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Clean Thoughts, Honeyed Words: Lunar New Year Begins at the Threshold

by Shirley Fong-Torres

Over a century ago, Oscar Wilde joked that America’s only tradition was its youth. This was a distinctly European joke; Asians could not have found it funny. In Chinese culture, tradition is not just the most important thing, it is the only thing.

Europeans came to America to melt into a culture without tradition, but Asian immigrants preserved the old ways. That is why my immigrant parents made their children attend two schools, public school and Chinese language school.

And that is why Lunar New Year is observed in meticulous details that non-Asians might find quaint and superstitious. To those of us who represent the bridge generation between immigrant parents and fully Americanized youth, the Lunar New Year is a formula that unites us with our ancestral legacy. New Year observations are precise recipes and one does not substitute convenient ingredients.

The home must be prepared to welcome the New Year, beginning at the threshold. Since all of us hope for an extra bit of luck, we display the Chinese character FOOK on our doors, or walls. This character is deliberately placed upside down, making the pun “luck arrives.”

Our minds must also be prepared to greet good luck properly. We exercise strict control of our tongues during the festive season. We must not only look clean, but also speak cleanly. Only honeyed words should come out of the mouth. No foul language and no unlucky words, such as “die,” or “bad luck.” Fortunately for children, there is no scolding or cursing.

At New Year’s, the traditional rule of “clean house, good year” trumps my personal housekeeping philosophy that “out of chaos, comes order.”

House and office cleaning is taken very seriously. Unpleasant residue and misfortunes that may have been experienced during the out-going year must be swept away before the New Year. One simply cannot sweep, or vacuum, on the first day of the year, lest good luck be blown away.

Other practices probably will not survive another generation. For instance, my parents would not think of washing their hair, or bathing, on New Year’s Day, for fear of washing away luck. My daughter has great respect for traditions, but she draws the line on the other side of her shower curtain.

To encourage a bright new start and a positive attitude, my parents would never reprimand their children on New Year’s Day, and as youngsters, my sister and I were outfitted in pink or red, the colors of good luck.

When I was about 9 years old, my parents took our family to Marysville, to visit the temples there. When my mother found me on the temple grounds with my brothers, lighting up firecrackers, she was unable to maintain the “no scolding” dictate. Her disappointment was not that I was playing with dangerous fireworks, but that I was kneeling on the pavement and dirtying my frilly pink dress.

Traditions of preparing the home for New Year include rituals of food, colors, flowers and omens. To invite prosperity and happiness to the family, festive foods must be cooked and displayed, either on the kitchen table, at the family altar, or in the living room.

Many traditional dishes have auspicious undertones and definitions. A whole chicken, with its head and tail on, represents the beginning and end of life, and in Cantonese, the word “chicken” sounds like the words meaning “the good life.” Whole, salted fish are essential for the New Year because “fish” in Cantonese sounds like the word meaning “abundance” and the salted fish represents preservation of all that is good and important. Fish and fowl served whole with the head suggest “a favorable start and finish.” Oysters should be eaten, not only because we have a penchant for them, but because their name sounds like “good news,” and that is particularly auspicious on the first day of the year! Noodles served at the end of a meal represent long life, the longer the better. Never serve macaroni at New Year’s or at birthdays.

The well-dressed New Year’s home glows in red, orange, gold and green. Oranges and tangerines, with stems and leaves intact, are placed on platters around the house because they represent the sweetness of life, and the green leaves predict friendship and allegiance. Pomelos, the larger the better, should be placed where they can auger abundance.

The names of food served during the New Year suggest auspicious things. Thin vermicelli noodles are called “silvery threads of longevity.” Seasoned pork shoulder is “Mist of Harmony.” Some Chinatown merchants even put away foods that sound negative, such as “bittermelon.”

In food placement, generosity prevails at New Year’s. Giving too much, having too much, is better than too little, and the new year is the best time to show this. This appeals to all generations; after all, everyone appreciates an excuse to eat more.

New Year’s food is shared with our dearly departed ancestors, so the preparation is important. A kitchen god, an idol that is sometimes passed down for many generations, watches over as we prepare traditional Chinese New Year feast foods: dumplings filled with savories, bits of shrimp and pork; fried won ton skin, loaded with crushed peanuts and coconut flakes; and lo han jai, Buddhist vegetarian stew. These dishes, along with candies and fruit, are placed on the family altar, and incense is burned to help send the dinner call to the heavens.

Throughout homes and businesses, blossoms of azalea, peach or cherry welcome the new year with appropriate color and beauty. Several years ago, I learned a hard lesson from my mother. To fashion being a good daughter, I showed up at my parents’ condominium in Oakland’s Chinatown, dressed in a red outfit bright enough to be confused for a walking firecracker. I dropped by a few days before the actual new year, and presented my parents with a potted plant of blazing red azaleas, its pot wrapped in bright red foil.

Trying not to scold her youngest daughter, Mom told me that, in the future, it is more thoughtful to choose azaleas with flowers not yet in bloom. That way, the blossoms open up as the new year matures. I begged her pardon with the excuse that I learned frugality from her and this particular pot of flowers was on sale. Of course it was! Only fools like me would buy it at New Year’s time.

Throughout Asian markets, images of the appropriate animal custodian of the year are popular as propitious omens. This is the Year of the Dog, so most calendars feature dogs, but the image is lucky on any kind of art.

Couplets, words of good tiding written on strips of red paper, are another essential omen. They appear on the walls of homes and businesses, sometimes draped over a plate of oranges and tangerines. Little red envelopes filled with crisp dollar bills are given to children and friends and placed on the family platter of sweets for good luck.

A “harmony tray” contains eight different sweets, to be shared with visitors, for the number eight sounds like “prosperity” in Cantonese. The tray always includes good luck lotus candy, melon seeds, preserved ginger and sweet coconut strips and chunks. This is a tradition that even the most Americanized youth believe in, particularly young dentists.

Lunar year 4715, an Earth Dog year, begins February 16, and parades the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown on Saturday, February 24th. If you are turning 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72 or 84 on or after February 16th, this is your special year.


Sun Neen Fy Lok, Gun Hay Fot Choy!


Shirley Fong-Torres operated Wok Wiz Tours & Cooking Center. She died June 18, 2011 of leukemia. The best-selling author, chef and culinary guide was known as the mayor of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Torres had been honored with countless awards for her service in the Chinese-American community. She was also a frequent featured guest on CBS 5’s Eye On The Bay. Shirley Fong Torres was 64 years old.