As a kid, I didn’t know anyone celebrating Chinese New Year besides my own relatives. There weren’t too many Asians at my primary school or living in my neighbourhood. I grew up in Brisbane in a very white area during the 80s and 90s. Lunar New Year definitely wasn’t the council endorsed event it is today. That being said, the lack of Asians around our family didn’t stop Mum and Dad hosting their own traditional Chinese New Year’s celebrations year after year.
My mum is white, she hails from Toowoomba in Queensland and my dad was born in Malaysia. They met in Penang then moved to Brisbane in 1975. And just as Christmas is a really important celebration for my Catholic mum, Chinese New Year is important to my dad so they wanted to keep the Chinese New Year tradition alive in Australia.
Over the Lunar New Year period, my parents would invite their friends over for a traditional steamboat. This included friends from the Catholic church I grew up in, close friends they had met in Malaysia, as well as neighbours and colleagues. The only thing is - everyone there was white, which is probably not the typical cast of a Chinese New Year celebration, but for me it was totally normal.
Getting people to the parties was no trouble – Dad’s cooking is famous – every year he had a satay stall at my school fete which was sold out by noon. He would even get kids to eat satay tripe by telling them it was calamari. They always came back for seconds.
I remember Lunar New Year celebrations being loud, fun and stinking hot. People would turn up excited, doing their best to pronounce the new year's greeting – kung hei fat choi – which was always inflected at the end as if to say “am I saying this correctly?”. Armed with a mispronounced greeting and coolers filled with icy cold beers and wine, Mum and Dad’s friends were ready to take on a hot soupy meal, and more chilli than they were used to, during the height of Brisbane summer.
We would set up trestle tables in our back garage of our typical Queenslander home to form one massive long table surrounded by the mango tree, Dad’s curry leaf tree and about a thousand uninvited mosquitos. We did our best to get rid of the spiders in the garage pre celebration. We would hang up lanterns and dress the table with all the essentials like wire ladles, chopsticks, Chinese bowls and plates, tea sets, all of which were shipped to Brisbane when Mum and Dad moved from Penang. The steamboats were brass and powered by charcoal – to this day Dad still uses the same brass charcoal steamboat.
A steamboat is a Chinese cooking tradition using a broth base and a lot of thinly sliced meats, seafood and vegetables. Our whole family would spend the days leading up to the party rolling pork balls, fish balls (yes, homemade!) slicing pork, beef, chicken and squid, peeling green prawns, cutting vegetables, preparing noodles and lots of condiments. Good condiments are key.
When Mum and Dad first moved to Brisbane in the 70s, sourcing ingredients wasn’t so easy. They would have to buy squid from the bait and tackle shop and order green prawns two weeks in advance. Preparing for a steamboat is a mammoth task. Luckily there were always lots of tiny hands to help and an inside fridge, outside fridge and a chest freezer to accommodate mountains of food.
The Hoo Family steamboats were quite renowned, or at least I thought they were. They were also a little educational. Mum and Dad would guide everyone on how to operate the steamboat – you can’t just dump everything in at once and hope for the best. You have to take into account the cooking time for each ingredient: the prawns and veges would be the quickest so go in at the end, chicken, beef, pork balls and fish balls would take the longest. When they float to the top of the broth, that’s when they’re done.
You would do this round after round – or until the food is finished – we didn’t make our own fish balls for there to be leftovers. And then finally on the last round, when everyone is incredibly full, you add long noodles for a long life.
It didn’t always go to plan. One year, one of Mum’s brothers took over lighting the fire starters and nearly set fire to the back porch. The celebrations continued despite there being ash in the soup. I also remember one year a swarm of mosquitos taking a liking to my dad’s chilli sauce. All the sauce dishes were dotted with thirsty black mosquitos.
My parents would often have more than one party – one for friends and one for the few family members nearby. Lunar New Year lasts for about 15 days so there’s plenty of time to celebrate. But Mum (AKA Mrs Hoo) didn’t stop there. She was a teacher and for years she would hold a Chinese New Year unit in Term one at her primary school. She would teach the Chinese zodiac signs, get kids to do their own lion dance through the school and encourage her students to ask their parents to take a trip into Brisbane’s Chinatown to celebrate the new year with a real lion dance and a meal with their family.
I can imagine kids going home saying “Mrs Hoo told us we should be eating in Chinatown for Chinese New Year.” Mum recently found out one of her former students still does this every year with his family some 20 years later. You could say she has done more for Australian-Chinese relations than former senator Sam Dastyari.
For me, Chinese New Year is a good excuse to get together with friends and wish them well for the year. I do try to go home to Brisbane to celebrate with Mum and Dad and their friends, but sometimes it’s not possible. But, I like to keep the tradition alive by celebrating with my own friends. Just like Mum and Dad. And just like Mum encouraged her students, I encourage you to take a trip to Chinatown or check out what’s happening in your area and see in the coming year with some friends. There’s so much happening Australia-wide for this Year of The Rat.
Check out the new SBS Chinese site for LNY themed-content #LNY21
Lizzy Hoo is a Sydney-based stand-up comedian, writer and actor. She hails from Brisbane and is made from local and imported ingredients.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Voices supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_
SBS中文 brings news, lifestyle and community stories to Mandarin and Cantonese speakers in Australia. Available in Traditional and Simplified script. Read, watch or listen to Australian journalism in Chinese at sbs.com.au/chinese