Mandy is rightly proud of her family history and cultural traditions. So, as we approach the most important date of the year for all Chinese people, we ask what the Lunar New Year means to her and how she’ll be celebrating it during lockdown.
Q. Firstly, why did your parents settle in Newcastle-upon-Tyne?
A. As a major shipbuilding city in the late 1800s, Newcastle built battleships for the Chinese Royal Navy. It’s thought this was the beginning of what has become a 20000 strong Chinese community with its own Chinatown based around Stowell Street. Many, like my grandparents, came seeking opportunity and they ended up establishing their own restaurant with other family members serving the Chinese and wider community. This was in stark contrast to the humbler life they left behind in Hong Kong.
My Grandparents lived in Ap Chau (translated as Duck Island ) which is the smallest inhabited island in Hong Kong and home to families who relied on fishing for their livelihoods. Many settled on the island itself with others living and working on boats (or junks). This model of a typical junk was made by my Grandfather in 1993 and is now on display in the Ap Chau Story Room, part of the Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark committed to conservation, education and sustainable development in the area.
The restaurant, called “Blue Sky” on Pilgrim Street, was frequented by many celebrities and singers in the 70s including Sean Connery and Michael Caine – the latter dined with the cast of the gangster film “Get Carter” during filming in Newcastle in 1970. In later years Mandy, me and my siblings and cousins were often found playing in the doorway.
Q. Why is Chinese New Year important?
A. Chinese New Year is all about spending time with family and sharing blessings and abundance with loved ones. It’s also (obviously) about celebrating the Lunar New Year. There is a lot of symbolism in Chinese Culture and those in the Chinese zodiac represent a repeating 12 year cycle – with each year being represented by an animal.
2021 is the Year of the Ox, specifically the “Metal Ox” as each sign of the Chinese Zodiac is associated with one of the five elements Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth.
Q. Why is Chinese New Year celebrated on a different date to New Year in the UK?
A. For over 3000 years it’s been traditional for Chinese people to celebrate the start of a new “lunar” year which is based on monthly cycles of the Moon’s phases. Unlike the Gregorian calendar which is based on the position of the sun. This year New Years’ Day is 12th February.
Q. How long does Chinese New Year last?
A. Traditionally, celebrations last for 15 days, particularly in China where the whole country shuts down. Our family in the UK have always celebrated the first three days starting with New Year’s Eve, when we gather to have the most important meal of the year. The next important meal is on the 15th day known as yuán xiāo jié, the first full moon of the year. This day is also known as Lantern festival day. Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival in mainland China, you can also express “Happy New Year” as “Happy Spring Festival.”
Q. How do people celebrate Chinese New Year?
A. Just like Christmas here in the UK, the run-up to New Year’s Eve is a time of preparation and excitement. It’s also a time for cleaning the house! Doing this on New Year’s Day symbolises the sweeping away of good fortune so cleaning – thankfully – should be avoided. It’s the same with washing or cutting your hair (the Chinese word for which sounds like “luck”) Doing either means you are cutting or washing away your luck. Other than that, preparing and eating food is the main activity. In the days before New Year’s Eve I’m frequently on the phone to my Mum for a reminder of recipes which I’d like to think have been passed down through the generations. I’m fairly sure though that Mum gets most of them from YouTube!
Q. How will the Lampteys celebrate Chinese New Year in lockdown?
A. New Year’s Day is normally spent with your husband’s family and the day after that, with the in-laws. For us it’s slightly different as my husband is half Ghanaian and half Indian-Guyanese. He’s fully embraced Chinese culture though, and that makes New Year even more special for me. Travelling to see family sees the largest human migration on the planet with 3 billion trips being made in China alone. We usually go to see my parents in Newcastle which obviously won’t be happening this year. That’s really disappointing but one consolation is not having to gift “hong bao” which means “red envelope” – a tradition that means crisp, brand new £5 notes (or more!) are handed over in two red envelopes to each unmarried member of your family. That’s not just your siblings, but your cousins, nephews and nieces. Having around 30 family members who qualify means this can be quite an expensive business and not one I’ll miss this year!
Q. What do people eat during Chinese New Year?
A. There are seven traditional foods that are eaten at New Year and they all have meaning.
Fish (Yú) – Yú also sounds like the word for “surplus”. When you eat the fish you must eat it all but some people leave the head and tail (the surplus) to eat on New Year’s Day. You also have to make sure you don’t flip the fish when eating it as this is seen as unlucky.
Nian gao – this is a sticky cake made of rice, sugar, chestnuts, dates, and lotus leaves. They symbolise progress, advancement, and growth year-after-year.
Chūnjuǎn – these are spring rolls symbolising the Spring and start of the new year.
Good fortune fruit – symbolising fullness and prosperity. We eat tangerines (chéng) which sounds the same as auspiciousness and are gold in colour signifying wealth.
Jiǎozi – these are dumplings shaped like silver ingots symbolising wealth and the change to a new year.
Chángshòu Miàn – translated as longevity noodles. The longer the noodles, the bigger the wish for long life. The whole noodle should be eaten—bit by bit—without breaking it into pieces. Doing so might cut short your life!
Tangyuan – A dessert made of glutinous rice flour stuffed with sugar fillings served in a hot soup. They are round, which symbolises completeness and family reunion.
Q. Why is red the dominant colour of Chinese New Year?
A. The colour Red means good luck and stems from the story of Nian, a horrible monster from Ancient China that would attack villages every New Year looking for food. One New Year, legend has it that Nian was driven away from a village by an old man wearing a red tunic and making lots of noise. This is why the colour red symbolises good luck and firecrackers, lion and dragon dancing form such a noisy part of celebrations.
Q. And lastly, what does Kung Hei Fat Choi mean?
A. Many people think it means “Happy New Year” but it doesn’t. It actually means a wish for happiness and prosperity to the person you say it to.
There are many ways to say Happy New year and express well wishes in Cantonese including…
Sun Nin Fai Lok = Happy New Year
Kung Hei Fat Choi = Happiness & Prosperity
Sun Tai Keen Hong = Good Health
Gung Zok Sun Lei = May you work go smoothly
Saang Yi Hing Lung = PROSPEROUS BUSINESS
And last but not least (my favourite) which I would like to wish everyone…Sum Sheung Si Sing = May all your wishes come true!