Guest Commentary

Jenny Kwan, MP

As Big As Christmas

The Chinese new year makes me nostalgic. My parents were born in the mainland province of Guangdong and moved to Hong Kong. I was born in Kowloon in 1965, the youngest of six children.

We lived in a social housing apartment and my dad was a tailor. He had a tiny shop called Standard Tailor; as a little girl I was frightened of the mannequins with no heads. It was busier than usual over the Chinese New Year because one of our traditions was new clothes to greet the new year. My dad would see a big rush of suit orders and then on new year’s eve, he would close the shop.

Lunar new year celebrations in Hong Kong were very exciting. For Chinese, new year is as big as Christmas. People take time off work. The most important part of the celebration is the gathering of the family. Our house was streaming with people. It’s a ritual you do not break. My mother expected us to be on time, in our best clothes.

My mother believed if the family did not eat together to bring in the new year it would bring bad luck and disunity. Even the foods she prepared symbolized prosperity, health and good luck. Fish represented abundance. Fat choy is a sea weed that looks like black hair that went into soup; it represented prosperity, because everyone always has a bowl. We ate chicken at every celebration because it represented good luck.

I helped my mother roll out the dough for dumplings that appeared only at new year. We put in peanuts, sugar and coconut and coated them in sesame seeds. Everyone had to have a taste of every dish and if there was a lot of food to spare it meant you would never go hungry. My mother sent relatives home with food.

As kids, we told the legend of Nian, a ferocious beast that came to steal children. We lit firecrackers and hung Chinese red paper couplet decorations to ward off  the Nian. That’s how we would bring in the new year with a fresh start.

The Fortune God came to visit us. Usually this was a friend dressed up, something like Santa Claus. This was very exciting because the Fortune God brought red packets containing money. We received a dollar, not too bad for 1975!  As children we hoarded the brightly patterned pockets and compared our collections.

We emigrated to Canada in 1976. We were happy to have a new home, but the new year celebrations were nothing like what we had known in Hong Kong. I missed the wall-to-wall people. I missed the vendors selling the special kinds of flowers. I missed filling my pockets with candies and melon seeds. I missed bumping into old friends for long conversations. In Vancouver, my mother went through all the old rituals of special food and new clothing but we stuck close to home and did our own thing.  Everything was on a much smaller scale because we had left behind all our old friends and relatives.

So much has changed.  Chinese immigration to Canada is higher and you won’t find anybody where I’m from who doesn’t take part in the lunar new year celebration. Schools observe the holiday. The lunar new year parade in Vancouver is forty years old and attended by 40,000 people.  Chinese New Year in Canada has gone mainstream.

Still, I’m nostalgic. Nothing will ever compare to the night markets of Hong Kong where I grew up.

(Editor’s note: the author is New Democrat MP for Vancouver East)

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