Sunday, Feb. 7, 1999
Chinese mark the traditions of New Year
By Bill C.M.Chen
When I was a child growing up in the Hakkan region of Taiwan, the most celebrated event of all was the lunar New Year, usually in the first part of each February. The New Year celebration, also called the Spring Festival, lasted several days and was also amid our semester break. The holiday was the most observed season when the family was reunited and relatives were visited. Children were especially happy since they would be given toys, money, sweets and foods.
We were sent to the barbershop to have our hair cut a few days before the festival. My mother brought us to stores for new clothes and shoes. The last shower of the year was on New Year's Eve and we were told the next one would be in the next year. We were clean from head to toe. The house and yard were immaculate. Red paper with a brushed character Fu (good luck) was posted on walls. The last trash of the year was taken out on the eve and nothing could be thrown away for the next 3 days according to my mother. We were anxiously ready to send off the old year and looked forward to the brand new year.
A few days before the festival, my mother was especially busy making all sorts of pastries such as salty and sweet cakes made from sweet rice. We ran errands and helped her around the house. A special pastry Tiam-bung (sweet cake) was prepared with great distinction and expectation. The finished pastry should have a smooth surface with a glistening reflection and its texture should be wholesome which also was a good omen. According to folklore, the outcome of this pastry would foretell the family fortune in the upcoming year.
My mother devoted her mind to steaming a flawless Tiam-bung for our family, so that we might have good luck. Only clean and fresh firewood was allowed for the stove for steaming the cake. No kids and bad words were allowed to be present while my mother made pastry from moistened rice dough and brown sugar. This process could last for several hours. It turned out that she did it again with perfect Tiarn-bung and we all were relieved!
My father brought home a premium piece of pork from a local butcher shop. Pork dishes were steamed with spices, soy sauce, and my mother's special ingredients. Chickens, ducks and geese were boiled or steamed, which was my mother's traditional cooking style.
Oh, the biggest feast of the year was the dinner on New Year's Eve. We were blessed and delighted as we gathered around the little wooden table in the kitchen under a dim kerosene lamp. The kitchen was warm from the tzo-tel (brick stove) over which our mother had labored and cooked the meal all day long. Delicious dishes and gourmet plates were paraded from the pantry and placed on the table in front of our eyes. The boiled chicken, duck and goose were arranged neatly in large oval platters. Next to platters were small dishes of meat dipping sauces including brown soy, yellow tangerine, and red tomato. The sliced, boneless and lean pork was stacked layer after layer on a round plate. Other rich and scrumptious foods in bowls were garnished with different colored and flavored sauces. In our opinions our mother sure was the most savvy and resourceful chef. The enticing sight and aromatic smell made us long for the delicacies and we could hardly wait for our father to finish his year-end appraisal on us. With mouth-watering appetites, we ate all we could until our stomachs were ready to pop. 'Hard labors' for the family chores during the whole year, were paid off in this succulent meal. Even our dog and cat enjoyed the holiday as they waited near the table for morsels to fall to the floor.
After the big meal, lucky money in a red envelope was handed to each one of us by our father. He said we had done very well over the year and cash was the merit prize. Within the envelope, there were new and crispy bills and I already had a plan for them. We could not be any happier than that night since our tummies and pockets were both full to the brim. I secretly wished that New Year could come several times a year.
Before dawn we got up and put on new clothes and shoes on the lunar New Year day. The smell of new clothes and shoes on my body inspired me to have a good new beginning. A small table was set up by the front door, which was opened up at the proper hour according to the folk's astrological rendering. Following this proper timing we would be blessed and ensured for good fortune. On the table, a boiled whole chicken set on a chunk of pork was the main offering. With burning incense sticks in our palms, my father led us to pray and thank Tien kung (celestial elders) for the good harvest of last year. He also requested harmony among our family and favorable winds with smooth rain for the farmland in this new year. A bundle of heaven-money was a token and burned to compensate for the god's efforts. A cup of rice wine was splashed on the earth as a symbol of celebration.
At our family clan gathering in the ancestral hall, some of our clan
members performed kung-fu. Older ones performed a slow dance like Tai-ki.
Traditional folk music was played by musicians using 2-string guitars,
reed trumpets, cymbals, drums, a hollowed wood block and a big gong. Lion
dancers gyrated to the noisy crashes of cymbals and heavy pounding of a
big drum. Children loved all of this show. Finally firecrackers were lit
and their noises marked the beginning of the new year, Guin-hee-fa-tzoi
(wishing you prosperity)!