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Posted on Sun, Feb 21, 2010 : 6:10 a.m.

Chinese Lunar New Year feasting and family

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

The focal point of Chinese Lunar New Year celebration is gathering the whole extended family together for a big feast on New Year’s Eve.

Just as Thanksgiving has certain special foods that must be eaten like turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes with marshmallows, Chinese Lunar New Year’s Eve also features special food that must be eaten, each dish imbued with meaning and good wishes for the new year. A whole fish is served because the Chinese word for fish sounds like “more than enough” (and one must leave leftovers so there will be “plenty” “left over” in the new year).

A whole chicken is served because the Chinese word for chicken sounds like “family,” so a whole chicken represents family wholeness and togetherness. Dumplings are served because they look like ancient Chinese money and foretell wealth in the new year. The word for Chinese broccoli sounds like “long years vegetable” and ensures long life. The “as you wish” dish features soy bean sprouts which look like ruyi or the ceremonial scepter that can grant wishes. Chinese New Year’s cake or nian gao sounds like both “new year” and “sticky” and represents a wish that the family will stick together in the new year, and the higher the cake rises, the higher the family’s fortunes will rise in the new year.

The only problem is we are always so busy at Chinese or Lunar New Year’s time (imagine celebrating both Thanksgiving and Christmas together without any days off work or school), and our relatives are all so far away that the children and I never quite get around to having a proper dinner on the proper day. We scramble for the moment. Sometimes we spread it out and cook one Chinese New Year’s dish a day for a week (lame). Sometimes we invite friends over to make dumplings (last year we misplaced the flour). Sometimes we are so tired and hungry that we are grateful somebody thought to order pepperoni pizza backstage after yet another big Lunar New Year’s performance (desperate). Sometimes we are treated to dinner after a performance, but it is not the same eating the right foods with the wrong people (strangers). We would rather eat the wrong foods warm and relaxed and surrounded by friends. The main thing is to be together as a family.

This year, during New Year’s Day (Losar) services at Jewel Heart Tibetan Buddhist Temple, 6-year-old Little Brother, restless from the long service, found some other restless boys with whom to play. They had so much fun tearing around the temple, sliding across hardwood floors in their socks, playing Legos, catapulting Webkins through the air, jumping from prayer cushion to prayer cushion like frogs playing hopscotch on lily pads.

After a worrisome quiet, I find the children gathered around a large table in the temple kitchen, perched on high stools, eating sweetly spiced rice and sipping juice with Auntie Dolma and Uncle Ujjen. The kids are all so cute lined up in their bright orange and gold and blue Tibetan silk shirts and dresses. With the chanting in the temple filtering in through speakers into the kitchen, I pull up a stool and have some rice and butter tea with them. I guess all their ages correctly. They tell me what schools they go to. One has a science fair in the afternoon. I relish this moment sitting quietly in the kitchen, chanting in one ear, children’s laughter in the other, a simple bowl of rice and a cup of tea, my children at my side. This feels right. Happy new year.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at