Chinese people around the world will exchange the popular greeting, Gung hay fat choy! (Wishing you happiness and prosperity!), when the year 4685 arrives next Thursday. For thousands of years, the Chinese have marked the beginning of their new year on the second new moon after winter solstice, sometime between Jan. 21 and Feb. 19. This has always been a special holiday, celebrated with festivities that last anywhere from a week to a full month (although 10 days to two weeks is more common today).
According to the Chinese zodiac, which runs in a 12-year cycle, this is the year of the hare. Legend has it that an ancient emperor invited all the animals to a feast, but only 12 appeared. He established a year to honor each one--the rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and boar. The Chinese believe that people born under each of these signs have certain traits typical of the animal.
Public celebrations at the new year include parades with dragons and fireworks. Here in Chinatown, the Golden Dragon Parade will be held Feb. 14 at 4 p.m. Lion and dragon dancers will cavort up Broadway, along with floats, marching bands, drill teams and movie and television stars.
Another important part of the holiday activities are the private family celebrations, where traditions passed down for centuries are observed. Here in Los Angeles, the Lau family, as well as many others, still carries on these customs.
Marcela Lau has fond memories of the new year celebrations she experienced as a child growing up in China. Even today, when she reminisces about the elaborate preparations and holiday activities, it brings excitement to her voice and a broad smile.
Lau was born in the Philippines, but when she was still very young, her Chinese parents sent her to boarding school in their native country. She was permitted to leave the school at new year holidays, and she spent this time at the home of her aunt and uncle.
Preparation for this important occasion actually began two months earlier, when fabric was chosen to be made into new clothing. Often the material was bright red, and the finished dress had a lot of trimming, a stark contrast from the plain, dark-colored uniforms worn at boarding school, Lau remembers.
Dressing in new clothing was just one of the many traditions observed. Because this was considered a time of new beginnings, it was also customary to pay off all debts and clean the house thoroughly before the festivities could begin with a multicourse feast on new year's eve.
A week or more preparation was required for the special foods served at this dinner and on the actual holiday, when no cooking was permitted.
"The Chinese are very superstitious," Lau says. Many of the dishes served at the new year feast have names that sound like other Chinese words associated with prosperity, good health and luck.
For example, since the Chinese word for lettuce also sounds like "wealth is born," it is traditional to serve lettuce leaves. Clams, which indicate a receptivity to good fortune, are another typical addition to the feast. A whole steamed fish is included because the word for fish sounds like "surplus," and the Chinese want any leftover wealth to flow into the new year. Dessert often includes tangerines because the Chinese word sounds like "good luck."
On new year's eve, the family gathered to enjoy the meal at a large round table, symbolizing the unbroken circle of togetherness. To protect them from the cold weather, Lau remembers a heater was placed beneath the table. On new year's day, the custom was to visit relatives--going from house to house and enjoying snacks such as candy or tangerines. Here the children received red envelopes, called lei-see, containing money and symbolizing good luck.
Today, Lau, her husband, Johann, and children Johann Jr., Emil and Kay, still welcome the new year with a traditional feast of seven or eight dishes. Often, friends are invited to join the festivities.
Lau, who teaches Chinese cooking in her home, has adapted many of the traditional recipes to today's trends toward less salt and lighter foods. She also incorporates the use of modern equipment, like the food processor, where applicable.
The Lau feast begins with Chicken-Corn-Tomato Soup, accented by colorful green peas. In another dish, lettuce leaves are spread with Hoisin-Sesame Sauce, then filled with a mixture of minced chicken and rice noodles. These are rolled up and eaten by hand.
Frank Sinclair's Duck may be an unlikely name for a Chinese recipe, but it was developed by Lau for an old family friend. Knowing that Sinclair enjoyed duck but always found it too greasy, Lau experimented with recipes until Sinclair finally gave his stamp of approval.
Black Beans Key to Sauce