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Ang paos? Dragon dances? Lucky food? Author Joyce Chng loves them all & shares what they symbolise for the Chinese diaspora in the Lunar New Year. Plus, watch the stunning trailer of her book Dragon Dancer (created by illustrator Jérémy Pailler) and start the Lunar New Year with a dose of good luck!
Dragon Dancer is a story about a boy who is a dragon dancer and has a special dragon friend named Shen Long. They do their special dance on the eve of Lunar New Year so that they could chase away bad luck and bring in the shiny good luck. Lunar New Year is a very significant and big festival in China as well as for the Chinese diaspora. We celebrate the new and welcome Spring as Lunar New Year is also called Spring Festival. I will now share my seven favourite Lunar New Year things.1. New Clothes
One thing I love about Lunar New Year is that you get to wear new clothes and shoes. A memory I remember clearly is my mum buying new dresses for me to wear for the Lunar New Year visiting. Now that I am a parent myself, I am getting new clothes for my two children.
Wearing new clothes symbolises a new start to the year. People will also get new shoes and even hair cuts!
2. Reunion Dinners
Reunion dinners on the eve of the Lunar Year are a favourite of mine. You sit down with your loved ones at the table to enjoy a delicious meal. Reunion dinners signify togetherness and family. In countries like China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, people will actually travel back home so that they could spend Lunar New Year with their families and loved ones. For the Chinese diaspora, we will have relatives travel from wherever they live at home to spend the New Year with family still living in the country of their origin.
3. Red packets/Ang Paos
Ang paos! All children love them! When I was a child, I looked forward to Lunar New Year visits because I got to receive these red packets/envelopes filled with money from relatives. I also received ang paos from my parents. It was always fun to wake up to two red packets tucked under my pillow on the first day of the Lunar New Year. It was better than Christmas!
4. Lion and Dragon Dances
My personal favourite are the lion and dragon dances. Accompanied with loud drumming and cymbals, and in vibrant colours, lion and dragon dances are frequent during Lunar New Year because they usher in good luck and chase away bad spirits.
Lions are often invited to perform cai qing, which literally translates to 'plucking greens'. This performance is also to usher prosperity and good luck to the person or venue (as lion dance troupes are asked to perform at shopping malls, especially new shop openings, offices and homes,). Cai qing includes a plate of mandarin oranges or pomelo and a bundle of fresh greens that the lion would 'pluck'.
Sometimes, to add to the festivities, the troop would include dragon dances. Accompanied by the sounds of the cymbals, the sinuous and intricate loops of the dragon are very hypnotic!
What I love about lion and dragon dances is the immense skills of the lion and dragon dancers. It takes years of rigorous training for them to perfect the moves and make the lions and dragons totally life-like.
Yee Sang or Yu Sheng, unique to Singapore and Malaysia
5. Yee Sang/Yu Sheng
Unique only to the Chinese diaspora in Singapore and Malaysia is the yee sang or yu sheng, a salad-like dish eaten on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year. The seventh day is also known as renri (literally 'every person's birthday'. Yee sang was the creation of the Four Heavenly Kings, four famous Cantonese chefs, in the 1960s. They were inspired by the Cantonese tradition of eating raw fish during Lunar New Year.
Yee Sang is a fish dish too, with raw fish (usually raw salmon) used as the main ingredient. The other ingredients and condiments (pickled radish strips, shredded carrot, pickled sweet ginger, shredded cucumber, fried crackers, cinnamon, pepper and plum sauce) all contain auspicious meanings: good luck, prosperity, abundance, sweet and happy relationships, etc!
Yee sang is normally eaten before the main meal. Starting with the raw fish, each ingredient and condiment is added individually, to signify its role/meaning in the dish. For example, plum sauce means sweetness and happiness in the family or harmony. When this is all done, everyone grabs a pair of chopsticks and prepares to toss or 'lo hei' (Cantonese for 'tossing/scooping it up') the salad. It is a tradition to lo hei seven times, again for good luck. It is a happy and noisy (and messy!) occasion for everybody! While they toss, everyone yells out their wishes for the new year. The higher the lo hei, the more prosperous you will be in the coming new year.
Yee sang is now enjoyed throughout the Lunar New Year, not only just on the seventh day. I love it, because it is sweet and crunchy (with vegetables!). And I have a personal reason to love it too: my mum was a student of one of the Four Heavenly Kings and she often talks about her shifu.
6. Yuan Xiao
The fifteenth day of the Lunar New Year signifies the end of the celebrations. It is called Yuan Xiao or Lantern Festival. In China, gorgeous lanterns light the night and people throng the streets. Yuan Xiao also falls on the day of the full moon. So the moon is round and shining on this auspicious day/night.
It is again a day of family gatherings with many enjoying tong yun or tang yuan: glutinous rice balls.
Where I live, we call it Yuan Xiao Chap Goh Meh.
7. New Year Goodies
Most importantly, I get to enjoy all the Lunar New Year goodies. Even before the Lunar New Year, the shops start selling sweetmeats and desserts. The traditional sweets are nian gao (New Year rice cake), sweetened nuts and fruits (for good luck), and mandarin oranges (good luck and to be given to relatives). Now though we have newfangled healthier munchies like crispy fried kang kong (morning glory greens) and lotus root chips.
One food I often enjoy is my grandaunt's seared radish cakes. They are best enjoyed with her blisteringly hot home-made chili paste. Another is my grandmother's popular deep-fried prawns. All the grandchildren loved it! Now she's gone, my aunts have taken over the cooking.
So these are seven of my favourite Lunar New Year things. Writing about them makes me tremendously happy.
Have a good, auspicious and abundant Lunar New Year!
Watch the book trailer of Dragon Dancer, a visually lush and stunning story for Lunar New Year!
Joyce Chng is a Chinese-Singaporean author. Her work has been regularly anthologised and she has a particular passion for steampunk and science fiction. You can learn more about Joyce and her work from her website awolfstale.wordpress.com