For the past few years I have been going into the local nurseries and primary schools to talk about Chinese New Year and doing some crafts with them. Being one of only a handful of Chinese here, there isn’t much choice! It has been fun though and brought back many memories from yesteryear.
I do have some vivid memories of my childhood in Hong Kong, even though I only spent the first 7 years of my life there, forty odd years on, I still remember walking in the dark with my lantern, feeling excited and at the same terrified that the candle might get blown out or even worse the lantern would catch fire. Neither of those ever happened to me though.
New Year was always an exciting time. The house would have been all tidied and cleaned to welcome the New Year. On the table, a round glass dish with 6 or 8 segments filled with sweets, dried fruits and nuts. Posters with good luck messages pasted onto our wooden front doors and a miniature orange/mandarin tree was a must have. I remember one year getting a new red winter jacket, it was beautifully embroidered and so silky to touch. But most of all, I looked forward to receiving the red envelopes (利是)! Friends and family would give children money in red envelopes and I couldn’t wait to get home and see how much money I got in each one, as it was considered very rude to open it in front of the person.
On New Year’s Day you could hear firecrackers going off everywhere. A whole bunch would be found hanging outside our front door and the noise they make was deafening. Then there was the lion dance. To a young child, they looked huge, ferocious and very very real – even though you could see underneath the lion, the legs of the two blokes dancing away, it was still frightening. The lions were accompanied by loud drums and cymbals. The pounding of those drums would make my heart beat that little bit faster and you could feel the vibration going through you, but it was always a highlight and one not to be missed.
When we came to London, we still kept some of these traditions and we would head to China Town and see the lion dance. My parents would give us the red envelopes and my mum would make the traditional nian gao (年糕 ) and yau gok (油角). Nowadays, you’re more likely to find us having a haggis on Burns Night than a nian gao on Chinese New Year! Nevertheless, I’m glad to have these memories and experiences that I can share with the kids. To me, Chinese New Year was also about spending time with family and friends, being together and enjoying each other’s company over a meal…these are the traditions worth keeping.