One of my favorite parts of Chinese New Year was when my mother would buy me new clothing. I grew up in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong where it was very working-class and had a lot of government housing. My father would take me out for a Chinese New Year lunch and I'd overeat and vomit all over myself. My mom would get so mad. I just remember eating, eating, and eating. The thing I'd always overeat the most is shredded taro—it's fried into a crispy, flaky snowball and I'd eat so much of it, I'd get sick every year.
My father would take me out for a Chinese New Year lunch and I'd overeat and vomit all over myself. My mom would get so mad.
Chinese New Year was always cold. My mom would get up early to start preparing a few dishes because she was a terrible cook and needed a lot of time to prepare. She always made bai qie ji—just a poached chicken with star anise, ginger, green onions, and salt—and when she'd kill the chicken outside, I'd always peek over the balcony to watch with my sister. When she was in the kitchen chopping up the cooked chicken, I always stood close to her to see how she did it, but she'd give me a drumstick and tell me to go away instead. "Too small, too hot," she'd say about the kitchen. This was 30- or 40 years ago but I still remember how succulent that chicken was. I can't find that taste anywhere; chicken doesn't taste like that anymore. I was too young to pick up on anything in the kitchen, but because I ate so much, it helped with my food knowledge.
It was always a big feast. I'd ask my father if we'd be visiting all our relatives just so I'd get to eat more. My nickname was "The Little Piggy Way" because I was a chubby boy. Of course, I also loved collecting the red pockets and putting the change in my urn—one of those Chinese clay urns that you'd break open when you want to take the money out. My sister and I would see whose was the heaviest. I'd use the money to get pop, candy, these little cookies topped with meringue, and some little cakes for her.
When my kids were young, I'd tell them stories about how grandma would make dumplings that were so hard, they could chip the wall.
I immigrated to Canada in 1980 when I was 20. To this day, I still celebrate Chinese New Year. When my kids were young, I'd tell them stories about how their grandma would make gok jai dumplings that were so hard, they could chip the wall. [My wife] Brenda is from Winnipeg—you can't get more redneck than that. For her, she has to go with the flow with Chinese New Year. When the kids were really young, I'd organize our friends, her friends, our kids and their friends and book a room at a Chinese restaurant where the kids would run around and I'd give them red pockets and little toy dragons. My sons grew up here in Toronto eating Asian food so they aren't afraid to try things like oysters, conpoy, and black moss. I'd never force the Chinese New Year traditions on them like having to believe in this or eat that, but they're still interested in a lot of the symbolism behind certain phrases that we say every year like "lung ma jing sung" or "bou bou go sing."
Two nights ago, I took my friends out for Chinese New Year dinner at Taste of China. We ordered things like king crab, oysters with black moss, and stir-fried chicken. I brought a bottle of Champagne and taught them about what the Year of the Ram means.
At home I'd give my sons red pockets, which are symbols of good luck and prosperity. Every year they'd peek into the envelopes and tell me, "Dad, this is less than last year."