“Happy New Year!” yelled my Grand-Aunt as she embraced my brothers and myself tightly at the door to her classic Singaporean flat; small yet cosy.
As we stumbled post-hug into her home, the wonderful aromas filled our senses. Ripe mandarins, sweet pineapple tarts and lunch cooking away in the kitchen made skipping breakfast worth it. Outside, the clanging of musical instruments accompanied the stunning lion dancing that paraded the streets, completed the orchestra of celebration.
Every family and friend we visited, had their own twist on the festive season. Each home, it’s own pallet of colour, sounds and smells. The beautiful red decorations that ornated the walls of my Grand-Aunt’s place, remains one of my earliest, and fondest memories of Chinese New Year.
This is Asia’s reply to Brazil’s carnival – except instead of 5 days – it goes for 15.
Oh and we get money in red packets or hong bao’s – 紅包 – not to be confused with the bao’s you eat at your local Chinese joint. Those beautiful, soft, fluffy flour pockets of steaming, roast meat. Mmmmm.
As kids, the exciting part was racking up the cash, to spend on lollies and pokemon cards later on. Sadly, the rule goes once you’re married, you stop receiving these red packets and have to begin giving them out to those younger than you.
Ah the benefits of single life…
Now living in Australia, the festivities are less boisterous. My parents knew that this event like many others – Christmas or Easter for example – was more than the money and food. Not celebrated in the Western world and our extended family now so far away, Chinese New Year has become increasingly stripped back. In an effort to preserve our cultural roots, my parents decided to solidify two core pillars of Chinese New Year in us and do away with the extra trimmings.
These pillars, I’ve begun to understand, are not unique to our cultural celebration. Instead, they are cross cultural values. Values I’ve noticed, which make the celebration of Chinese New Year accessible to those not originally brought up within the culture. Values that speak to something much larger.
On the eve of the first day of Chinese New Year, our family gathered for reunion dinner – 團年. The spread prepared by my parents is as impressive as those on offer in Singapore, the table covered in a mosaic of mouth watering delicacies. Everything about the reunion dinner is symbolic.
Having an abundance of food is meant to reflect an abundance of wealth for the year to come. Amongst the wide of selection of dishes on offer, chicken and fish are prominent. A whole chicken symbolic for communal togetherness while a whole fish represents a token of prosperity – 年年有余.
However, the most important reason for having a reunion dinner is having everyone in the family together. Culturally, children are expected to return home, and if someone cannot return, their presence is symbolically represented with an empty chair at the banquet.
Culturally, home is not the mere walls in which we reside. Home is the people we choose to surround ourselves with, the people we resonate with, the people we love. As life throws up challenges, hurdles and distractions our way, the reunion dinner acts as the Ctrl+Alt+Delete for our crazy, fragmented existence. It sits us down and reminds us the importance of family. That no matter what, no matter where, there are always people that care for us.
That there is always somewhere we belong.
Respect those that have come before
Chinese New Year is also founded on the age old practice of ancestor worshipping; the belief that the spirits of ancestors continues to exist past the physical, and play key roles in affairs of the world and the fortunes of the living. Joss sticks are burnt to invite ancestors into homes and to include them within the celebrations.
My family has never taken part in ancestor worshipping, but the value present in the tradition has manifested itself in another way. Every New Year, we would sit together as a family and make phone calls to family members around the world. Living so far from our extended family, it can be easy to simply drop out of touch.
The most important of these calls were to our grandparents.
I can recall the stories they would tell us; about how my grandmother raised 5 children while working – often going to bed hungry after ensuring that all of her kids had food in their bellies. Or how my granddad rowed a boat from China to Singapore during Mao’s regime to build a better life for his family away from the grips of communism.
The simple and commonplace action of making a phone call is symbolic in its own way; it’s an avenue for modern day story telling. These were stories about sacrifice, endurance and perseverance. Lessons and traits that have had a continuing effect in our lives to this day.
I wouldn’t be in Australia, or have had the plethora of opportunities I’ve been blessed with, had it not been for these lessons experienced by my grandparents and acted on by my parents.
In all honesty, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
The traditional importance placed on ancestry within Asian culture and solidified in Chinese New Year celebrations becomes easily translatable to everyday life; taking the form of respect and gratitude to those that have come before.
Their impact an ever present imprint, an irreducible element within our lives.
In a radio interview I did about public holidays, the host enquired about why Australians should care about cultural events other than our own.
“We’re a Christian country – why would we celebrate other cultural holidays?”
In his question however, he had simultaneously provided the answer.
The indifference and in some cases, antipathy towards non-western traditions has become a socially crippling attitude, reflecting a deep arrogance towards global difference. It has divided communities and isolated individuals, creating hostility and fear worldwide.
Aesthetically, cultural holidays differ. That goes without saying. But the values, and the pillars that form the foundations of each unique tradition mirror one another.
Christmas is celebrated globally, but I can guarantee you not everyone who celebrates it is Christian. But it speaks to something more, even if you do not connect with the religious nuance.
Community. Connection. Gratitude.
Similarly, Chinese New Year does not just have to be for Asians, the values that underpin it are cross-cultural. And I’m not suggesting you go full Asian, tattoo the mandarin character for water (水) on yourself and get all weird about it. But if we are striving to become more connected in this world, where better to begin than at the dinner table, surrounded by the people you love.
So here’s to the year ahead ~
Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.
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