Monday, January 23, is Chinese New Year and the start of the Spring Festival, which goes on for fifteen days. It’s the Year of the Dragon according to the Chinese zodiac of 12 animals, a particularly auspicious year to have a child born in.
China is reportedly anticipating a 5 percent increase in the number of babies born this year. Al Jazeera reports that women from mainland China are seeking to enhance their child’s prospects by giving birth to them across the border in Hong Kong, so the child will have a Hong Kong passport. New regulations and restricted access to public hospitals has made this more difficult and the private sector is attempting to get around the rules, for a price.
Photo by one-11
When I was growing up in the 1970s in the Bay Area in northern California, celebrating Chinese New Year’s meant going to my grandparents’ house in Oakland’s Chinatown from our house in the suburbs. We not only went to celebrate the actual first day of the New Year. We went to my Ngin-Ngin and Yeh Yeh’s house for dinner to close the new year, too. The kitchen and dining rooms would be heaped with containers of food including jai and other dishes symbolizing prosperity; there would be fish, seafood, chicken, pork, vegetables, cellophane rice noodles (fun see), a bowl of white rice that was constantly refilled. For dessert, there were the (American-style) cakes my mother made — I think my grandfather, Yeh Yeh, favored chocolate with white frosting — and also containers of mango sherbet from Merritt’s bakery.
Photo by Bernard Oh
The celebrating was not over after that dinner. Various relatives including my Great Uncle Walt and Great Aunt Mardé held Chinese New Year’s dinners in various Chinese restaurants; each several-course meal ended with a fish as the Chinese word for “fish” sounds the same as the word for “abundance.” Occasionally we went to see the Lion Dance parade in San Francisco’s bigger Chinatown but usually Chinese New Year was something we celebrated with family, and with plenty of food. All of my older relatives were born in southern China to peasant families who had been farmers at best and they were proud to celebrate and share the economic success and stability they had found in the US.
Photo by Ha-Wee
Chinese New Year remains the most important holiday in China itself, with people leaving the cities to head home in an annual mass migration. My grandparents and older relatives always gave us red envelopes, hong baos, with a little money inside but some in China today give presents that cost far more than the shiny quarters my cousins, my sister and I were happy to receive.
Photo by coconut wireless
China’s nouveau riche have become so rich that they now go on elaborate shopping tours in Europe where they spend thousands of euros on luxury goods including jewelry, gold, the latest fashions, shoes and other designer goods. The Frankfurter Allgemeine says that the Chinese account for one-fifth of the global business of luxury goods.
But you can be sure that those who are exchanging such lavish gifts are a distinctly small percentage of China’s population. The wealth gap has grown substantially in China in just the past few years.
In 2000, the average household disposable incomes of rural and of urban families were at 2,253 yuan ($354) and 6,280 yuan ($992), respectively. In 2010, these were at 5,919 yuan and 19,109 yuan, respectively, with the gap increasing by more than 9,000 yuan yearly.
Photo of Chinese Vogue by luminousphenomenon
Photo of Chinese waiting in line to enter a Prada store by Robert S. Donovan
Firecrackers are part of a traditional Chinese New Year because of the folk belief that they scare away demons. But so many fireworks are being set off in Beijing to celebrate that a sharp spike of a dangerous form of air pollution, PM2.5, is expected. Beijing’s municipal government only began this Saturday to publish hourly readings of PM2.5, which are minute particles released by exhaust from cars and factory chimneys that have been linked to lung diseases, heart problems and dementia. There is already controversy about how “transparent” these readings are: The US embassy’s monitoring station in the north-east said that the PM2.5 level on Saturday was “moderate” whereas Beijing’s reading said that the level was what would be considered healthy in the US and Europe.
In 2011, the environmental sanitation department cleaned up 58 tons of used fireworks. While environmentalists have asked people to use fewer rockets, sparklers and firecrackers, it’s still likely that residents of Beijing will want to ring in the Year of the Dragon with plenty of fireworks.
Photo by bfishadow
Photo of waste from fireworks in Beijing by kafka4prez
As for how I, a third-generation Chinese American now living in New Jersey with my (Irish American) husband and son, plan to celebrate the Year of the Dragon: At some point next week we may get some food from a particular Chinese restaurant down the road and, if I have time between teaching and writing about Latin and ancient Greek, I’ll attempt to cook a new year’s dish (only one; I’m not a cooking dynamo as Ngin-Ngin was!).
I suppose this may not sound so very festive. I’ll also note that we closed the old year on an auspicious note (and one far greener and far less noisy than those firecrackers): We drove down to the beach (yes, the Jersey Shore) and my husband and son went on an 18-mile bike ride. Most of the way, they were just a few hundred feet from the ocean. Just as they finished their ride, the sun came out.
Gong hay fat choy!
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Photo taken in Singapore by coolinsights