Celebrating Chinese New Year

Curator’s note: The following post is the latest from our Sweet & Sour series. Be on the lookout for the opening of our Sweet & Sour showcase at the museum this spring. We continue to receive positive inquiries about the collecting initiative and we are still actively seeking objects from or closely related to Chinese restaurants. Learn more.

Happy New Year! No, I’m not a month late. It’s Chinese New Year—also known as the Spring Festival—which is celebrated with pomp and circumstance by billions of people all over the world. The Chinese love to celebrate, and what better time of year to throw huge parties and over-consume delicious food?

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Left: Dumplings. Right: Steamed fish. Photos by Flickr user Robyn Lee.

In my family—as in many other Chinese American families—Chinese New Year is comparable to Christmas, only instead of a decorated tree and tinsel, we have firecrackers and red paper decorations with wishes for prosperity and good luck written on them. Instead of turkey and stuffing, we eat fish, noodles and dumplings. Presents? Only cash in traditional red envelopes (hóng bāo). But before the festivities, we’re subjected to the ever-daunting task of cleaning the house, from top to bottom and back up again. For a week, everyone in my house dusts furniture and scrubs the floors and walls (yes, the walls). It is tradition but, more importantly, it brings good luck.

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Left: hóng bāo. Right: First day of Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year is a fifteen day celebration, each day with its own traditions; it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so pacing yourself is required. No one can afford to take off work all fifteen days in a row, especially not my father, who owns a Chinese restaurant. Instead, we throw a huge party at someone’s house on the Sunday closest to the first day of Chinese New Year, and invite our extended family. Everybody brings food and we have everything from the traditional fish, noodles, and dumplings to the more American cheesecake and chicken Caesar salad. In keeping with Chinese tradition, individual family units exchange mandarin oranges and older, married folks hand out embossed red envelopes to children and single family members. Both these symbolize wishes for prosperity and good luck. Everybody eats and talks over one another, wishing each other a happy and prosperous new year.

Hand-pulled noodles. Photo by Flickr user Robyn Lee.

Why fish? Why noodles? The Chinese word for “fish” is a homophone for the word for “prosperity.” Noodles—the longer the better—symbolize a long life.

Jean Dao is an intern for the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American HIstory and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.