Chinese New Year

The inadequacies of the English language!

I spent Chinese New Year in one continuous party of family and friends. Traditionally, New Year lasts 18-20 days. At minimum, people celebrate for three days.

Oliver Stone was right. It really is like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year's Eve all rolled into one. Observing the New Years is a mixture of superstition, ritual, pmp, civic religion, communistic responsibility, class identification, commercialism, and spirituality. I am glad I came back at this time to witness the fullness of it in a Chinese place.

I had lunch at my Second Uncle's house. He had to work later on that night. The family dinner had to be moved to a family lunch.

I arrived a little early and waited as my aunt prepared the various dishes that are required: sugar dumplings, broiled chicken, steamed fish, roast ribs, lotus roots.

Each dish had a reason to be there on the table. The lotus root is a homonym for longevity. Sugar dumplings for the fulfillment of wishes. A meat dish to represent the three realm of existence: air, water, sky; pig, fish, fowl.

Ritual of worship had to be performd befoe we could eat: they took almost an hour. We burnt incense and made offerings of rice wine to our ancestors (my grand parents,) the sky god, the earth lord, the local god of the particular appartment level (level 3.) There is also a neighbourhood shrine at the end of the road. My uncle burnt "hell bank notes" and gold ingots made from river reed paper. All the dishes we ate were first offered to the spirits and gods. We took turns in worship from the eldest to youngest, from male to female.

Afterwards, all the married people gave red envelopes to the unmarried. Usually, this means that the elders had to give. But since my younger cousin got married this year, there was a reversal of circumstance where she and her husband had to give me money. I guess I kinda fucked up the normal course of the social condition right here in Macau.

Little ceremonies are observed during the meal whose origins and meanings are not fully understood or lost. I had to eat a second bowl of rice — possibly to signify personal growth and progress. For dessert, we had to have sugar dumplings served in odd numbers.

There are others. Candles are burnt in twos, but incense in threes. Debts must be completely repaid. New pants (but not shirts) are worn. There is even a tradition (thankfully no longer observed) to not wash one's hair for the duration of the whole New Year's celebration (20 days.) The seventh of the first month is considered to be Person Day: it's every person's birthday on that day. (My father used to add an extra year to his actual age. He would say, "Well, my birthday is in July, but I have to add the seventh of the first month as well.")

There are other small ceremonies and observances that I am sure I missed. I had to ask my relatives about many of them. But even they do not fully understand the meanings and ramifications of all of the things they do; they just do what they had always done from year to year and from generation to generaiton.

Later that night, I had dinner with my father's friend's family. They are middle-class — versus my uncle who is of the working class. They had slightly different traditions than my uncle. Worship of ancestors was roughly the same. But they had different dishes for dinner to signify for things I am unaware of.

They put little red envelopes of money on top of mandarin oranges. It's an homonym: "over mandarin oranges," "picking (as in picking fruits) good fortune. They also had a giant cherry blossom plant hung with litle ornamental red lanterns and decorative red bows — almost like a Christmas tree.

After dinner, I was drafted by my father's friend to setup the New Year display window at his store. We hung red posters with gold letterings and a likeness of the god of wealth.

I had dinner on the next day with my second-cousins. Four generations of their family gathered for dinner. There were easily forty people. This is already the more casual dinner. In previous years, I was told, they had a few hundred people for the family get-togethers.

They are an old family in Macau and had the most traditions. I was not present for most of them and I was told that they don't observed many of them now. The only thing I was told to do was to fill the tea cup of anybody who gave me a red envelope. And I was busy. I had never received so many red envelopes in my life. My pocket bulged an extra two inches. There was lots of drinking and eating.

Macau is a very happy place to spend Chinese New Year. Firecrackers are legal! In fact, highly encouraged. Every store owner burn at least two packs to welcolme the new year. My father's friend burned a massive pack, the size of a machine gun cartridge in front of the store. Passer-bys were warnd, "Siu pow jaern!)

I went to the night market with my little cousin. The night marekt is traditionally a place for merriment during the New Year. Balloons, flowers, and pinwheels were sold everywhere. They had even shut off the massive fountain in front of the former Portugese colonial legislative building and placed over it a giant ornamental display of a golden rat.

As we headed back home, all along the Macau street, all thru the night, the rat-ta-tet-tet of firecrackers burst randomly like exhuberant celebratory twenty-one gun salutes. People are bustling and pushing and hawking and eating and laughing and drinking and making their way in no hurry to the new year.


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