Happy Chinese New Year!

Two years after I retired, I am relaxed enough to celebrate a Chinese New Year. I cleaned the house, washed bed sheets (we do clean the house, wash bed sheets often, in case you wonder. 😉 It’s just that this time, it is done for the New Year.) and I made a year cake, dumplings, and buns.


year cake

Chinese New Year makes me think of family and home; I can smell the homemade sausages, salty pork, sweet and soft year cake, and see children wearing new clothes running up and down the streets playing, shouting and laughing.

The preparation started a week before the New Years day. Mom would buy several fresh pork hams from the meat market and cut some into big slices and the rest into one-inch chunks. She marinated the meat in soy sauce, five-spices and some special Chinese liquor. Those 95% proof stuff, when you place a drop in your mouth, it stings and then evaporates instantly. If you take a sip, it burns like fire. I didn’t like that liquor, but the marinated meat, on the other hand, smelled like heaven.

Mom cleaned the pork casing and tightened a knot at one end. She then stuffed the small chunks of meat into casings to make sausages. She hung the sausages and big slices of marinated pork in the yard on a bamboo post. We, the kids, took turn to poke holes through sausages with a sewing needle, so when sausages dried up under the sun, the fat would drip down through the holes to the ground. The tiny popping sounds from poking sausages were, somehow, quite satisfactory and the smell of soy sauce mixed with the liquor was mouthwatering.

Washing the sliding doors, on the other hand, was an unwelcome chore. We lived in a Japanese style house that had many sliding doors. The bottom half of the door was a piece of solid wood, but the top was divided into 12 small squares by several half-inch wide wood pieces running both horizontally and vertically, and was glued on a piece of rice paper. We didn’t replace the rice paper every year; we only replaced it when we couldn’t glue another layer of rice paper on top of the existing one. So, when it was time to wash the doors, we had to deal with 4 layers of yucky glues and papers and they were difficult to come off. I didn’t like that job at all.

The week before New Years day was also the time to make year cake. The year cake was made out of sweet rice flours. Since sweet rice flours were not available in the market back then, we had to grind the rice ourselves. The grinder had 2 huge pieces of round stones. The top one had a handle so people could hold on to it and turn it around, and it also had a hole to allow you to add water. When the top stone was turning around, the rice between the two stones was ground into flour. Not many families could afford a grinder, so we had to wait for our turn. As soon as we got the grinder, we hurriedly made the cake because there were other families waiting to make theirs.

Steaming the cake was something else. The cake was usually 15 inches in diameter and 3 to 4 inches high. It took forever to be fully cooked and if you mistakenly took the cake off the heat before it was done, the cake would be ruined. We steamed our cake in the yard. Mom had to make sure the fire was not extinguished before the cake was done.

While Mom was busy making sausages and year cake, my siblings and I were having fun playing with neighbor’s kids. We went to movies, or played hide and seek in the yard. While we were not watching, Mom managed to buy some small tangerines, candies and cookies, and hid them in the house so we wouldn’t start eating them before the New Years day.

New Years Eve was one of the busiest days for Mom. She got up early in the morning so she could beat other housewives to buy fresh meat, vegetables and fruits. New Year’s Eve dinner consisted of 7 or 8 dishes. There were lion’s-head (meat balls cooked with Chinese cabbage), stewed beef and eggs (beef and egg cooked in soy sauce), deep fried eggplant stuffed with ground pork and many other dishes. Ever year Mom prepared a fish dish, but the fish wouldn’t make it to the dinner table. Since the sound of “fish” is similar to the sound of Chinese character for “more than enough”, every family saved their fish dish until after the New Year. People believed that by doing so, they would have something extra year after year.

At New Year’s Eve dinner Dad would dip a chopstick into his liquor and let us taste it. It was after we started college, we were allowed to have a glass of plum wine. But good food and wine were not important for kids. We swallowed our dinner as fast as we could and excused ourselves from the table to join our friends for another round of hide and seek. Of course, we had waited for Mom and Dad nod their heads saying that we could leave.

By 11 PM, the hide and seek game was over. Chinese believed that if the kids stayed up until the midnight on New Years Eve, their parents would live longer. In order to keep us awake, Dad would start playing the head-or-tail game with us. He gave us each 20 quarters. We place a bet on either head or tail while he spun a coin. If we guessed right, we won more quarters, but if we were wrong, we would lose the ones that we had bet on. I hated losing, so I usually quit early. No matter how Dad tried to encourage me, I simply would not play. Still, I had great fun watching they play. At 12 o’clock sharp, the game was over. We said “Happy New Year” to Mom and Dad and received a red envelope containing lucky money. Most of the kids would agree with me that getting the lucky money was the highlight of the Chinese New Year.

The sound of fireworks started around 4 o’clock in the morning on New Year ’s Day. By 5 o’clock, it became nonstop. As soon as the sky turned a little bright, we would jump out of the bed, put on our new clothes and ready to go out. I loved the smell of the fireworks. It was the smell of the New Year, I was convinced. The fireworks went on for 3 days.

By 8 or 9 o’clock, we gathered all the kids in our neighborhood. Together, we visited every family in the neighborhood, wishing them Happy New Year, and every family, in return, gave us treats like candies, dried fruits and drinks.

Visiting all the families in the neighborhood took about 2 hours. By lunchtime, the visiting was over for the kids, and it was then the adults’ turn to visit friends. Although friends’ visiting lasted three to five days, I always felt the New Year celebration was over by the noon of New Year’s Day. Sometime we started a firework war by throwing a firework to each other. We threw, ran, and prayed that we had more fireworks than our opponents.

Jan. 15 officially marks the end of the Chinese New Year. It is also Lantern Festival. All the kids in the neighborhood would carry a paper lantern with a burning candle in it. Those lanterns looked gorgeous in the dark. Sometime, we hung the lanterns on a tree and played another round of hide and seek. After the game, we each went home and had a bowl of sesame dumplings. Sadly, that was the end of the Chinese New Year celebration.

Gradually, we, Chinese in America, lost our tradition in celebrating Chinese New Year. Most people in my generation don’t even know how to make Chinese sausages. “At least, we have memories,” we comfort ourselves. But, are memories alone enough to pass on to the next generation?


About Helen C

A retired computer programmer who loves writing and photographing, and has managed to publish a YA novel "Jin-Ling’s Two Left".
This entry was posted in Memoir. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Happy Chinese New Year!

  1. Adhika says:

    I had my own Chinese new year memories. Reunion dinner on the CNY eve and the tradition of going to friends’ and relatives’ houses (Bai nian) are the two things deep in my memory. I loved the dinner, but hated going bainian except for the hongbao. This is my sixth year in the US and the first that my mom and sister are here to celebrate with me. I can’t be grateful enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Helen C says:

      Lucky you! Happy New Year! Bai Nian was ok with me because a group of kids were going together and we talked, laughed all the way. Hongbao was the best part. But growing up in a poor family, I have no idea what to do with the money. It ended up back to my mom’s pocket buying stuff for the family. 😉
      Enjoy your family time… many of us envy you! Where do you come from? Not Taiwan, is it?


      • Adhika says:

        Happy New Year! Yeah, all of our money goes back to mom as well. But it was fun holding the money for a few hours. Haha. We are Chinese diaspora in Indonesia. I have some distant relatives that live in Taiwan, though!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. billgncs says:

    Happy new year to you

    Liked by 1 person

  3. neihtn2012 says:

    I wonder if the New Year would still be celebrated the same way even in China? Maybe after things like the Cultural Revolution and the new capitalism driven affluence some things have changed?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Helen C says:

      I came from Taiwan. Even Taiwan, I was told, they don’t celebrate New Year like before. But when I talked to my friends, I found out they are still doing some similar things like preparing goodies for friends, prepare a good dinner… etc. I wish I were there. 😉


  4. joannesisco says:

    Helen – I loved reading this! The traditions our families had when we were kids are so special.
    Reading about your mother’s preparations on New Year’s Eve reminds me of mother’s on Christmas Eve. Now I appreciate exactly how difficult it was for her!!

    One of the biggest traditions I miss is the visiting – going house to house to give our season’s greetings. I think that TV, computers, the internet, … have all made us more isolated and looking to be entertained rather than going out and mingling with our neighbours and friends.

    Happy New Year. Gong Hei Fat Choy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Cee Neuner says:

    Thanks for all the info. It is always fun to learn about different cultures and traditions. Thanks 🙂 Happy New Year Helen. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Amy says:

    Sharing and remembering stories like this is the best way to celebrate Chinese NY! Great post!
    I rarely prepare traditional Chinese food. Places like 99 have made it so easy to get delicious traditional Chinese food ( Do you have 99 nearby) . I agree TV, computers, Internet… have made us more isolated… People don’t even chat like they used to.
    Happy New Year to you, Helen! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. How fascinating, Helen !!! You may be happy to learn that here in Sydney, our large Chinese population (well integrated into Oz society, but very happily still Chinese !) still celebrates with big fireworks displays and dragon dancing through the streets. I live in a city fringe suburb, and it’s pretty close to Chinatown, so perhaps I’m more aware than many Sydneysiders …

    Liked by 1 person

  8. seeker says:

    As we speak, my colleagues are out celebrating Chinese New Year by going out for lunch in a chinese restaurant nearby. Helen, Happy New Year. Tradition is so important. This sounds similar to the Philippines that it takes at least a week of preparation. I just finished eating some dumplings similar to your photo empanada style. Surely, you can still have the tradition in USA less the fireworks. We will be celebrating the Chinese parade on the weekend in our Chinatown. Thank you for the memories. Perpetua.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Helen C says:

      Happy New Year, Perpetua. I guess when both my husband and I were still working, there was a lot of stress so we didn’t feel like to celebrate New Year like the way we did when we were young. The environment is different, too. We seldom visit other Chinese families — everyone is busy taking care of his or her own family. Now I have more time, I would like to bring some of the tradition back. Maybe eventually, we will get almost all. Maybe.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. loisajay says:

    Happy New Year, Helen! This was such a wonderful post. Not much is done the way it used to be. Shame, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Muzzy says:

    G’day Helen and Happy New year to you,
    How interesting, hearing about your Mum’s preparations, very similar in a lot of ways to our predecessors Christmas preparations. I think we loose a lot by not keeping some of the old ways going, but the world is a very different place now and new customs evolve for the present generation. Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Helen C says:

    Good morning, Wendy. You are right… the world is a very different place now. I guess for old people like me, most of the time, I have my doubt that this is a better place 😉 I like our simple and more relaxing life… even though I do appreciate having cell phone. 😉 Have a great day!


  12. Elizabeth says:

    Happy New Year Helen, please send me some of these yummy food!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. It’s sad when traditions start to fade. My kids (in their 30’s & 40’s) are starting to ask me how to make foods or want to know about other Puerto Rican traditions but the feeling is different. It wasn’t planned when I was growing up. It just was a way of life.
    Happy Cinese New Year to you Helen and your family. : )

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Sue says:

    What wonderful memories! Thank you for sharing your childhood and culture- loved reading about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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