Lunar New Year is upon us! On February 1st, we enter Year of the Tiger. My mother, Yee King Ying, grew up in the village of Tai Ting Pong (Dajingbang in Mandarin), Guangdong Province, in the 1930s. This is how she recalls celebrating.
Spring festival was a chance to clear away the old and outworn and make a fresh start physically and spiritually. In the weeks leading up to the festival, we cleaned and swept the house. My stepmother purchased our new clothes for the year, and she paid our debts if she could. Every home in the village had strips of heavy red wax paper printed with auspicious poetic couplets on either side of the front door. Those who could afford it posted fresh calligraphy.
On the day before New Year’s Eve, Stepmother rose early to go to market and do all her shopping for the meals. This was the busiest day of the year; every family had a wife or daughter doing holiday shopping. Stepmother would buy fresh fish, dried root vegetables, edible flowers, seaweed, flour for pastries, spices, brown sugar, salt, oranges and tangerines, lychee nuts, coconuts, and winter melon candies, as well as incense and candles for our altar.
We spent the remainder of the day and a good part of New Year’s Eve preparing dishes for the feasts. We shared a pig with one of our neighbors who slaughtered it on our behalf. When we got our share, Stepmother cut the bulk of it into pieces, steamed it, then preserved with salt what she wasn’t going to use immediately. She stored the preserved meat in our food basket, which hung from the ceiling so that rats couldn’t get to it. She set aside the remainder for our feast.
Stepmother herself slaughtered our chicken. The poor chicken would be innocently pecking around her feet in the kitchen when suddenly she would snatch it up, bend its head back, and slit its throat. I wished she would warn us of when she was going to do this because I hated to watch it, but she never did. She herself was calm.
As soon as the throat was slit, Stepmother drained the blood into a waiting bowl. When finished, she poured it into a pot of boiling water, at which point the blood congealed into a kind of gelatin cake. We could eat this at any time and did not save it for feasting.
In addition to meat dishes, Stepmother prepared dim sum, such as steamed pork buns and deep-fried sweet flour dumplings, some filled with pork, shrimp, and chestnuts, some with coconut, sesame seeds, and honey, and others with sweet bean paste.
When we finished chores on New Year’s Eve, we bathed then prepared to eat the New Year’s Eve meal to close out the old year. Legend said ghosts rose to earth on this night, so every family member must be present for the meal. Anyone missing might become a ghost himself! At night after the meal, we went outside, and my brother James and other boys and men lit firecrackers to drive away evil spirits and greet the arrival of the new year. Deafening noise engulfed the village.
Before sunrise, we had to make an offering and pray to the earth god, protector of our village, for peace and prosperity in the new year and protection against evil. Stepmother rousted my sister Margaret for this purpose. She would give Margaret a tray prepared with food, incense, gold paper, and firecrackers to carefully carry to the village altar in the pitch dark of a new moon night. If she was fortunate, someone would have worshiped before her, and there might be candles still glowing so she could find it more quickly in the darkness.
Margaret would set out the tray of food before the altar in token of offering our food first to the earth god before consuming it ourselves. She then lit incense that her prayers might rise to heaven with sweet scents. Next, she burned the golden paper to represent sending money to our ancestors. She concluded by lighting a few firecrackers to vanquish the last of the old ghosts and evil spirits before the sun shone upon the new year.
Once New Year’s Day broke, and we all had risen, Stepmother gave each of us children a lucky red envelope containing a coin. This was the only time of year when she gave us money, so we were excited, though the amount was small. One year, after the spring festival was over, I went to a seller of crispy cooked lima beans in the market. He had little piles on the table before him, and my coin was enough to buy one, so I paid him, and he scooped the beans into my hands. I ate them on the spot. Another year, I spent my coin on a few pieces of candy, which we children had nicknamed the “cat doo-doo candy.” Notwithstanding its unfortunate appearance, it was delicious. Again, the seller scooped the candy into my hands as I brought no bag with me.
New Year’s Day was customarily austere after the meat-heavy meal and loud celebration of New Year’s Eve. We ate only vegetable dishes all day. It was a time for staying at home with family and finishing preparations for the feast that would come the following day. Stepmother said that whatever we did on New Year’s Day was an omen for the rest of the year. We must wear clean clothes without tears or holes, and we must speak only kind and seemly words.
With our limited means, it was sometimes hard to make sure that each of us wore clothes without tears, and Stepmother had little faith in our ability to get through a whole day without speaking inappropriately or lapsing into sibling bickering. She practically forbade us to talk at all unless it was essential.
In the evening, we dined on a New Year’s stew made from root vegetables, edible wood fungus, dried lily flowers, translucent rice noodles, a kind of soy pasta, and a hair-like dried seaweed, all cooked in a chicken broth thickened with rice flour. The seaweed was called fat choy, which sounds like the words for “good fortune” or “prosperity,” so its use in the New Year’s stew was symbolic.
On the evening of the second day of the New Year, we again ate a feast, this time to welcome the new year. We spent part of the daytime preparing the last of the holiday dishes, such as diced sweet potatoes cooked in a broth of brown sugar. Once we finished the cooking, Stepmother placed our food on a platter before our family altar. There was a slab of steamed pork and a whole cooked chicken, with an entire green onion stalk in its beak, including the roots and shoots. There was also a whole fish, including the head, fins, and tail, and a cooked pair of sprouting arrowroot bulbs to represent new life and growth.
She also set out a bowl of oranges and tangerines including their leaves and stems, the platter of dim sum, three bowls of rice, three sets of chopsticks, and three cups of rice wine, along with narrow candles and sticks of incense set into a bowl filled with sand. Everything placed on the altar had to be whole, for, with all good things, there is a beginning and an end, and we must be complete as we enter the new year. It wasn’t proper to offer a fish or chicken without a head or a plant without its roots. Although we couldn’t afford a whole pig, we presented our slab of pork with the skin and fat still attached to keep it as whole as possible.
After lighting incense and candles, she called upon James to honor our ancestors on behalf of the family. For good or ill, we are a product of our ancestors. Their eyes are upon us even after death, and their spirits have the power to harm or help us according to how we honor their memory. James held his hands in prayer and bowed three times. He then poured each cup of wine from left to right before the altar. Now the meal could begin!
I thought it strange to eat food that had first been sampled by ancestral spirits. Even so, the pork was the best I have tasted in my life since the meat was so fresh, and the pig had fed on a diet of rice bran and other nutritious foods. For dessert, we ate lucky oranges and tangerines. Stepmother placed the lychee nuts, coconuts, and winter melon candies in the center of the table. However, we reserved these for guests visiting later in the week. We children could eat whatever of the candy and lychee nuts remained after the festival was over. In sum, this was one of the few times of the year when we had many good things to eat.
During the first five days of the spring festival, we did not bathe, sweep, or clean. If crumbs fell to the floor, then we picked them up by hand. Using a broom at this time would sweep away all the fresh good luck. Bathing would similarly wash away good luck. Instead, this was a time to eat well, reflect on the past and future, and remember friends and family. On the seventh day of the festival, we visited and received friends and family. Stepmother packaged oranges and candies for James to deliver to the homes of our relations. The eldest sons of these families brought similar gifts to our family. The celebration officially ended on the fifteenth of the month with the waning of the moon.