows. We always get peanut brittle and try to convince our mum to get souvenirs that she knows we don’t need. We used to buy kumquat trees – but last time our dog ate them.’

This year, however, will be extra special. ‘This year will be a really awesome CNY as my grandparents are visiting,’ says Ava. ‘They’ve been to Hong Kong many times but never at Chinese New Year, so I’m excited to celebrate and share our traditions with them.’

Credit: Mich/Getty Images

Alba Kong, born 1996 (Fire Rat)

Guangzhou

This is Alba Kong’s first Chinese New Year since taking a job in Hong Kong, which means she won’t have as much time to spend at home in Guangzhou with her family. ‘As I have a much shorter Chinese New Year holiday, I need to try and spend more time at home with my parents.’

‘My grandpa passed away a few months ago, so for my grandma it’s really important that her family is by her side,’ she says. Flowers are a must: ‘Ever since I can remember, Chinese New Year has come with peach blossoms, representing a prosperous year to come. My dad spends a whole day picking flowers from the market and arranging them at home, after which my mum and I decorate them – kind of like Christmas, you could say.

‘When I was a little kid, Chinese New Year meant a big meal and pocket money; when I was in middle school it meant a break from the textbooks; and now it means family,’ says Kong. ‘The meaning of festivals is given by those important people in your life, and nothing is more wonderful than celebrating with them.’

Peter Wong, born 1972 (Water Rat)

San Francisco

‘The Chinese New Year atmosphere in the US isn’t that strong even if you live in the heart of San Francisco,’ says Peter Wong. But he does try to keep some traditions alive. ‘With no extra holidays for adults or kids, arranging gatherings and dinner events is the only way we can carry on some basic traditions for the kids, and hope that they will pass this on to the next generation.’ 

Typically, the Wong family has a New Year’s Eve dinner with the grandparents. Then on the weekend, they’ll host bigger gatherings, or take the kids to Chinatown to see the Chinese Community Street Fair, an annual event with hundreds of booths and entertainment. ‘With our relatives, we cook at home, order take-out or do a potluck. The kids will hang out and play and then the adults will have them say new year’s blessings, and we give them lai see.’ While it isn’t always easy for members of the Chinese diaspora to stay in touch with their culture, Wong’s family has one unique way of doing it: ‘After dinner, we play family games – which we’ve copied from game shows that air in Hong Kong.’

Credit: Pan Zhen/Unsplash

Kennis Yuen, born 1984 (Wood Rat)

Hong Kong

This year’s festival will have very different connotations for Kennis Yuen, who got married last November – meaning that for the first time, the tables will turn and she’ll be distributing red lai see packets to the younger generations and unmarried friends.

But while many newlyweds joke about hiding at home and avoiding large gatherings to cut back on those sudden overheads, Yuen looks on this rite of passage differently: ‘It’s finally my turn,’ she says. ‘And I’m so excited! To be able to give out lai see means that you have good fortune, and to be happy to give them out means you live a comfortable, lucky life. So I don’t mind doing it at all after receiving them myself all these years.’ An avid home cook, Yuen spends much of her time prior to the celebrations making traditional Chinese treats, including her signature turnip pudding with hefty portions of Chinese sausage and dried shrimp, which she steams in individual cupcake-sized portions to give to friends. Though she’ll be starting her own family traditions soon, her turnip pudding recipe is one she won’t be updating. ‘Every year it’s the same recipe and I won’t ever change it,’ she says with a wink. ‘I’m loyal.’

Credit: Shutterstock

Arlene Tom, born 1960 (Metal rat)

Bay Area

‘When we were little, we went to my cousins’ house for dinner,’ says Arlene Tom, who has lived in the US since she was a child. ‘I have seven siblings and my uncle has seven kids, so it was quite the get-together. Their house was much bigger than ours, so I remember running around, playing hide-and-seek.’

Though it’s been decades since these childhood fun and games, she still thinks of them fondly. ‘When growing up I focused on assimilating into American culture, but I did participate in an American-born Chinese programme that spent six weeks in China: two of them visiting the village where my parents were raised. As we’ve grown older both my husband and I regret not exposing our kids to their culture more. It’s been difficult to maintain many traditions.’ She does have a few low-key annual customs, though. ‘We make a whole poached chicken and buy roast meats for the closing of the new year. My mother-in-law in New York is pretty traditional and will typically call me to make sure we have a bird,’ she laughs. ‘I started a new tradition myself last year, after reading that dumplings are typically made during this time. I made a bunch and shared them with friends.’

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