Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gung Hee Fat Choy - Part I: Nights in Chinatown

Being Chinese, Chinese New Year is a really big holiday for my family.   It's actually on par with Christmas in scope and importance.   Just as the Christmas season really kicks into gear after Thanksgiving, with a solid month of music, sales and parties prior to Christmas Day, Chinese New Year starts getting underway shortly after regular New Year's Day.  The Chinese community in Hawaii swells with pride, sharing its food and culture with all of our neighbors.
Rows of Narcissus Bulbs in the Sun
The first thing that many Chinese families do after Christmas is head to Chinatown to buy narcissus (or sui seen fa) bulbs.  While in the Western world, the narcissus is synonymous with vanity as derived from Greek mythology, in Chinese mythlology the narcissus flower (which resembles a little cup of gold) was said to bring wealth and prosperity to those who found it.  So it is heavily cultivated at Chinese New Year's time, for its delicate, sweet fragrance, beauty, and as a symbol of wealth for the coming year.   Narcissus bulbs (which are similar to onions) can even be carved to grow into elaborate and intricate shapes, something which has evolved into a classic Chinese art form.   It takes roughly a month to grow from bulb to blossom, and seeing the rows of little sprouting bulbs in water filled bowls bathing in the sunlight on my Po Po's steps always used to put me into the mood for Chinese New Years (the same way that Christmas music starts putting you in the Christmas spirit).  If the narcissus flowers would bloom on Chinese New Year's day, it would be extra lucky, and a sure sign of coming wealth in the new year.
My Baby Boy's First Whiff of Narcissus
The positive connotation of the narcissus flower (which is completely opposite of the Western connotation) also lends its name to the biggest Chinese celebration in Hawaii, the Narcissus Festival.   It was originally conceived following World War II as a way to re-invigorate the economy the post-war economy by showcasing and celebrating the Chinese culture.  The selection of the new Narcissus Queen, always seems like the big kickoff to the Chinese New Year celebration in Hawaii.  While other big Chinese communities around the world may have a Miss Chinatown pageant (as do we), the Narcissus pageant is very different from any other beauty pageant.  All of the contestants in the pageant receive very rigorous training, with over a dozen different classes in different aspects of Chinese culture and history.  Not only does the queen and court represent the Chinese community in many official functions around town throughout the year, but she also spends 3 weeks in China, meeting with governors and other heads of state as a cultural ambassador.   Feminists may scorn the beauty pageants on the mainland, which they think objectifies women, but the Narcissus contestants are always very highly educated, dynamic, strong willed women who are interested in reconnecting with their Chinese heritage and representing the Chinese community in Hawaii.   It is the very feminist ideal, and no wonder that many of these women become leaders in their respective fields and the community.

The festivities begin with the pageant itself, where you won't find them dressed in swimsuits, but a classy and elegant Chinese cheong sams (which can cost around $1,000 a piece when adorned with Austrian crystals).  Then in a week or two, the Coronation Ball, the most formal event of the year (the only time of the year we'd wear tuxedos instead of aloha shirts), where the newly crowned queen dances her first dance with the Governor of Hawaii or the Mayor of Honolulu.   Then in the next couple of weeks, the queen and court  appear all over Chinatown as the streets are all coned off and turned into a huge party.

I love going to Chinatown on the weekend nights leading up to Chinese New Year.  Sure, it's nearly impossible to find parking anywhere near Chinatown, and sure it's literally wall to wall people (something akin to Time's Square in New York on New Year's Eve), but being there always makes me feel like part of something bigger, like I'm connected to all of these people celebrating their heritage.   It always reminds me of those old movies, where the hero gets chased into Chinatown, and it just happens to be Chinese New Year, so the hero can slip away into the sea of people or hide under the dragon dancers, and is able to escape the villan (or vice versa).   With the amount of people in Chinatown on these nights, it's actually quite believable for Hollywood. 
My Son Feeding the Lions
Of course, visiting Chinatown at New Year's means lion dances.   It's nearly impossible to turn a corner without running into a lion dance.  They're more plentiful than Starbucks.   Every shop owner needs to have a lion dance come to bring good luck and prosperity for the new year.   As a Cantonese person, I'm naturally far more partial to the colorful, kinda scary looking, Southern lions, rather than the Northern lions which look like big shaggy yellow dogs balancing on balls (although I do love that segment in Big Bird in China, where Barkley gets to prance around with 2 Northern lions).   I also like the far more acrobatic and difficult lion dance to the long spectacle of the dragon dance (although dragons dances are becoming more common here than they were when I was a kid).  In addition to bringing prosperity to a shop keeper, luck and prosperity for the coming year may be bestowed upon an individual if he feeds the lion (usually a dollar).  So finding and feeding the lions is a must every year.
Tong Goh on Display at Sing Cheong Yuan
My favorite part about Chinese New Year though, is of course the many foods that are associated with New Years.  As you wander through Chinatown in the weekends leading up to New Years, there are certain foods that are simply must haves, both in terms of tradition and good fortune.   Missing them would be like Thanksgiving without turkey or Christmas without egg nog.  The first big stop just has to be Sing Cheong Yuan for some tong goh (or dried candied fruits).   At Moon Festival time, Sing Cheong Yuan is the king of mooncakes, but at Chinese New Years, their display cases are filled with every type of tong goh imagineable.   While in Hawaii, rock salt plums and cherries are everyday snacks, the slightly sugared, dried fruits in tong goh are usually only eaten at New Years.  Our tong goh is also different from the ones found in other Chinese communities, as it showcases many of our local tropical fruits.   In any given box, you'll find, pineapple, coconut, mango, and papaya, along with carrot, lotus seed, lotus root (hasu), kumquat, apple, pear, ginger, and many others.  Each fruit symbolizes something different for the new year, including, wealth and prosperity, good health and longevity, good luck, fertility, familiy unity, and overall happiness.   My favorite has always been the pineapple, as it's deliciously sweet (lacking the tartness of fresh pineapple), it symbolizes wealth (resembling a giant golden Chinese coin with the whole in the middle), and it's the favorite of Professor Horace Slughorn (Harry Potter's last potions master).
Assorted Tong Goh from Sing Cheong Yuan
As you wander up Maunakea Street, and into the Chinese Cultural Plaza, perhaps the most popular snack item that everyone's crazy for at New Year's time, is jin dui.  Similar to Japanese an dango, it's basically mochi, filled with black sugar, deep fried and rolled in sesame seeds.   I always love watching the various Chinese clubs and civic organizations gather all their members to roll, fry, and sell jin dui for fundraising.  They use the biggest woks I've ever seen in my life to fry up huge batches of jin dui, which sell out in no time to the massive crowd.  Just like buying malasadas at Punahou Carnival, everyone wants jin dui at Chinese New Year, because you can never get it nearly as fresh and hot any other time of the year.  Coming straight from the wok right before your eyes, the jin dui is crispy, chewy, sweet, and mouthwatering.  Of course, you absolutely must eat it there, because not only is the noisy crowded streets of Chinatown the essential atmosphere for consuming these yummy morsels, but they will become soggy and cold in half an hour.  So having them fresh and hot is absolutely essential to enjoying them.   Like many great foods, its the contrast in textures that makes jin dui so appealing.   Normally mochi is so soft and sticky, but when you deep fry it the outside is wonderfully crispy and contrasts the gooey inside.  It's no wonder that everyone has to have one right out of the giant wok.
Big Box of Jin Dui
While jin dui is the dominant street food however, the most important food of all at New Year's is another form of mochi, gao.   Despite being a Cantonese dish, for some reason everyone in Hawaii knows it by the Mandarin pronounciation of "gao", rather than the true Cantonese pronounciation, "gou" (or rather neen gou, meaning yearly pudding).  This is somewhat ironic, because in Northern China, the form of gao they have is white and salty, rather than brown and sweet, and virtually unrecognizable to us as gao.  But in Hawaii, we're all familiar with the soft, sticky brown sugar mochi we call gao.     Like all the other New Year's dishes, gao is highly symbolic of New Year's wishes.   The stickiness of the gao, is supposed to bind and hold the family together during the new year.   The little sesame seeds on top are meant to represent having many little children.   The single red date, placed like a cherry on top, symbolizes prosperity and happiness.   Even its name, gou is homonymn for the word for "higher", so eating it is supposed to raise yourself up in the coming year.  Having gao is as essential to Chinese New Year, as kagami mochi (the stack of round white mochi topped with an orange) is for the Japanese at regular New Year.
Rows of Gao
Of course no one makes gao the way that my Po Po used to make it.    For one thing, she would make it Hawaiian style, lining the pan with ti leaves (the same way that lau lau is wrapped in ti leaves).   But what made hers the best was the texture.  Many gao you find on the market are just too sticky and gooey.  Some are the opposite, and when it is too firm it has a chalky, stale taste, like sinking your teeth into hard wax.   My Po Po's gao was the perfect texture.  Sticky yet firm enough to hold its shape when cut.  It was sweet, but not overpoweringly so, as Chinese deserts are never as sweet as Western ones.  No other gao I've ever tasted has ever been as good.   Even leftover old gao can be made appetizing once more, by dipping it in egg and frying it as the Hong Kongese do.   Frying piece of old gao makes the center soft again, and the outside gets crispy, not unlike a good jin dui.   It's something you just can't get enough of when done right.
Hawaiian Style Gao with Ti Leaf Lining
Every year, despite the crowds, we just have to make the trek into Chinatown to join the festivity.  You never feel more happy and proud to be Chinese.

1 comment:

  1. OH BOY! Who wouldn't want a narcissus flower if it attracts cute little bitty-boo babies like that one!! =)