The worst travel decision I ever made was trying to get to Beijing for Lunar New Year. I’d been studying in Shanghai, and my friend and I were desperate to experience the beginning of the Year of the Snake in the epicentre of Chinese culture. So much so that we shelled out for an expensive flight to get there in time.
We thought it would be like New Year’s Eve in Australia – everyone lining the streets as fireworks exploded overhead in the capital of the country that invented them. Given the enormous population of Beijing, we figured it would be one of the world’s premier parties.
It wasn’t. What it was like was a ghost town.
Even in the expat area of Sanlitun – much of which has subsequently been flattened for malls – the cafés and bars were dead. On talking to a few locals, we belatedly discovered that in China, Lunar New Year isn’t about congregating en masse, it’s about the exact opposite. Half of Beijing had left to spend the period with their relatives in the country. We couldn’t have picked a worse time to visit!
We thought it would be like New Year’s Eve in Australia – everyone lining the streets as fireworks exploded overhead in the capital of the country that invented them.
In my defence, it wasn’t my first New Year in the region. I’d previously been in Hong Kong to welcome the year of the pig in 1995, shortly after turning 18. We went down to Victoria Park to watch the fireworks over Victoria Harbour (every second colonial landmark in Hong Kong is named after her), and I still vividly remember all the giant pigs on the sides of skyscrapers. They were made from long strings of lights, back before every second tower had a television on it, and I thought they were utterly amazing.
In Australia’s Chinatowns, Lunar New Year is a time of celebration, too. There are dancing dragons everywhere accompanied by teams of drummers, and it’s even harder to get a seat for yum cha than usual. Plus, if you’re very lucky, you’ll receive red packets with money inside – a brilliant example of the practical nature of Chinese generosity.
I first experienced this part of the tradition on that trip to Hong Kong, when my travelling companion’s extended family, who were based there, generously lavished banknotes on both of us. It’s rude to give coins, a detail which made a significant different to my 18-year-old travel budget.
Nowadays, I’m fortunate to be able to celebrate Lunar New Year the same way it’s marked across the Chinese diaspora: with a family banquet. Some relatives with Chinese heritage put on a New Year’s dinner, and this Friday night, we’ll be continuing the tradition to welcome the Year of the Rooster.
The meal usually features such delights as steamed fish, jellyfish, roasted duck, some steamed greens, and of course, the mandatory longevity noodles (as listed in SBS’s comprehensive noodle guide ), in order that all present enjoy long lives. Of course, the grand finale is New Year cake, which always inspires intense culinary debate. If you’ve never tried it, you should – let’s just say that many people love it, but it isn’t entirely universal.
As we eat, the conversation always touches on everyone present’s Chinese zodiac sign. If the topic doesn’t arise because someone at the table is entering their auspicious year, I usually raise it – I’m a big fan of the Chinese zodiac because it’s one of those rare systems where I’m a winner.
Nowadays, I’m fortunate to be able to celebrate Lunar New Year the same way it’s marked across the Chinese diaspora: with a family banquet.
Having been born in January 1977, I made it into the Year of the Dragon – the most auspicious sign, and the cause of a spike in birthrates in countries that follow the lunar zodiac.
What’s more, I’m not just any old dragon, but a Fire Dragon – an honour I share with no less than 50 Cent and Ryan Reynolds. Apparently it makes me fiery, passionate, and a natural leader – but also reckless, arrogant and a bit of a loner – in fact, perhaps I should stop talking about my Chinese zodiac?
Lunar New Year is a time for partying – at least if you’re in Hong Kong rather than Beijing, although it seems there might be a fireworks display there nowadays. It’s also a great place to go out for a Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Mongolian or Tibetan meal, as it’s a time of particular celebration in those cultures.
But the best way to celebrate the spirit of Lunar New Year is just to catch up with family and friends over a meal of noodles. And who knows; if you’re the right age, you might just get showered in red packets as well.
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