There are over 40 million ethnic Chinese who reside out of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan – many of whom, while integrating into their countries of residence, have kept their cultural heritage intact. With the Lunar New Year drawing to a close, have you ever wondered how different Overseas Chinese populations celebrated the Year of the Dog?
Chances are you’ve had your fair share of Nian gao this Chinese New Year, a glutinous rice cake made out of lard, sugar and water. But have you tried it in ube (taro), pandan, red bean, sweet corn and butterscotch flavors? That’s right! Nian gao, or as the Filipinos call it, Ti koy (derived from it’s Hokkien name, 甜粿 Ti-koe), is a popular Chinese dish in the Philippines.
During the Lunar New Year, they’re given as gifts to friends, relatives and business associates. Sold in Chinese bakeries, they come in boxes with intricate CNY designs and auspicious sayings. In fact, they’re so popular that Jessica Kabigting, a Filipino-Chinese student from Manila, used to get teased for it in high school. “Whenever it’s Chinese New Year, everyone teases Chinese like ‘Hey, bring cooked tikoy to share with us, okay?’,” she said.
While receiving lai see or hong bao (red packets) might be the highlight of your CNY holiday, Chinoys (Chinese-Pinoys) don’t get red packets during CNY. Instead, they’re given during Christmas – a custom Kabigting suspects is due to Christmas being the bigger holiday in the Philippines. “We say that on September 1st, Christmas season begins. All the way from the ‘ber’ months and it lasts until Three Kings’ Day (January 6th) usually,” she said. However, this usually means that if your relatives end up giving you red packets, you’ll lose out on a Christmas gift.
Why eat nian gao?
Tradition has it that every year, the Kitchen God gives an annual report of the activities of every household to the Jade Emperor, the Emperor of the Heavens. An offering of the gooey nian gao makes his mouth stick together, which prevents him from saying anything negative about the family. In Mandarin, nian gao is also a homophone for the term of “higher year,” means to usher in a greater, more prosperous year!
2. Malaysian- / Singaporean-Chinese
While it was popularized by the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore in the 1960s, Lo Hei Yu Sang (撈起魚生) is now making a comeback in Hong Kong and parts of China. This Cantonese-style salad, known as Yu sang (魚生), contains a variety of shredded vegetables, sauces and condiments, topped with a side of raw fish, such as salmon. The term literally translates into “sashimi” or “raw fish.” Although yu means “fish,” it is also a homophone for abundance or excess (餘) in Chinese. On the other hand, sang means “life” and lo hei (撈起) is to “stir up” or “rise.” Therefore, this dish is commonly used as a symbol to stir up an excess of wealth and long life.
Furthermore, each layer of ingredients is said to contain an auspicious meaning. For example, adding in raw fish symbolizes Nian nian you yu (年年有餘), which means to have an excess of abundance every year. While sprinkling a dash of pepper and cinnamon powder attracts greater wealth and treasures, Zhao cai jin bao (招財進寶) – you get the gist. Check out this step-by-step guide to preparing Lo sang and prospectively, stirring up a fortune!
Now that we know what it means, let’s go on to how it works:
As family members gather around the dinner table, each picks up shredded bits from the salad and tosses it into the air with their chopsticks, while saying auspicious greetings such as “Huat ah!” (發呀!), which is Hokkien for “prosper!”, or more traditional CNY sayings, such as Gong Xi Fa Cai (恭喜發財) for wealth, or Shen Ti Jian Kang (身體健康) for good health. The higher you toss it, the greater the blessings you’ll receive.
With a population of over 400,000 people, Venezuela houses the second-largest Chinese population in South America (following Peru, which has 900,000). So it comes as no surprise that Lunar New Year is still largely celebrated among the Venezuelan-Chinese community.
While aspects of Chinese culture have spilled over into dominant Filipino culture, with President Duterte recently declaring the first day of the Lunar New Year a public holiday, other countries are less fortunate. Without an official holiday to celebrate Lunar New Year, the Venezuelans have pushed forward their celebrations to January 1st, the “Western” (Gregorian) New Year.
“They celebrate Chinese New Year during the Western New Year, because most of them (the Chinese people) own businesses and they can’t close their businesses during the traditional Chinese New Year date,” says Angie Chan, who was born and raised in Venezuela, before moving to Hong Kong at the age of 7.
Furthermore, due to the lack of holidays, Chinese New Year celebrations only last for one day, with businesses resuming shortly after.
While the dates have changed, the customs remain largely the same – extended families gather together to spend the day gambling and have traditional Chinese dinners at night. “During the day, the adults usually play like Poker or Mahjong. For us kids, we just play around. At night, we do have [a] reunion dinner and we eat traditional Chinese food and then we play with fireworks,” Chan said.
While nowadays, it may be rare to find youngsters in qipaos (Chinese Cheongsam) or other forms of Chinese traditional clothing, the Venezuelans have held firmly onto their roots. According to Chan, CNY is celebrated more traditionally in Venezuela. Not only do girls wear qipaos for family reunions, households also release firecrackers to ward off evil spirits.
If you’ve experienced Chinese New Year in a different country and have unique traditions to share of, then leave a comment down below and tell us what you’ve witnessed! Until then, enjoy the remnants of the New Year with the upcoming Lantern Festival.
Content Manager: Emily