Chinese Australians Reminisce on Scoring Red Pockets and Feasting on New Years
We asked people for their memories of food, family, and being interrogated about their marriage plans.
Amber Akilla styles some red envelopes in Shanghai. Image via instagram
For many Australians, celebrating a new year means alcohol, fireworks, and annoyance at the 4.3 times surge rate on the Uber ride home before falling asleep in a pile of vomit. But for Australia's sizeable Chinese population, there's a very different round of new year celebrations just a few weeks later.
In major cities and Asian community hubs around the country, Lunar New Year is the most important date on the calendar and is celebrated with a lively assortment of family and food. As a child, it meant getting dressed up for fancy dinners, receiving money in shiny red envelopes, and meeting relatives from distant branches of the family tree. And as I've grown older, those same dinners still take place—except now I'm sitting on the adults’ table and getting grilled by my great aunt about why I'm not married yet.
So while my New Year celebrations are a big blur of succulent meats and intense interrogations by relatives, other Chinese-Australians and Asian-Australians have their own traditions, memories, and distinct ways of celebrating. We spoke to five of them about their favourite Lunar New Year stories, and how their perspective on the holiday is changing with the times.
For me Chinese New Year has always been about family. We used to do most of the usual traditions at our grandmother's house. You know: red pockets, greeting the eldest first, etc. I’m half Fijian, and Chinese and Fijian traditions both have a huge emphasis on family, sharing, and generally laughing at each other. Really, the main point of difference was food. We used to eat typical Chinese food platters like barbecued meats, traditional sides, and veggies. But we also included Fijian curries, kokoda (Fijian ceviche), fish and lots and lots of cooked starch, cassava, and taro. My grandma used to bake a mean sponge cake too, which I guess is kind of Aussie?
Due to circumstance our family is largely governed by (now) powerful single women. It’s pretty unique for that generation, so thankfully they allowed me and my two dumb brothers to take a chance and dive into creative industries. Funnily enough, they've never really questioned us or tried to understand what we do (I’m not even sure what I do!) I know a lot of my peers in high school weren’t given a single chance though. My brother and I were two of maybe just three Asian kids to pursue creative fields in high school.
I’ve seen a real shift in how we celebrate over the years. The need to cook our own traditional food has been kind of eliminated because authentic butcheries and restaurants have opened up within walking distance. Also I’ve watched other cultures get married in, so I’m seeing Lebanese and Greek food at family gatherings. Also my grandma’s house—where everyone used to meet—has been sold and everyone’s now growing their own family trees, so it’s harder and harder to catch everyone in one household.
Being half-Chinese/half-Irish hasn't really affected my New Year celebrations much—except that I never learned how to speak fluent Mandarin, so sometimes I don’t know what anyone's saying around the table. That and the fact I look so different to my mum's side of the family. I was a big sexy man from a young age.
One memory that comes back to me was at a fancy Chinese restaurant, eating crab and lobster, and my white stepdad drank out of the bowl that you're supposed to clean your fingers in. Everybody had a good laugh and he looked sad. Another memory is being about five years old and trying chicken feet for the first time. Everyone laughed at me because I squished my face. I hated chicken feet then and I hate them now.
Receiving the red pockets was obviously my favourite Chinese New Year memory. It would always be that time of year where I received the most money at once, every year. And as I grew older, I realised I was getting less money while all the younger kids got more—until now, I'm the guy who has to give out the cash. Actually when I first started giving out red pockets, I gave all the kids scratchies. I guess I thought I’d exercise the Asian gambling gene early for the kids.
I don’t think Chinese New Year has changed much. It still mainly revolves around getting together with the family, handing out or receiving red pockets, and eating lots of expensive food. I guess the only main difference is that the younger generation are more in touch with what we eat, and know that eating shark fin isn’t sustainable, so there's less shark fin getting ordered these days.
Every Chinese New Year we used to go into Chinatown with my mum and sister to watch the lion dancing and then cry when all the firecrackers went off. And of course, getting lots of red pockets from the family!
All that kind of changed when I found out I was a celiac, and the first few New Year celebrations after finding out were pretty rough. The majority of Chinese-Malaysian food and condiments contain gluten so I stopped going to the big family banquets and yum cha, just because I couldn't eat anything. But eventually I got involved again and I still really enjoy Chinese New Year, despite missing out on a lot of food. Every year we put on a big lunch for family and friends at home and cook heaps of food. There's still a bit of "Sorry Jade, you can't eat that, or that, or that. Oops, you can't eat that either." But that’s just life now.
I love Chinese New Year. It’s my favourite holiday and I just want to share it with everyone I know. In the past I couldn't find many parties around Melbourne, so I decided to throw my own at Section 8. Section 8 is in Chinatown so it’s a perfect venue and it was fun to decorate it like my home and hand out fortune cookies and lucky lollies. I'm really grateful to have the opportunity to share my culture with friends and randoms. Asians aren't represented nearly enough in the mainstream, so throwing this party is a fun way to share and celebrate our culture.
Unfortunately, I remember New Year celebrations in Perth just feeling like an obligation. When I was younger we made a real effort to see my grandparents, aunty, uncle, and cousins, but due to family dramas the celebrations got smaller and smaller as I got older. Red pockets were a good enough incentive though. I've started to embrace my Chinese identity more in the last few years, and being able to celebrate Chinese New Year is definitely something I've become more proud of.
I live in Shanghai now. I’ve been here for less than two years, and this year I'm going to my family's hometown in southern China to celebrate with my grandparents and extended family. I think my family has kind of reunited, so I'm excited to light firecrackers with everyone. Big cities like Shanghai have a lot of immigrant workers from smaller cities, so they basically shut down over New Year. People have already started leaving town a week before. For example, we wanted to go to my favourite Korean restaurant the other night, but it was already closed half a week before the official holiday began. Seeing this has given me a new appreciation for the existence of Chinese New Year and how seriously it's taken, because people in China hustle hard and often work away from their families. This is probably the longest break they get to spend together.
Interviews by Christopher Kevin Au. He's also on Instagram