Saturday, February 20, 2010

Gung Hee Fat Choy - Part II: A Day of Harmony

Of all of the major holidays, Chinese New Year is probably the busiest of all for me.   There are so many traditions to observe, and things to prep for that, Christmas shopping seems like a breeze in comparison.  Despite Valentine's Day, President's Day, and Mardi Gras all being on the same 3 day weekend this year, greeting the new year majorly took precedence over all of them.

Of course preparation for Chinese New Year begins way before New Year's itself, and we each have our designated roles.   My wife is a veteran narcissus bulb carver, with her own set of specialized narcissus carving tools.  She's never done anything really fancy, like getting it to grow into the shape of a duck or a teapot, but her flowers always come beautifully curly and bloom evenly and brightly by the new year.  As for myself, as a graduate of Hoo Cho Chinese School in my youth, I'm the family's resident calligrapher.  So a week before New Year's I get started writing a dui leen, or the red paper blessings.  You will find these 4 word couplets (like the words Gung Hee Fat Choy) hanging in a pair or two pairs in just about every Chinese home and business on the island.  They express all the good wishes that a family or business would want to receive for the coming year, such as prosperity and wealth, good health, longevity, posterity and many good children, good luck, and a plethora of other wishes.   The words Gung Hee Fat Choy themselves, such a common greeting in the islands at this time, don't actually mean "Happy New Year" (that's more directly translated as "Sun Neen Fai Lock"), but rather are a wish for prosperity, wealth, and happiness.  It always amused me to think that the Vulcans might've been Chinese, because the Vulcan salute, "Live Long and Prosper", is so easily translatable into one of these couplets ("Cheong Fook Cheong Sau").  While these couplets usually stay up all year long, every new year, fresh ones should be put up and the old ones burned (to give thanks for having recieved the blessings over the last year).   So I usually spend the week leading up to new years, writing like mad for all my family's houses and businesses.
4 Couplets in Chinese Calligraphy (left to right):
May 1 investment yields 10,000 returns
May your house fill with gold and jade
May you be as strong as a dragon and healthy as a horse
May the flowers be beautiful and the moon be round (ie. May all be right with the world)

Other things that must be done before the new year include things like:
  • Getting your haircut (along with cutting your fingernails and shaving).  Barbershops in Hawaii enjoy a small rush before Chinese New Year, as my own stylist noted as she was cutting my hair. 
  • Paying off all debts.   Aside of major things like mortgages, we always try to have all debts paid off by New Years.
  • Cleaning the house.    This one is the biggie.  My wife complains that I turn into an obsessive fanatical cleaning maniac just before new years (although recently she's complained that I'm not that way the rest of the year).  But for me, it is sort of spring cleaning on speed.  Of particular importance is sweeping the floor and cleaning the kitchen.  My desk is usually such a mess the rest of the year I can't find anything, but on New Year's day, it will be spotless.   Not mention scrubbing the bathrooms, vacuuming the floor, dusting all the surfaces, etc.   I've recently discovered how much more difficult this task is with children, who have toys covering every inch of your house, and no where to really put them "away".  When I'm done, I'm completely exhausted, but I feel primed and ready to seize the new year.   There was one year that I spent Chinese New Year working in Guam, and I didn't get a chance to clean the house at all.   That year, I felt completely hapless, like walking into a final exam when you skipped out of every class and didn't bother to crack open the book at all.  Having a clean house is just essential.
On the night before the New Year (ie. Chinese New Year's Eve), we always take a bath with the leaves of the boh look tree, freshly cut from our garden.   The boh look (or pomelo fruit) is usually associated with Mid-Autumn Festival, but it also symbolizes purity, so taking a bath with the leaves of this tree floating in the water is meant to cleanse away the tribulations of the past year.  Besides, it is such a relaxing and surreal feeling to have these slightly fragrant green leaves floating around you.   After the bath, my mom would give us a small li see (those lucky red envelopes), to put at the foot of our beds, along with a tangerine to sleep with.   The tangerine, is also symbolic, because the sound of the word for tangerine "gut", is a homonym which sounds like the word for prosperity.  So a tangerine or orange at the foot of the bed, along with some li see beneath it, is symbolic of a prosperous new year.   The stack looks kind of similar to the kagami mochi and orange stack that the Japanese display at regular New Year's Day.   The only tricky part is being careful not to kick the tangerine from your bed while you sleep (it's much easier to sleep with a tooth beneath your pillow).
My Son Sleeping with Li See and a Tangerine
On Christmas morning, children race out of bed to tear into their presents beneath the tree.  On Chinese New Year morning it's sort of the opposite.  The first thing children do is very formally wish their parents a happy new year, and to have good health and longevity ("Sun Neen Fai Lock.   Sun Tai Ging Hong.").  Children always go first, to give respect to their elders.   Parents will then tell the kids all the good things they hope the kids will accomplish, learn, and experience this year.   Along with those wishes comes another li see (this time with a little more money in it), as a gift for good luck and good fortune.   Li See is actually given from any older married person, to any younger unmarried person.   So when I was in grad school, all the Chinese students teased our older, married, classmate (who was only a few years older), asking for li see at Chinese New Year.  But getting a li see is always about the good fortune being passed on, not about the money, and about the respect for the one giving it.

Chinese New Year's Day has it's own set of rules to follow:
  • Don't wash your hair.   This will wash out all the good luck you've received at the coming of the new year.  Besides, you should've had your hair cut already in your holiday preparations.
  • Don't sweep the ground.  This will also sweep out all of the good fortune you've received.  Besides that, everything should already be spotless with all the cleaning you've been doing this past week.
  • Don't cut anything with a knife.   You don't want to be cutting the relationships between you and your loved ones.
  • In fact, you really shouldn't be cooking or cleaning at all on New Year's Day.  All of that should be finished before New Year's. 
  • You should wear new clothes.  Whenever my mom gives me any clothes for Christmas, I always save one set to wear on Chinese New Year, not so far away.   Preferably you should be wearing red, as that's the color of happiness (just like the green you'd wear on St. Patrick's Day, or the orange and black you wear at Halloween). 
  • Hopefully the narcissus will bloom on New Year's Day, as it will bring in extra prosperity that year.
  • Shopkeepers must make a sale to the first customer in their store.  So this is actually a great time to try barganing with them, because they won't let you walk away.
  • Anything you do that day, you'll be doing for the rest of the year, so you generally want to be doing something fun or something productive.
  • Above all, don't argue with your family that day.   You don't want to strain your family relationships on that day, and you certainly don't want to be arguing with them all year long.   It's kind of like not pouting or Santa won't bring you gifts, but with a lot more dire consequences.  
It's funny, there are so many ways to jeopardize the good fortune you receive on New Year's.  Basically, it's supposed to be just a nice peaceful, harmonious day, where you avoid any kind of conflict.    These are really old Cantonese superstitions, and people from other parts of China may or may not observe them.   In fact, there is variance from family to family, but this is what my own Goong Goong and Po Po observed. 

Other Chinese families may have a big Chinese dinner, but because my mom's family was Buddhist, New Year's Day was always a strictly vegetarian day for us.  This goes along with the spirit of the day being free from conflicts or harm to others.  When I was little, this never bothered me so much, as what I wound up eating was peanut butter over hot rice (something my Po Po used to love).  To this day, I love eating peanut butter and rice, as it reminds me of my childhood and my time with her.   These days, I am famously not fond of vegetarianism, as promoted by granola crunching crowd, but this is an entirely different story.  Besides not wanting to rock my karmac balance, the vegetarian food that we get to eat on New Year's Day, is my mom's awesome jai.
My Mom's Jai
Good jai may be the single most complex dish in the entire Chinese culinary repetoire.  However, I've never found any restaurant that serves the kind of jai that my mom makes.  Restaurant jai is relatively simple in flavors and ingredients.  There is really no way that they could afford to serve homemade style jai, which on average has around 30 different ingredients.   Not only are there many, many ingredients, but many of them are exotic vegetables that you've hardly ever heard of, and probably only ever eat at new year's time.  There are the more common like dong gu (or shiitake mushrooms) which are incredibly plump and meaty, lotus root (or hasu), which is just perfectly crunchy, won bok (napa cabbage), and baby corns.  There are also many more exotic vegetables, like fat choy (which is a seaweed that looks exactly like strands of black hair), mook yee (or wood ear fungus, which looks like a big floppy elephant's ear), and gum jun (or golden lily buds).   There are so many forms of bean curds, each with a totally different texture, like fried tofu or wu jook (the flat wrinkled sheets of bean curd you usually see as a bed below your dim sum).  There are also many other ingredients, with only Chinese names, that I'm really unfamiliar with.   And everything is held together with a base flavor of bat gock (star anise) and different kinds of tofu mui (fermented bean paste), both of which give the dish a really old Chinese flavor.
My Mom's Army Pot of Jai
My mom actually originally learned how to make jai from the famous local author/chef June Tong (who wrote PoPo's Kitchen), who is a good family friend.  But over the years, my mom has naturally modified the recipe, and it has evolved into something uniquely hers.   These days, she cooks an actual army pot worth of jai, to give away to friends and family just before New Year's.   What really amazes me about her jai, is how there are so many different flavors and textures, and yet everything works together so harmoniously.  There are crunchy things, there are soft things, there are jelly like things, there are meaty things, and yet they don't real clash with each other.   That's really difficult to do, with less than a dozen ingredients, much less with 3 times that many. But it all works, and it's all incredibly delicious.  Although, I do like picking through my jai to try to taste each thing individually sometimes.  My favorite is the mook yee (or wood ear), with its big floppy form yet crunchy texture.
My Best Friend's Aunty's Jai
Every Chinese family has their own recipe for jai.   With that many ingredients, every family's jai tastes very different.  My best friend's aunty also always gives me some every year, and I always adore her jai.   She uses different ingredients from my mom.  Many of which are a little more recognizable like snow peas, carrot medallions (which are meant to look like gold coins), 3 or 4 different types of mushrooms, and water chestnuts.   Even the base flavoring is different, which almost reminds me of a peanut buttery taste.   I would tend to go back and forth, year to year, deciding which jai I liked better for that year.  Both are equally complex, and equally delicious.  If there were one big difference, I would say that my mom's has a much older Cantonese flavor, the flavors that remind me of my Po Po and really old style cooking, whereas my best friend's aunty's is a much more modern classic Hong Kong taste.

Many Chinese families, my best friend's included, will often put hou see (or dried oyster) in their jai for flavoring.   This seems always seems appropriate for New Year's, as hou see is another homonym, which sounds like the words for "good news" (something you naturally want in the New Year).   Of course, this however makes the jai, no longer vegetarian.  True monks would never eat oysters (or any meat), in their jai.  If you want to taste the truest jai, then you really need to go to a Buddhist temple and try what the monks themselves eat.   Not many people know about it, but Hsu Yun Temple, tucked away in Nuuanu, always serves jai to anyone that visits the temple for free on Chinese New Year's.  It's on a first come first serve basis and they usually run out way before noon.  But their jai is absolutely fantastic, as you would expect it to be since this the kind of food the monks actually eat, and they have naturally perfected their vegetarianism over thousands of years.  Aside of that, Hsu Yun Temple is one of the biggest, most beautiful, most secluded temples in Hawaii, rivaling Byodo-Inn, and it is where my mom's parents (my Po Po and Goong Goong) have their name placards.   So my family visits the temple every New Year to visit them, and to try the monks' awesome jai.

I have spoken to many friends from mainland China, who are really surprised that we adhere to all of these traditions for Chinese New Year.   In China's modern society, they often don't even practice many of these things anymore.  However, living in Hawaii, our Chinese community has always tried to preserve and keep the traditions alive, sometimes much moreso than the Chinese in China.  For me, it makes Chinese New Year one of the most special days of the year.

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