Attending Chinese New Year in Richmond, British Columbia, turned into a rite of passage. My introduction to the multi-day celebration, also known as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, was complete with firecrackers, traditional lion and dragon dances that ward off evil spirits -- and days of consuming “lucky food” to usher in good fortune and to feed the spiritual world, a centuries-old tradition in China.
Unlike the American new year that always falls on January 1, Chinese New Year is marked by the lunar-solar calendar and falls on a different day each year. In 2017, the Year of the Rooster, it was January 29. In 2018, the Year of the Dog lands on February 16.
Like the western zodiac, the Chinese Zodiac has 12 signs, but that’s where the similarities end. The Chinese signs represent only animals and in this order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig (the year of your birth determines your sign). And while western zodiac signs each represent a month of the year, the Chinese zodiac is based on a 12-year cycle. So, the Rooster will relinquish its year in the limelight on February 15, 2018 and will not reappear until 2029.
In America, adults are the usual New Year’s Eve revelers who toast until the last drop of champagne.
But the Chinese holiday (also celebrated by other Asian countries) is a family affair that also remembers beloved ancestors.
The atmosphere in Richmond, located south of Vancouver and minutes from Vancouver International Airport, was extraordinary. Over 60% of the island city’s population of 198,000 is Asian and 50% of that is Chinese. It’s no surprise then that the new year here is the largest celebration of its kind in Canada. And with Richmond’s fame for having the most authentic Chinese cuisine in North America (more than 400 restaurants), well, you might as well be in heaven.
To my surprise, a shopping mall was the main venue. But it wasn’t just any mall.
Named after Aberdeen, a popular Hong Kong destination, Aberdeen Center in Richmond is an impressive three-story “East meets West” indoor shopping haven in the Golden Village. Its curving façade and architecture in a contemporary pattern of blue, green, red, and white translucent glass “tiles” is an eye-catching work of art.
With over 100 stores, Aberdeen Center is all things Asian with a Las Vegas-style musical fountain and overlooking the water show is an 800-seat food court offering international dishes, including favorites from all over Asia. And since 2006 the mall has been home to the Fairchild Group’s Chinese-language television and radio stations.
“Being in Richmond,” a local told me, “…is like being in China without flying there!”
Thousands gathered at Aberdeen Center where festivalgoers claimed their viewing spots hours in advance to see stage performances and the much-anticipated lion and dragon dances. My companions and I were too late for the best “seats,” but I had great fun navigating through the crowds competing for sightings during “Pick the Green” where the red dragon slithered from store to store, floor to floor, and up and down escalators gobbling lettuce dangling from merchants’ doorways (lettuce symbolizes prosperity).
And when it comes to food, the expression, “You are what you eat,” can’t be illustrated better than during Chinese New Year.
Special dishes – because of their shape or the sound of their pronunciation -- are prepared especially for the holiday representing all things good for the coming year
such as long noodles (long life), spring rolls for prosperity (its shape looks like gold bars), dumplings (wealth), fish served whole (for completeness) and eaten towards the end of the meal (its Chinese pronunciation sounds like abundance), lettuce (good fortune), and round sweet sticky rice (for family togetherness), to name just a few.
Alongside families at busy dining spots around Richmond we delved into the glorious flavors of the city – Golden Sichuan (or Szechuan) where cooking with chilis reigns supreme; dim sum at Fisherman’s Terrace where its dumplings are said to be the best in town and its dessert of sesame balls made with green melon and a lovely sweet black sesame center is certainly the most photogenic; and Silkway Halal where we savored dish after dish of fabulous Kosher Sichaun cuisine. All the while I couldn’t help but sense the privilege of partaking in such a vibrant yet intimate time of year.
Days of non-stop activities culminated with a “private” Chinese New Year Eve dinner in the modest dining room of Golden Paramount. With window curtains drawn at the Hong Kong-style restaurant, the ambience contrasted with more opulent banquet dinner venues around the city.
“It’s not a showy place,” said local food writer Lee Man who was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. “In Hong Kong, people like quiet and serene.”
Man pointed out that dishes are delivered one at a time, “Hong Kong-style serving,” he called it, ”…so that guests can enjoy each one individually.”
Indeed, the evening was a delicious affair that was equal parts spiritual reverence, family reunion, and food fest. A cornucopia of glorious dishes graced the table including stir-fried Typhoon Shelter Crab made with garlic, scallions, bean sauce and chilis (the dish originated with the typhoon shelter culture of Hong Kong), and deboned Eight Treasure Duck stuffed with mushrooms, chestnuts, sticky rice, sausage, barley, lotus seeds, salted duck egg yolk, and other savory ingredients.
An unexpected discovery was Wild Sweets confectionery “atelier” not far from the Golden Village. A whimsical life-size rooster made from chocolate sat in the window. Surrounding it were elegant red and gold boxes filled with special edition Year of the Rooster chocolates created by world acclaimed chocolatiers Dominique and Cindy Duby. The couple’s science-based chocolate lab is the only one in Canada where original recipes and sweet creations are made from cocoa beans hand-selected by the Dubys. We sat for the most educational, decadent, and fun chocolate-tasting session I’ve ever experienced that was, in a word, ecstasy.
Chinese New Year also includes gift-giving, but only for children in the form of “lucky money” tucked inside red envelopes -- or pockets.
In China, red is a lucky color symbolizing happiness, beauty, vitality, and good fortune.
And what is Chinese New Year without superstitions to keep everyone on their toes? A clean house before the clock strikes midnight is big. Brooms and dust pans are put away and their use on New Year’s Day is forbidden to avoid sweeping away good fortune. Clean the slate by paying all debts. And setting off firecrackers shoos away the old year and welcomes in the new one. Always have a good attitude on Chinese New Year and always look your personal best.
I will be more than ready for Year of the Dog. Red everywhere, I will clean like crazy, and on Chinese New Year I’ll be all dolled up. But I won’t shampoo my hair. That will wash away good luck.
WHEN YOU GO:
To learn more about Richmond and the 2018 Chinese New Year program of events, see www.visitrichmond.com
Chinese New Year activities include the Flower and Gift Fair, Countdown Night, Pre-Countdown Stage Show, drumming, craft-making, meditation, and personal blessings from the Chinese God of Fortune, and much more.
My accommodation: Marriott Vancouver Airport Hotel, toll-free 877-323-8888; www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/yvrsa-vancouver-airport-marriott-hotel
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