Chinese New Year – the Eve

Decorating the house

The last thing we do before every New Year’s Day is to sweep our home. My grandma did it, my mother does it, we do it, too. It is to get rid of the old and to make room for new.  My grandma was quite strict about one thing: none of us was allowed to wash clothes or sweep on the New Year’s Day. “Do it before, or else you’ll have to do it all year long, if you labor on New Year’s Day.” She said. Who would want that!

Fish

 

In the days leading to the New Year’s Day, we decorate our homes. Like in America, some get into Christmas decorations in a big way, others are more symbolic. This is true here, too. But the Chinese New Year is not a religious holiday. Thus, everyone does something to his/her home.  

Red and gold are lucky color. You’ll see it everywhere during this season.

Pussy willows are good to have, because its Chinese name, yinliu, has the same pronunciation as “silver flowing”. It makes sense to invite silver to flow into your home, eh?

Door gods, image from collection of the National Taiwan Normal University Library.

Fish has to be had, both in decoration and in dishes. I’ll talk about it later.

Some put New Year’s couplets with calligraphy on the front door to bring luck, or door gods, to protect the family. They must be in pairs.

New Year's couplets on a neighbor's door

If you have nothing else, you must have fu up somewhere around the house. There is no word in English that could convey the all-encompassing meaning of luck of the word, fu; it means different things in different context. For example, for an old person, fu means that he/she is healthy, has no money problems, and the children are taking good care of him/her. For a young person, fu means success in life and at work. Simply put, nothing can go wrong when you have fu. To get fu, one has to hang the character upside down; that is called “fu dao”, meaning “fu comes” in Chinese.

This pair of fu shows how fu is written (left) but how it should be hung upside down (right)

 The New Year’s Eve dinner is a big and long feast. Usually, kids go to their parents home. It is common that several relatives’ families join together to have this dinner at the “family authority’s” home. The sister of my grandpa was the family authority. She had say in all big family matters. It used to be that everyone squeezed into the tiny kitchen, you heard chat and clatter. After smoke, steam, splatter, yelling, and oil fumes, yummy dishes appeared one after another on the table. Eight is a lucky number, but the table has more than that many dishes.

My grandma used to start the preparation days  and days before. She made salt fish and meats herself with coarse sea salt and hua jiao, a type of Chinese spice that looks like pepper corn. She put these in a ceramic pot, loaded a big rock on top of the meat to squeeze out the juice; she covered the pot with gauze, and sat it out in the cold winter for many days. Nothing upset her more than a smart cat that chewed her way in.

A shop on Dihua Street, Taipei

Now, we buy these at supermarkets,  ready-made and with fancy names.

There used to be certain must-have dishes for the New Year’s Eve dinner, because they symbolize good fortunes. Symbolic meanings are big in the Chinese culture, especially during the New Year’s celebration. Different regions have different must-haves. In the North, dumplings were a must, whereas in the Yangzi River region, where I grew up, we didn’t eat dumplings at all for the New Year.

Although in a region the must-haves were similar, how they were cooked varied from family to family, because our ancestors were from different places, their styles and favorite spices were passed on within the family. My great uncle’s and aunt’s dishes tasted very much like my grandma’s, but our next door neighbor’s tasted very differently.

This article in Centered on Taipei (p.30) lists some dishes and their symbolic meanings for the New Year’s feasts in Taiwan. I would not have dreamed of seeing many of these on the table as a child. We were poor then.

Even though poor, a goose was a must for my grandpa. He went to the market early in order to get a big bird which was always cooked into three different dishes: a cold salt goose plate, a soy-sauce goose stew with chestnuts, and a goose soup with fresh bamboo shoots, salted meat my grandma made, and noodles made of bean flour. Meat dishes were enough to make people feel rich back then. Goose had more fat and thus was more filling. We always had fish for the New Year, because the word, yu, fish in Chinese, sounds the same as the word “surplus”. It is a good thing if a family has something leftover from one year to the next. I don’t know what my grandpa would think of credit cards. He would be horrified to hear that people spend money they don’t have.

Our big family meal

Nowadays, in big cities like Shanghai, I don’t really know how many families still stick to those must-haves, how many make them in their kitchens. Everyone is too busy, too stressed. Despite gas stove and running water, we do not have time to cook like in the old days when we took water from a well and had to make fire with coal. We are people clever in seeking alternatives. Shops offer fancy dishes for takeout, nicely cooked and better packaged. This year, we ate out, so no one had to cook. It is a good solution in a culture where obligation matters a great deal. To eat out, our aging parents did not need to feel stressed for not having the energy to lay out a tableful of dishes, the working kids don’t have to feel guilty, either. We had more time and energy to talk. These days, talking in person is golden, isn’t it? But it took some time for us to accept eating out. It didn’t feel right at first.  

On the New Year’s Eve, there has been a TV show every year that goes from 8 p.m. to midnight. It has every type of performance, singing, dancing, magic, acrobat, skits, you name it. The whole family sits around the TV after dinner, nibbling on nuts, candies, and snacks, drinking tea, going back and forth to nibble on dinner leftovers. In the old days, my mother stood in lines for water melon seeds. She has a special way to make them taste deliciously sweet and salty. That, too, can be bought now, in a dozen flavors. Many moved beyond melon seeds and went for cashews, macadamia nuts, nuts we didn’t know existed. When the midnight strikes, “all hell” would break loose. The firecrackers this year were so loud that made our 12-story building shake. Every year, some firecrackers go astray and cause sad accidents. This year, the apartment below our aunt’s was destroyed, because a firecracker landed on the balcony and caused a big fire. Luckily, she was with us and didn’t experience the horror, her apartment was intact.

Nuts and candies are out in my parent's apartment, ready for New Year's Eve TV show

Despite all the delicious dishes on the restaurant table, I do miss one dish that accompanied me all my childhood. My grandma always, always cooked guzi, a stir-fried mixture of a bunch of different things: bean sprout, sliced tofu sheet, dried mushroom, oil tofu shreds. She only put chopped scallion and salt in the dish, out came the most delicious flavor. She said, this was the dish that bought our family luck, because it has everything we need to have a good life.

Today, most dishes on the restaurant table were those that my grandparents never had. Yet, the New Year’s Eve is not better than those days when guzi was all we need for a good life.

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