Who’s Got Your Goat: Around the World on Chinese New Year

Sydney, Australia – Performers take part in the Chinese New Year Twilight Parade, including more than 2,900 local and international performers alongside 24 floats, on January 29, 2012. (Credit: Lisa Williams/Getty Images)

BRAZIL

by Chico Luz

NOVO HAMBURGO – Throughout the country, there are countless parties. People travel from everywhere to enjoy the celebrations. The music is loud, the fireworks burst in the sky and everybody is happy. This applies to China and Brazil on the first days of February in 2015. After all, both countries celebrate their most traditional events—Chinese New Year and the Carnival. But of course, for Chinese emigrants and their descendants living in South America’s largest country, there’s a way to celebrate in dual style.

As a lone settler in a remote country, Mr. Fu only had the company of his family during CNY celebrations.

For Jiang Fu, or Paulo Fu as he is called in Brazil, this has been the case for the last 32 years. Born in Nanjing, Mr. Fu made the trip to Brazil “as an adventure,” looking for opportunities he felt lacking in his homeland. He found them in Novo Hamburgo, an industrious city close to Porto Alegre, the capital of the southernmost state Rio Grande do Sul. Mr. Fu settled there and opened a restaurant called Oriente (Orient), specializing in—obviously—Chinese cuisine.

As a lone settler in a remote country, Mr. Fu only had the company of his family during CNY celebrations. “As the date usually falls within the same time as Carnival, we just enjoy hanging out together as a family. After all, we have to keep the business running,” said Fu. At 67 he is still heading the kitchen and responsible for the restaurant’s management.

The story is a lot different in Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city, a thrilling place, home of some 35,000 Chinese immigrants. Most of them work at the city’s sprawling commerce area, mainly on 25 de Março Street, selling tech items imported from Asia. Their annual party, however, happens at another neighborhood, famous for its Japanese history.

Novo Hamburgo, Brazil —Décor inside the dining room of Oriente, a family run restaurant serving Chinese cuisine, serves Chinese culture year round. (Credit: Chico Luz)

Novo Hamburgo, Brazil —Décor inside the dining room of Oriente, a family run restaurant serving Chinese cuisine, serves Chinese culture year round. (Credit: Chico Luz)

This year, the Chinese Junior Chamber in Brazil will celebrate its 10th anniversary during the CNY in Sao Paulo. There will be ten days of events, with the main happenings on the weekend of February 21 and 22—so that it doesn’t clash with Carnival, of course. According to the organization, they’re expecting 160,000 people to show up over the holiday to enjoy the Far East cuisine, the dragon show, the lights and the fireworks.

Most of the enthusiasts, of course, are Brazilians. China has only a small presence with immigrants in the country, so the curiosity about everything regarding Chinese culture isn’t still very big in Brazil. The Japanese, with a far larger community, lend their quarters so the neighbors can enjoy some memories from home.

In Novo Hamburgo, Mr. Fu seems unaccustomed with the idea of having a proper CNY. After all, living for so many years as the sole representative—the only one of the 1.3 billion Chinese— in a small city far from home, has left its mark. Right now, his family is in its third generation, his son and daughter, being married to Brazilians, have their own children. A man of few words, Mr. Fu said that he has no intention of checking out the bigger party in Sao Paulo.

“I like what we do here. I really cannot remember how it was back home, but I don’t miss it. My life is OK now,” he said, even having some sad stories in Brazil: one of his grandsons was killed in a car accident, at the age of 23, a few years ago. This has hardened the family, but also brought them together.

And, for any other Chinese in the vicinity who wants to celebrate, maybe there’s no need for another party. After all, the Carnival is on February 17, and CNY falls two days later. So, why not enjoy them together?

UNITED STATES of AMERICA

by Stephen O. Roberts

San Diego, California—From bottom-right, Elvis Wang and his wife Cherry Lin share a moment with friends in front of the camera in their San Diego, California home.

San Diego, California—From bottom-right, Elvis Wang and his wife Cherry Lin share a moment with friends in front of the camera in their San Diego, California home.

SAN DIEGO – As a young man in his twenties, he was starting out in a new land. The city was bright and clean. Looking up at the often crisp blue skies, only the lifted scepters of branching palm trees broke the sea of blue on avenue walks.

For Elvis Wang, a young man from Dongguan’s Qishi Town who grew up in Hong Kong, it was as good a spot as any to be immersed. He arrived to improve his English and study at Grossmont College, but on his mind, networking his family’s LED business was more important.

It was the right city for a cross between cultures in some ways. The city is more conservative and tradition-minded than the stereotypical bohemian California lifestyle, with wild times readily available on a quick cross into Tijuana, a Mexico border-town. For the same reasons, the town can show an unwillingness to budge. “Frozen in time,” some have called it.

Wasting little time after arrival, Wang used the facilities made available to him, and quickly created a life among the city’s Chinese community. “She was helping me to adapt to the new life,” Wang said, telling the story of meeting his soon to be wife in 2010. She was his guide, assigned by the visa agent and he met her on his second day in the U.S. “She was a master student in San Diego. She also was teaching in the language center at USD.”

The two affected each other in ways they are just now looking back to recognize. One, a young woman from Taiwan, shared her understanding of the New World. The other, an “oversea turtle,” maintained connections to the old world and its lunar calendar.

Before Elvis arrived, far from home and senior generations, Cherry and many of her friends had stepped away from some of the more family oriented customs of the holiday. “I think those years were a good memory, but it doesn’t really make somebody feel like you have a home,” Cherry said.

Before Elvis arrived, far from home and senior generations, Cherry and many of her friends had stepped away from some of the more family oriented customs of the holiday.

“If you invite friends or roommates, they will come, but if not, they will all stay home and maybe have a video chatting with family to say, ‘Happy New Year,’” said Cherry Lin, the young lady who captured Elvis’ heart and has now returned with him to the family home spending their first Chinese New Year in China since 2007.

“We never received red envelops from my friends, but when we celebrated the CNY, [Elvis] said we should all give each other red pockets.” The young prosperous Chinese, intermingling with the contacts of the Western world, were separated from family members who back home would remind them of their people’s long history. They needed an older brother and culture trumpeter.

“I’m an older guy compared to them. I have the bigger feeling for CNY, so I will spend more time and more heart on these things,” said Wang. “They didn’t celebrate before they know me because they are still young.”

More than just a night with friends, Elvis believes the customs set up the runway for airlifting the next year’s cargo of luck and fortune. There are tightly guarded instructions welcoming in a new year. Wang reminded his contemporaries to prepare, but he said it only started a week beforehand. In America, school, business and government don’t stop for a new lunar year.

Weeks before the day, conversations in China move to buying new clothes and preparing for the upcoming year. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” his friends agreed happily, rejuvenated by nostalgia and an affinity for shopping. “But for the house decorations, it’s for me,” Elvis said.

Fitting In

0215_cover_04The Spring Festival is a natural disaster of transit, and once the clouds of dust and fogs of sweaty humidity settle, it’s time for fawning parents to recount successes, and lifestyle inquisitions from meddling family members. Whether these narratives sound like fond memories or the things that make nightmares, what brings people together more so than the customs is the family home.

For the past three years building up to 2015, the year of their return to Dongguan, Wang hosted annual festivities at his home in San Diego’s Mira Mesa neighborhood. He would call his friends, he said, to advise that they clean house in preparation of the New Year, but Elvis was the only one to decorate. He was the only one of his friends, all young students living on campus or small apartments, who had a house.

Elvis started weeks before the holiday to prepare the red of traditional Chinese paper cuttings and adorning the doorways with the wisdom of New Year Couplets, ancient epitaphs that act as mantras for prosperity at every entrance and exit.

Each year, on the eve of the lunar year, the young colony of Chinese explorers brought native friends from the college classrooms and local elders that had helped them along the way in settling in, together for an evening mixer of culture, food and beliefs.

“That was a worry as well, because we invited our friends to our house. We had a discussion about that, it was a chicken feet, we were kind of like, ‘ehhh?’” said Cherry. “When our friends arrived—this is the kind of stuff Americans don’t eat usually—‘So if you want to try, just give it a try, but if you don’t, that’s OK.’ Our friends are pretty friendly and open-minded. So they all tried it and they all loved it.”

San Diego is not San Francisco in regards to the size of its Chinese community, but it exists and Chinese markets throughout the country cater to the needs of the Eastern palate. “You can buy everything in the Chinese market, but maybe some desserts, like handmade dessert that you can’t find at the supermarket,” said Cherry.

Other facets of the festivities were touched with American characteristics, and the entire crowd enjoyed the updates. “Some showed up with a bottle of wine, some showed up with US$20 in a red pocket,” she said. There was also a roast turkey a few years ago.

Instead of passing “lucky money” down the hierarchical line from older to younger, the San Diego group followed the rules of the host country’s Christmas tradition. To get to Chinese New Year in the U.S., they had to pass through the major Christmas holiday season, and the red pockets became a gift exchange to make sure everybody received a little something. “We wrote numbers on a piece of paper, so we put into a teacup,” she said. Pick a number, get a gift.

Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa - Thousands of people gathered at the Nan Hua temple to celebrate the Chinese New Year. According to the Chinese Zodiac, the Year of 2011 was the Year of the Golden Rabbit, which began on February 3, 2011 and ended on January 22, 2012. (Credit:  Foto24)

Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa – Thousands of people gathered at the Nan Hua temple to celebrate the Chinese New Year. According to the Chinese Zodiac, the Year of 2011 was the Year of the Golden Rabbit, which began on February 3, 2011 and ended on January 22, 2012. (Credit: Foto24)

Growing Up

Both Elvis and Cherry appreciated the socializing of an American-Chinese New Year. Their youthful American friends shared a vibrant lifestyle as the traditions were amended with dancing and plenty of drinking during dinner. The party started small the first year and grew in subsequent celebrations. “We still think that it’s a CNY party. They enjoyed it, they totally adapted, the style of the celebration.”

The celebrations gave them and their Chinese friends a chance to let the pressure off by talking about their home culture. Explaining the intricacies of the festivities and its place within Chinese culture, however, did not always get the reaction Cherry expected. It was the American penchant to be overly sensitive of emotions, and a lack of experience with outside cultures. There can be a tendency to patronize foreigners.

“Most of them, they won’t express their real feeling or real ideas, or mind,” said Elvis. “I think they are used to respond to people like this way. To me it’s normal day life, but I can hear them saying, ‘Wow! It’s amazing. That’s great! Oh, I can’t believe that.’ But for us I will ask myself, ‘Is it that fun?’”

As the years past the holiday became even more important as their lives developed and they were married at a La Jolla, California restaurant called the Marine Room in April of 2013. It was one of four ceremonies that spanned to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Dongguan.

“After we got married—the 2014 New Year in San Diego—in Chinese culture, when people get married, they need to do the red pockets to the single guys. We are the only couple who just got married inside our friends group,” said Elvis. The new couple did their job, providing lucky money to a houseful of smiling singles.

London, United Kingdom - An oriental souvenir shop in Chinatown in September. Many Chinese restaurants, shops and businesses are located in the Gerrard Street area of London. (Credit: Maisna)

London, United Kingdom – An oriental souvenir shop in Chinatown in September. Many Chinese restaurants, shops and businesses are located in the Gerrard Street area of London. (Credit: Maisna)

The centerpiece of the holiday is a tradition that reinforces handing down of responsibilities from one generation to the next. It’s an annual reminder that once joining society as a functioning adult, it is time to give back to the next generation, and just maybe incentivize the younger generation to watch out for you in your old age.

This festival, celebrating the Year of the Goat, is Elvis and Cherry’s first year back for the Spring Festival, and they are ready to settle into life here. “For sure we will buy a lot of fireworks and have a lot of family gatherings,” said Elvis.

To mark the occasion, family from Hong Kong and the region will congregate at the new headquarters at their Qishi Town home, hosting uncles and aunts and his sister and her kids. “When a girl is married to a man, she needs to come back to her parents’ during the second day of CNY.”

Elvis looks back at his time in San Diego with fondness. “Compared to this party, I would say the party in the U.S. is more fun,” he said. After all, there must be reason behind the stereotype of the loud American. “My family and relatives won’t be like my American friends. They are old minds. In the U.S., we feel more fun, but in China we feel more warm.”

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

by Edward O’Neill

Dubai, UAE—A Zither player performance at the Chinese New Year event at the Burj Al Arab hotel employs one of the country’s many expatriated Chinese.

Dubai, UAE—A Zither player performance at the Chinese New Year event at the Burj Al Arab hotel employs one of the country’s many expatriated Chinese.

DUBAI – It was not until the 1980s that Chinese started to move to Dubai when the government sent ambassadors and diplomats. Thirty years later and Dubai is now home to a Chinese population of over 150,000.

The difficulty in becoming a citizen of Dubai, however, has slowed down Chinese New Year growing as a holiday. It is said that citizenship is only granted by marrying a local or by living in the city for twenty years. Even if either of these were achieved it is still not guaranteed that citizenship will be granted, as they review on a case by case basis.

Citizens of Dubai are extremely well taken care of by the state and as they are outnumbered by immigrants 9 to 1 they are wary to relax citizenship restrictions. Few Chinese settle, instead choosing to stay for just a few years to work. As a result, it is more difficult to establish the traditions of Chinese New Year. Also, employers do not recognize the holiday and Chinese are expected to work through Chinese New Year.

Mengdi Zhou works as a digital marketing manager for Jumeirah and has lived in Dubai for 10 years. When asked where Chinese New Year ranks in the holidays celebrated in Dubai, he compared it to Russian Christmas. There are, however, Chinese New Year traditions and there are signs that the holiday is becoming more widely celebrated.

If you walked around the giant shopping malls of Dubai during Chinese New Year you may not notice you were in the middle of the holiday. Chains and franchises mostly avoid the decorations or fanfare that is usually seen in China. Also, the strict laws of Dubai make it difficult for many Chinese to celebrate the holiday like they are used to.

The buying and selling of alcohol is heavily restricted. Most hotels operate with a license but many restaurants are unable to serve alcohol, which means at Chinese New Year there is sometimes a distinct lack of Baijiu and Tsingtao at some celebrations. Mengdi lists the lack of fireworks as what he misses most of the Chinese New Year in his native Shanghai.

Dubai, UAE—Mengdi Zhou, digital marketing manager at Jumeirah, a resort in Dubai, strikes a pose.

Dubai, UAE—Mengdi Zhou, digital marketing manager at Jumeirah, a resort in Dubai, strikes a pose.

The Burj Al Arab hotel is one of the few places around that has a display and it has become renowned as the place to see fireworks during Chinese New Year.

In fact, Chinese New Year in Dubai appears to be aimed more at the Chinese tourists than the Chinese immigrants. During the holiday many of the most luxurious hotels are filled with Chinese. For example, at the Burj Al Arab around 80 percent of their guests are from China. It is no surprise that the hotels cater for their guests with firework displays and special dining.

Few of those living in Dubai will travel back to China for Chinese New Year. In Mengdi’s experience, usually only the wealthier Chinese will make the trip. For those who stay, just like in China, the holiday is a family affair. Those who are lucky enough to be living with their relatives will stay at home. Those who are less fortunate, still group together with others from their region. Mengdi notes that those from Shanghai will celebrate with others from Shanghai and those from Beijing will celebrate with others from Beijing.

The Chinese restaurants around Dubai, in particular in the International City area, will organize banquets or be rented out.

The holiday receives little mention in local media apart from brief segments on the news. Instead, Chinese will look to find a way to watch CCTV. Before this could sometimes be difficult, but now it is easy to find a stream of their favorite channels during Chinese New Year.

Dubai Ren Momo, a community magazine for Chinese, is the best source for coverage during Chinese New Year.

At DragonMart, a large shopping mall where Chinese can buy all the things they miss from home, there is annual dragon dance performance. The dragon dance may not be as grand as those in China but the performance has become synonymous with Chinese New Year in Dubai.

Mengdi was just a high school student when he came to Dubai. In recent years he has noticed that his colleagues and friends are starting to wish him a happy holiday and also have become curious about its traditions. Although Chinese New Year will probably never be like it is back in Shanghai, he’s hopeful that it will continue to grow as a holiday.