Nemo swept through Rhode Island this weekend, causing power outages and plenty of frustration, but that didn’t stop Mayor Allan Fung from celebrating the Chinese New Year with his family a few days before the storm hit.
As Rhode Island’s first Asian-American mayor, Fung said he wasn’t able to celebrate on Sunday, the official kick-off of the 15-day holiday that centers around luck, because he was busy taking care of storm-related issues. Still, he is happy he had time to share a traditional family dinner at my parents’ home in Garden City last week. They feasted on a variety of noodle dishes, as well as pork, chicken, vegetables, rice and more.
While he enjoyed the food, there was one thing he liked even more.
“Just getting together is the best part,” he said, noting that he made time to call his relatives on Sunday to wish them a Happy New Year.
In Warwick, the employees of Han Palace, a Chinese restaurant at 2470 West Shore Road, also honored the Chinese New Year last week.
Keith Lau, a co-owner at Han Palace, arranged for the Rhode Island Kung Fu Club of Pawtucket to visit the restaurant to perform a traditional “Lion Dance” Sunday at 5 p.m.
To the sound of drums, dancers adorned elaborate and colorful lion costumes while mimicking a lion’s movements. Two people each made up one lion, covering their faces with the costumes. They danced throughout the parking lot and into the restaurant, to the delight of patrons.
“It was awesome,” said 10-year-old Tiffany Mai, a fifth grader at St. Kevin. “I like how they were dancing and their techniques.”
Her cousins, 8-year-old Angelina Jian and 7-year-old Caitlynna Jian, students at Garden City Elementary School, likewise enjoyed the entertainment. In preparation for the holiday, they also made candy over the weekend.
But Tiffany said she was excited about another Chinese New Year tradition: lucky money. Aside from giving gifts of fresh fruit and flowers, giving loved ones money in a red envelope is the best way to wish someone good luck. It is impolite to present lucky money in any other colored envelope, and it is standard for parents to give children the crimson-wrapped currency.
Tiffany made at least $300 in lucky money, while Jaime, Lau’s daughter, said she also cashed in.
“I got quite a bit of lucky money,” she said.
Jamie, a 15-year-old sophomore at Toll Gate High School, said she got a kick out of the lion dance, as she knew some of the people who performed.
Jamie explained that New Year’s is known as the “Spring Festival” in China and is the most important holiday. In fact, Hong Kong shuts down its businesses for the day and reopens by the fourth day.
The Chinese honor the holiday by wearing new clothes, conducting a massive spring-cleaning and eating only vegetables to cleanse out all of the “bad spirits” to make way for good ones. By the second day, they feast on meat and visit family, sharing lucky money as well as gifts of fresh fruit and flowers as a symbol of peace and good fortune.
Similar to the Western zodiac, the Chinese zodiac is represented by a dozen signs, each signifying an individual animal. As opposed to Western culture, it operates on a cycle of 12 years instead of 12 months. The sign under which people are born is believed to reveal personality traits and the course of someone’s life.
This year marks the year of the snake, which Jamie said isn’t as interesting as last year’s animal, the dragon. According to Chinese folklore, people born in the year of the snake are intuitive, thoughtful and private. They are considered cunning and manipulative, especially in the work environment, but are also charming and generous.
Fung was born in 1970, the year of the dog, an animal that symbolizes loyalty, compassion, and generosity. Jamie, who was born in 1998, falls under the year of the ox, known for being trustworthy, scholarly and calm. Jamie said she considers herself trustworthy and scholarly, but not calm.
“I’m pretty active,” she said, noting that many of her friends were born under the sign.
Either way, she loves celebrating the holiday for one particular reason: family.
“It’s an old tradition in China and I like it because it gives me a chance to talk to my family from New York and China,” said Jamie, who has been to China twice. “I plan on going again either before college or before I graduate high school.”
Lau, who has been living in the United States for more than 25 years and is an American citizen, said it makes him happy to see his daughter celebrate her heritage.
“I want to keep all these things alive for the next generation so they understand and remember a little bit about their Chinese culture,” he said.
But how do you wish someone a happy new year in Chinese? Just say, “Xin niam kuai le.”