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Convoluted Memories Over Chinese New Year
By Peter C. Chieh
March 1, 2008


Chinese New Year (CNY) brings me convoluted memories. Celebrations continue.

 

During my childhood, my family used only the lunar calendar, perhaps because it was easier to know the date by looking at the shape of the moon. The elders started the preparation for New Year a month ahead. My grandparents led the family to offer good food to the spirits of ancestors and other gods to send them off for a vacation before they started house cleaning. We decorated all cleaned doorways and walls with new couplets - calligraphy on red paper and then welcomed the ghosts back to their usual places. We sat down for a wholesome new-year dinner. That was a great joy, because we did not have much to eat due to the Japanese invasion of China. My grandparents tried their best to make us happy.

 

At dawn on New Year's Day, my family gathered in front of the tablets of ancestors, and paid respect by kowtowing to them. Then we children kowtowed to our grandparents, parents, uncles, and other elders. They gave us red envelopes called Lei-shi (good luck charm) with money in it. Everyone in the family paid respect to their elders in the hierarchical order. No one, not even the maids, performed any farming or housework that day. It was a day for family fun, games, and indulgence.

 

Relatives, friends and neighbors went door-to-door greeting. People treated each other with Lei-shi Tang (candy in red wraps). "Gong Hei Fat Choy or Gong Hei Gong Hei (wishing you happy)" filled the air. Fat Choy (getting rich) was appealing then as is now. The voice and manner was the real message. When I encounter people from other parts of China, the greetings came in different voices. Mandarin speakers said GongXi same as Gong Hei. Academicians and intellects emphasized happiness and they said GongXi or Xin-Nian-Hao (wishing you a happy new year). Gradually, these became the norm.

 

New-year celebrations in cities changed. Kowtowing went out of fashion and the elders humbly accepted a bow. Group greetings replaced personal greetings. Families brought various etiquettes from their past, and they lit firecrackers to welcome their gods or scare off evil spirits at different times. Just before I came to Canada, firecrackers were banned in the big city.

 

Walking down Vancouver Chinatown in 1967, I saw Chinese Canadians celebrating my first CNY the old fashioned way. They burned incense and lit firecrackers. They reminded me of my folks when I was little. I thought I was walking in a city of my past.

 

I settled in Waterloo in 1969 when trolleys ran along King Street and Westmont Road ended at Glasgow. There were few Chinese families in town. As more and more Chinese, mostly students, moved here, we felt a need to have an association. The Central Ontario Chinese Culture Centre (COCCC) was established to promote Chinese culture and to play a role in the multicultural region. Enthusiastic volunteers have done wonders over many decades and COCCC's CNY celebrations have become a tradition.

 

The Year of the Rat arrives on February 7 in 2008. On January 26, 2008, COCCC hosted its traditional Festival in the Hauser Hous of Waterloo Memorial Recreation Complex between 11 am and 4 pm. Locals enjoyed free admission to cultural demonstrations, exhibits, and performances. Food tasting was offered at cost. Just after CNY, we had a dinner gala. When I met the new and old friends that had attended these events, we chatted about the good times we had.

 

Some members of COCCC are from other countries than China, and they celebrated the Lunar New Year in different ways than mine. People in China are beginning to call the CNY the Spring Festival or Chunjie. Whatever the name is, having a little fun and being happy do no harm.

 

While on my mother's lap, she told me the Chinese legend of Change flying to the moon. The year I came to Waterloo, Armstrong pronounced to the world "one small step for man, one giant step for mankind." Last year, China launched a lunar satellite called Change to map the surface of the moon. The year of the Rat will be interesting to watch. For example, Wushu (Gongfu), the exercise mainly to maintain spiritual balance and physical strength, will be a special competition for the Olympic Games in Beijing. This art will, if it has not already done so, spread over the globe like wildfire. The next new event looking for Olympic appearance may be Dragon Boat race. Electronics have shrunk the globe into a village, and let's hope that multiculturalism will make the village a better place for all villagers.

 

Living in the twin- or tri-cities, I adopted the local practices. I worked on Chinese or Lunar New Year days, and personally greeted colleagues and friends "Happy Chinese New Year!" Off guardedly, I made them happy. These were my fondest memories too.

 

Note:

A slightly different version of this article appeared in The Record on January 25. An electronic copy could be found in TheRecord.com. Later Prof. Chieh slightly modified the article and translated it in Chinese for the website www.ChinaUSFriendship.com. He kindly agreed to have it published in Polyviews.

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Peter C. Chieh is Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo and President, Central Ontario Chinese Culture Centre. He was born in Guangdong, China. He went to Taiwan as a child soldier, and was adopted by the late General Sun Li-jen, who gave him a chance to attend school. Following his chemistry degree from Taida (National Taiwan University), he studied nuclear science in the graduate school of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. He then studied in the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and went to University of Waterloo as a post doctoral fellow. A year later, he became assistant professor and went through all professorial ranks during his 34 years of teaching and research. He retired in 2004.
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