Happy New Year! Gung Hay Fat Choy! In Cantonese “Gung Hay Fat Choy” literally “wishes you great happiness and prosperity.” Although the Year of the Dog officially began last Friday, Chinese usually celebrate for a few weeks. It is the biggest holiday of the year, a time of feasting, family gatherings and fireworks.
Up until the late 1950s, Hanford’s Chinatown held large celebrations. On February 1, 1908, The Hanford Sentinel reported: “With a din that woke sleepers in the surrounding neighborhood, the annual Chinese celebration of New Year broke loose at midnight and the main street of Chinatown was strewn this morning with the debris from the exploded firecrackers that had figured in producing the noise that was calculated to drive out and keep away the evil spirits during the coming year. All was in good cheer among the residents in Chinatown today and many of the prominent men were bestowing gifts of candy, cigars, and firecrackers to their friends.”
By that year both Great-grandfather and Grandfather would have been cooking up celebratory dishes in their noodle house, Mee Jan Low, located upstairs on China Alley. Certain dishes are eaten during Chinese New Year for their symbolic meaning. “Good Luck” food is served during the celebratory weeks to bring luck for the upcoming year. The auspicious symbolism of these particular foods is based on their pronunciations or appearance.
For example, fish is served because the word for fish, “yu,” sounds like the words both for wish and abundance. It is customary to serve a whole fish at the end of the New Year’s Eve meal, symbolizing a wish for abundance in the coming year. The fish is served whole, head and tail attached, denoting a good beginning and ending for the new year.
A noodle dish, known as longevity noodles, is also served. The noodles symbolize a long and happy life, so we do not cut them.
Chinese dumplings are one of the most important dishes of Chinese New Year. Since the shape of a Chinese dumpling is similar to the shape of ancient gold or silver ingots, dumplings symbolize wealth. Traditionally, members of the family get together to make dumplings during the New Year’s Eve.
On February 12, 1958, The Hanford Sentinel dedicated a fifteen-page special issue to the opening of the Imperial Dynasty restaurant. The opening coincided with Chinese New Year (and coincidently it was also the Year of the Dog). One of the columns in that issue, written by Ruth Gomes, highlighted New Year’s customs including food served for New Year’s banquets, including special “new year cakes.”
While the liveliness of Chinese New Year celebrations in our Chinatown has disappeared, and although I never experienced them, I don’t feel they’re really gone. A few of the remaining “elders” can still vividly recall the colorful activities, and I believe the spirits that remain, along with the bones of the beautiful buildings, still share their stories. As I walked down China Alley recently, the final decision about the historic fire station downtown still hummed in my mind. I found myself caught for a moment between near despair about how much has been lost or trembles at the edge of loss, and the wild hope that the bones would stand and be fortified, that revitalization would bring back the color and spirit of days gone by in a way that everyone might perceive them.
Me, I walk with the ghosts, and know that history breathes in and out every day along the Alley. New Year magic brought my scales back to balance heavily on the side of hope, and my breath is steadier and more relaxed as I step into the Year of the Dog with loyalty and hope in my heart.
This week I’m sharing the dumpling recipe we had for our Chinese New Year dinner. This one is for steamed vegetable dumplings. It’s traditional not to eat meat the first day of the New Year.
May the Year of the Dog bring you health and happiness, dear readers, splashed with the colors of hope!