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Beyond Chinese: It’s Lunar New Year

By Joan Namkoong

Welcoming the new year is one of those “only in Hawaii” experiences—a festive and symbolic time incorporating many customs from many ethnic traditions.

For the Chinese and Vietnamese communities, the Lunar New Year—the first day of the first month of the lunar year—is also observed, sometime between January 19 and February 20.

In Asia, the new year was recognized as the beginning of spring and the beginning of new life. Spring was the season for planting and the ensuing rains would nurture the crops for an abundant fall harvest.

Today, the arrival of spring and the planting of crops is secondary to the reunion of families and the ritual partaking of special foods that are painstakingly prepared to further carry on the traditions of the New Year celebrations of years past. Each ethnic group prepares its special foods that symbolically celebrate the passing of the old year and the optimism of the new year.

The New Year, both calendar and lunar, was, at one time, the day for birthday celebrations. Everyone was a year older on New Year’s Day or on the seventh day of the year according to Chinese tradition.

Kung Hee Fat Choy!

‘A prosperous new year’ is the popular greeting in Hawaii as the Chinese community celebrates the lunar new year with much fanfare and festivity.

Preparations for the New Year begin up to a month before. Honolulu’s Chinatown is abuzz with activity: shopkeepers sell special foods for the celebration and weekend street festivals feature favorite Chinese foods and sweets.

The elaborate and colorful Chinese lion symbolizes life, luck and virility. Young members of Chinese societies don the lion’s headdress and dance to the rhythm of drums and gongs, stopping at shops and receiving money from shopkeepers.

Food is especially important for Chinese New Year. Of particular importance is nien-gao or gao, a steamed, cylindrical-shaped sticky pudding made of sweet rice flour and brown sugar, usually wrapped in a ti leaf. Nien-gao means year cake and is also a homonym for the words year high. To the Chinese it has great meaning: hoping that the coming year will be filled with the realization of high hopes and aspirations.
Many families make their own gao according to treasured family recipes. On the second day of the New Year, families open the cake and cut it into pieces, sharing it with relatives and friends.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

The Vietnamese community in Hawaii celebrates Tet with much festivity and activity, drawing upon the customs of their homeland. It is the most important holiday for Vietnamese, a combination of Christmas and New Year celebrations rolled into one.

Banh chung or banh tet is the typical Tet food, a glutinous rice cake filled with meat and beans, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed for several hours.
Tet is a time for family reunion, gift exchanging, feasting and merrymaking. Giao thua, the transition moment or midnight on New Year’s Eve, is a time for fireworks and temple visits. Prayers are offered to ancestral spirits and everyone looks forward to the new year with optimism.

Red is the favorite color for this holiday, symbolizing good luck and happiness. Houses are cleaned and decorated with New Year wishes on red paper. Children pay their respects to their elders, receiving lisee in return. The pink peach blossom and the yellow apricot blossom are symbolic of the arrival of spring and are used to decorate doorways of houses during Tet.

Sae hae bok manhi baduseyo!

While some (traditional) practices have not continued today, one tradition that has is the eating of duk kuk. Duk is a rice cake similar to Japanese mochi, kuk is the soup in which it is served.
New Year’s Day is a day for feasting and family reunion for Koreans in Hawaii. For some more recent immigrant families, the celebration and visiting might continue up until January 15 when the first full moon of the year is welcomed. According to ancient tradition, it was believed that the first to see the moon would have a lucky year.

Duk is prepared from steamed glutinous rice, pounded to a smooth paste and shaped into logs about an inch in diameter. (For duk kuk) the logs are cut into coin sized pieces and served in chicken or beef broth, topped with shreds of marinated and braised beef, eggs, green onions and crumbled seaweed.

The New Year’s feast might also include kalbi jim (braised short ribs), pin dae duk (a pancake of ground mung beans), and nrum juk (skewered seasoned beef and vegetables fried in an egg batter). Mun doo (a dumpling of pork, tofu and vegetables) is often served by local Korean families with the duk kuk. Kim chi, the spicy pickled cabbage of Korean cuisine, would, of course be served.

Excerpted with permission from “Family Traditions in Hawaii”
For more information, see "
Family Traditions in Hawaii," Bess Press, 1994.

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