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January 12, 2012

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Dragon breathes fire into New Year

Chinese New Year is around the corner. The time of family reunions and fresh starts mean some children in Shanghai have already started collecting various auspicious phrases used for New Year greetings to receive more hongbao, a red envelop with cash from their elders.

The background music in some shopping malls and restaurants has changed to "Bubugao," which literally means stepping higher. This folk music features light melodies expressing best wishes for the New Year.

However, Lunar New Year is not just celebrated in China. The lunar calendar, originally invented for farmers dictating seasonal changes, is followed by many other Asian countries including Vietnam, South Korea and Japan (before 1873).

Moreover, some countries with large Chinese populations like Singapore also celebrate Lunar New Year.

Of course, when speaking of different cultures there will be some variations in how the holiday is celebrated.

China, said to be the origin of the festival, is known for its old customs that have been passed on for centuries and diverse festival food.

South Koreans consider New Year a time to express gratitude to their ancestors while the Vietnamese believe that things happening in the first three days are an omen for the whole year. For Chinese Singaporeans, celebrating Chinese New Year is more about strengthening their sense of belonging.

Shanghai Daily talks to a variety of people about how they celebrate Chinese New Year and lists some restaurants around town where people can try various festival foods.

The tradition of celebrating the Spring Festival in China dates backs thousands of years when a mythical beast named Nian was said to come down from the mountains on the first day of each lunar year to hunt for livestock. This created fear among people.

People gradually learned that the beast was afraid of noise and the color red. This was the beginning of several traditions like hanging red lanterns, wearing red clothes, eating dinner with family members and setting off noisy firecrackers on Chinese New Year's Eve to scare Nian away.

Now, Lunar New Year preparations begin the day before Chinese New Year Eve. The day is xiaonianye and is the time people clean their office and home thoroughly with the hope of sweeping all the bad things in the past away.

Shanghai locals used to buy traditional accessories to decorate the home including chuanghua, a paper-cut with various auspicious patterns - flowers, animals or Chinese characters. They are usually pasted on the window. Some people also hang Chinese red knots.

People in rural areas still paste couplets featuring two auspicious sentences interrelated in meaning on both sides of the door. A square in the middle has the character fu, which means let the fortune in.

On Chinese New Year's Eve, all family members are expected to return home to share a big feast called nianyefan. The food varies from region to region in China.

In northern China, jiaozi, a dumpling with various fillings, is an indispensable festival food due to its gold ingot shape symbolizing wealth.

Traditional fillings include minced pork with shredded greens and minced seafood with mushrooms. A vegetarian version is also available, usually egg with shredded leek or celery.

Jiaozi is served with dark vinegar and soybean sauce for dipping.

In east China, represented by Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, as well as Shanghai, niangao, a glutinous rice cake, is an auspicious food since gao in Chinese has the same meaning as being promoted.

Niangao is often shaped like a full moon, fish or gold ingot. Some pastry chefs change the shape or pattern annually according to the Chinese zodiac. This year, some pastry chefs will be selling dragon-shaped niangao to welcome the Year of the Dragon.

Some foods are eaten across the country at Lunar New Year, including fish, uncut noodles and tangyuan.

Fish is pronounced in Chinese like the word for wealth, which means it's a must on most tables. An uncut noodle symbolizes longevity while tangyuan, glutinous rice balls with black sesame filling, represent reunion and sweetness.

In Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, locals serve poon chai, layers of ingredients served in a wooden basin. Li Guoseng, Chinese executive chef at The Eton Hotel Shanghai, recently launched his "Wish Fulfilled Poon Chai" with the hope of introducing the festival food of his hometown to Shanghai diners.

A huge red lantern in the shape of a dragon has been installed in Singapore's China Town with the Year of the Dragon approaching.

Singaporean Chinese are known for having elaborate feasts for the holiday.

Wei Li, a Singaporean stylist working in Shanghai, says: "The air in Niucheshui (Chinese name of Singapore's China Town) is filled with the smell of bakkwa, a thin-sliced barbecue pork preserved with soybean sauce and various spices at the Lunar New Year. It's a great memory."

Two Mandarin oranges packed in a bag is another important gift for Singaporeans visiting family or friends during the festival since the fruit's pronunciation in Chinese is jinju, which is similar to the word gold and luck.

Since Chinese Singaporeans are predominantly from south China, the New Year dinner is a combination of Fujian, Cantonese and Hainan cuisines.

On Chinese New Year's Eve, Singaporeans traditionally eat lo hei, a fish salad, as an appetizer. There is a lavish "ceremony" that usually accompanies the dish.

Foo Tee Loke, a Singaporean chef from The Eton Hotel Shanghai, says, "Normally, we will have chicken and duck, and most importantly, the Hainanese feast, a stew made of abalone, fish maw, meatballs, Chinese cabbage, carrot and mushroom."

Fried noodles, symbolizing longevity, are served later, the chef adds.

Lunar New Year, known as seollal in South Korea, the most important holiday of the year, is a time to show gratitude to ancestors for a good harvest.

On the first day of Lunar New Year, Koreans wear new clothes, bow to elders and fly kites. They also hold a charyesang, a ritual in which various foods in honor of the family's ancestors are placed on the table in the early morning.

"Traditional rules should be strictly followed when setting the table," says Korean Douglas Kim, assistant director of Food and Beverage at Shanghai Marriott Hotel Changfeng Park.

The rules are closely related to feng shui, a Chinese system of geomancy including the position of yin and yang and the five elements. All the dishes are laid out in five rows. The first row, facing north, is lined with tablets bearing the name and title of ancestors. The second row is for placing meat and fish, from left to right. Fish heads should face east, the direction of the rising sun and symbolizing prosperity. Soup made of meat, fish and tofu is put in the third row. The fourth, from west to east, is lined with fish, greens, kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage) and sikhye (a sweet soup made of rice served as a dessert) in order. Four fruits including jujube, dried persimmon, chestnut and pear are lined from red to white in the fifth row, which is said to symbolize dignity, luck and hope.

Additionally, neureumjeok, a beef and vegetable skewer, tteokjjim, a soup dumpling made of rice, japchae, a noodle with stir-fried vegetables, and gangjeong, fried grains with honey, are other common foods believed to bring good fortune for the New Year.

Lunar New Year, called oshogatsu in Japan, is the festival for family gatherings and praying for blessings.

Although the country has adopted the solar calendar since 1873, the old custom of celebrating Lunar New Year persists, especially in rural areas.

Sumie Okada, the Japanese editor of Whenever Shanghai, says Japanese celebrations of Lunar New Year begin with a bonenkai party, which is where people leave the old year's worries and troubles behind. It is held before Lunar New Year's Eve.

On Lunar New Year's Eve, the whole family will eat toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodle) symbolizing longevity. On Lunar New Year's Day, Japanese usually get up early to enjoy the first sunrise of the year, which is said to bring luck and happiness. Then, following the old lunar New Year tradition, they pay a visit to shrines and temples. At the temple, visitors, after praying, will buy omikuji, fortunes written on slips of paper, and tie them on to the branches of nearby trees in hope the good fortune will come true.

Food includes mochi, a small cake made of mocha rice first grilled and then served in a soup or wrapped in nori seaweed.

Masami Honda, Japanese executive chef at Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai, launched an osechi-ryori menu this month.

"Usually, osechi is served on New Year Eve. Since too many dishes are involved, sometimes up to 35, housewives often prepare ingredients one day in advance," the chef says.

To Chinese Filipino families in the Philippines, the Chinese New Year is the time for family members to get together and look forward to a year filled with renewed hope and overflowing blessings.

At the house of the Lopez family in Cebu, the dining table is filled with whole roasted pig, noodles, whole fish, round fruits, ngohiong (five spices spring roll) and tikoy (round sticky rice cake).

Each dish represents a message passed on from one generation to the next, says Shanna Lopez, a third generation Philippine-born Chinese.

For instance, tikoy represents a sweet life for the year. Its round shape symbolizes togetherness and its layers stands for rising abundance.

It is also offered to the House God so his lips are sealed and won't be able to report any bad things to the gods about the family, she explains.

Roasted pig represents family wholeness; whole fish for year-round prosperity; round fruits (especially oranges) for luck and abundance; and ngohiong for wealth.

Welcoming the New Year is a big celebration for the family of Melanie Chua Ng marked with her mother preparing signature dishes of special sotanghon, fried shrimps, sautéed vegetables, all kinds of seafood and roasted pig among others. The sotanghon, a kind of noodles, stands for longer life.

Vietnamese believe the way you act during the first three days of the Lunar New Year sets the tone for the rest of the year.

Ruan Yuqi, a Chinese working in Vietnam, says there have some interesting customs.

"Similar to China, Vietnam also has 12 animals in the zodiac. However, the Year of the Rabbit is replaced by the cat," Ruan says.

The celebration of the festival begins on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month when ?ngTáo, the kitchen god believed to guard each house, is said to depart and go back to Heaven and report everything that happened in the past year to the Jade Emperor, the ruler of Heaven in Chinese folk culture.

The family will hold a big ceremony, and offer fruit sacrifices for the kitchen god's journey.

On Lunar New Year's Eve, bánh chu'ng, similar to zongzi in China, are eaten. They are said to show admiration for the earth and sky.

Besides, du'a hành, onion and vegetables pickled with fish sauce, is popular Lunar New Year food throughout the country.

On Lunar New Year Day, Vietnamese traditionally visit a fortune-teller at either a temple or on the street. After showing their own zodiac sign, visitors will be told their fortune for the New Year. Sometimes they will even be taught how to avoid bad luck.

(Cris Evert B. Lato contributes the Philippines part.)


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