Celebrating the Year of the Dragon
Written by Sherry Lucas
Celebration of Chinese New Year, also known as the Chinese Spring Festival, calls for a family-based gathering at a table laden with delicious, highly symbolic foods … and plenty of them.
Joyful abundance, prosperity, good fortune and a fresh start are among the operating principles, with plenty of holiday socializing mixed in.
Members of the Mississippi Chinese Association recently gathered at Ichiban Buffet in Flowood to introduce newcomers to the important celebration in Chinese culture. From an American perspective, the festive 15-day celebration hits high notes similar to those in key American holidays.
“Most importantly, the family gets together, just like Christmas and Thanksgiving,” said Summer Jian of Madison.
“Even though they’re far away, they have to go home,” said Renee Chen of Brandon.
And, as with Thanksgiving, often Mom’s cooking rules, said Ichiban co-founder Fai Kam Ngai, whose family celebration with his parents and three older sisters and their families was a feast of favorites. “I have my favorites and my sisters have their favorites – my mother tries to make everybody happy,” he said.
This year, the first day of Chinese New Year fell on Monday. But the “family” of Chinese Americans in Mississippi may count a Saturday event in Jackson as its big central celebration. The Chinese Spring Festival Gala – Year of the Dragon, sponsored by the Mississippi Chinese Association is expected to draw 400-500 people Saturday at Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson. A 2-4 p.m. program of cultural performances is open to the general public; admission is $3 each.
Traditional trappings of the Chinese New Year include fireworks and the color red, thought to frighten away the “Nian” beast of ancient legend that, as the story goes, would otherwise ascend from the ocean’s depths to devour livestock and people.
Parents and grandparents gift children with money wrapped in a red envelope – an act believed to suppress or decelerate aging.
“Keep it young forever!” Chen teased.
“When I was at home, I was looking forward to new clothes and money,” said Lei Zhang of Madison, recalling fond childhood memories of the holiday.
Taboos are part of the celebration, too. No sharp, pointy objects, no sweeping (so as not to sweep away good luck or fortune) or breaking things (some hide eggs away just to be safe, but there is a nice saying to cover accidents).
“China is such a vast place, with different regions and different ways,” said Lifei Ji of Madison. “Even people here come from different backgrounds but we can always find something in common.”
Food brings and bonds folks together. At Ichiban, named a Top 100 Local Favorite by Chinese Restaurant News, a parade of plates and bowls spotlighted some key values for the celebration.
Whole fish – in Chinese the word for it, “yu,” sounds the same as the the word for extra and abundance, representing “May you get more than you wish for” in the year ahead. It’s served intact, head and tail on, symbolizing a proper start and finish of the year. This fish was fried tender and bathed in a spicy, sweet sour sauce, accented with chunks of onion and bright bell pepper.
Meat ball – the round shape symbolizes togetherness and completeness. At Ichiban, balls made of ground fish swam in a broth that had a vinegary tang.
Glutinous rice cake – “nian gao” sounds like the word meaning “higher year by year,” conveying wishes for growing children, increasing business, furthering studies, etc.
Dumplings – they’re made in a shape resembling silver ingots, with a wish for increased wealth.
Spring Roll – fried golden (another lucky color), they resemble gold bars, another treasure symbol.
Glutinous rice ball – the sound of “tang yuan” is close to the phrase meaning reuniting. The sticky rice ball enclosed a sweet sesame paste center.
Chicken – symbolizes a new spring and a new beginning. Whole chicken was cooked with mushrooms and celery for a couple hours in a big wok for a tender, authentically Chinese taste.
Green Vegetable – symbolizes longevity. At Ichiban, the brilliant green stood out against a dark sauce base for a tender, savory combination of flavors.
Golden Tofu – Tofu blocks were topped with ground pork, breaded and fried and decorated with slanting ribbons of red and gold sauce.
Salt and Pepper Shrimp – another tasty golden addition to the meal, said to symbolize happiness.
Egg Drop Tomato Soup – brightened by tomato chunks, the comforting soup is a swirl of lucky colors.
Chinese Spring Festival
•What: Chinese Spring Festival Gala – Year of the Dragon
•When: 2-4 p.m. Saturday
•Where: Christ United Methodist Church, 6000 Old Canton Road, Jackson
•Cost: $3 (performance only)
•Contact: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org