Jeremy Pang, founder of School of Wok, shares some of the mainstay traditions of Chinese New Year, as well as a family favourite recipe
Chinese New Year, much like other culturally specific celebrations, often runs the risk of being overly simplified, stereotyped, or reduced to a few generic markers, whenever marketed to the masses. Typically, Chinese New Year gets boiled down to three things: fireworks, the colour red, and food. But as with any cultural celebration, and especially cultures that have withstood a long history, it’s important to dig beneath the surface level festivities, revealing the reasoning and importance behind these traditions.
Growing up, in my family Chinese New Year always meant lots of relatives and lots of eating. Although here in the UK we often think of Chinese New Year as being for just one day (falling this year on 5th February), in Hong Kong, where my parents are from, it is in fact a two-week celebration. Throughout China, for many those two weeks are the only time of the year that they can take time off work, making the holiday’s significance that much greater and more precious, to be spent enjoying the company of loved ones.
Generosity of time is a value of utmost importance to my parents, as it is such a backbone of Chinese culture. When it came to Chinese New Year celebrations as children, my sisters and I spent a lot of time visiting with and chatting to various aunties and uncles, and other friends of the family that we only saw once a year.
A red packet
We secretly hoped that in return, we would be rewarded with the generosity of delicious food at the table, as well as a red packet (filled with money, traditionally given as gifts to children) for our efforts. Now that we have all grown up, we have come to realise the value of time spent together around the table, having found ourselves among a wide network of close friends and family.
The Chinese are known to be a superstitious culture, therefore seek out good luck, good health and abundance through gestures and symbolism, along with an equal, if not greater desire to spread the luck to loved ones.
Red in Chinese culture symbolises good luck and joy, warding off evil spirits and is therefore found not only during Chinese New Year, but other holidays and family gatherings such as weddings. Chinese New Year is a good time to be single in Chinese culture, as red envelopes filled with money are typically handed out either by married couples to singles, regardless of age, or by older generations to youth, depending on each family’s customs. This tradition again stems from a belief that certain types of money, when presented a specific way, will ward off evil spirits, keeping young children safe and healthy when given them.
Food and feasting
As mentioned, food and feasting are also a large part of the celebrations surrounding Chinese New Year—or any celebration for that matter—and there are also a few very specific dishes that a typical celebratory banquet would never be without.
Fish, served whole, is a sign of abundance and unity and is traditionally served on New Year’s Eve, but also any time during which family gather together to celebrate. Uncut noodles, symbolising long life, are also shared, often topped with an opulent ingredient like lobster if possible. Dumplings such as wontons or jiaozi are eaten, baring a resemblance to the ingot, old Chinese money, and therefore symbolising wealth.
One of my family’s favourite dishes to eat when we all get together is slow braised pork belly. It is rich and hearty and was a dish my father could never resist the urge to make whenever guests came round, as it could always be stretched with a bit more rice or an extra side of bright green vegetables—whatever was available or in season.