Taste of Freedom: Chinese New Year - #106

BURT WOLF: Most of our holidays and celebrations were developed to mark the cycles of nature and they have taken place in traditional forms for centuries.

They bind the past to the present and predict the future. They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.

But when these ceremonies arrived in America, they started to change. No longer controlled by convention these ancient celebrations began to evolve. They had gotten their first Taste of Freedom and they would never be the same.


BURT WOLF: Almost every major celebration has its origin in something that is happening in nature either on earth or in the heavens. In China, the most important celebration of the year is the one that takes place on the first day of the first lunar month—it’s Chinese New Year, and it usually starts at about the same time as the western month of February.

Central to the Chinese New Year celebration is the Dragon Dance. The dragon is the mythic symbol of water. It controls the rain from the sky and the flow of water on Earth. The sun runs in front of the dragon. Sun and water together, the two elements that are essential for the rebirth of agriculture in the spring, which is what Chinese New Year celebrates.

The Chinese were among the earliest immigrant groups to arrive in America. Between 1850 and 1900 over half a million Chinese came to the United States looking for work.

During the first half of the 1800s, China was in total chaos. There was no central government capable of keeping order. Local warlords rampaged through the country making any kind of normal life impossible. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Chinese men left China in search of a better life. The great majority came from the southern part of China, in and around the city of Canton.

For many, the promised land was California. Gold had been discovered and the rush of 1849 was on. The Chinese arrived, staked their claims and dug side by side with men who had come to California from all over the world.

As the gold rush came to an end, America rushed to build a cross-country railroad. And the Chinese rushed in to work on the construction gangs. The most difficult part of the track, between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Rocky Mountains was put in place by Chinese laborers. In fact, 80 percent of the labor for the most difficult stretch of the Transcontinental Railroad was Chinese.

But the Chinese rarely got credit for their work. This is a painting commemorating the moment when the rails coming from the east were joined to the rails coming from the west. It took place in 1869 in Utah. The painting, however, has very little to do with reality. Most of the guys in the painting were not there the day the rails were joined. And the Chinese laborers who were there and did most of the work were not put in the painting.

This is a photograph of the actual event and you can see that many of the workers were Chinese. When the railroad work was completed, thousands of Chinese who were near the west coast went into farming, particularly California grape farming. Many of our finest vineyards were originally planted and cultivated by Chinese immigrants. But Chinese immigrants were faced with even greater hostility than most other immigrant groups.

PETER KWONG ON CAMERA: Americans have always been wary about new immigrants.  Worrying about they ..taking their jobs away. But the racial hostility against Chinese was so intense that a law was passed in 1882 to actually exclude Chinese from immigration. And also, not allowing them to become naturalized.  And this act passed in 1882 was the first and the only act to single out the people national to be excluded and was not repealed until almost 60 years later in 1943. 

The reason Americans object to the Chinese had to do with the fact that Chinese were the first color group, other than blacks and Native Americans, came to America in large number.  And so, for the blacks, we put them in the plantation.  For the Native Americans, we put them on the reservations.  But then you have all these Chinese coming in as free labor.  So the only way to get rid of them was in fact passing a law to exclude them from coming in. And at the same time too, making sure they are not allowed to bring their wives here. 

Eventually, they would either leave because the hostile environment or they'd just die out as bachelors. In the earlier parts of Chinese presence in the United States, because of exclusion and segregation Chinese pretty much live, work and socialize among themselves.  And so, they were able to maintain a lot of their cultural traditions. 

BURT WOLF: And the traditions surrounding New Year’s are some of the oldest and most important in Chinese culture.


BURT WOLF: Traditionally, preparations for the Chinese New Year involve the Chinese equivalent of spring cleaning. Everything in the house gets scrubbed, sponged, polished or swept. All that cleaning not only gets rid of the grease and grime of daily life but because of an ancient, powerful and secret ingredient it also removes any evil spirits that have taken up residence in the house during the past year.

Lucky messages are attached to the front of the outside door of the home. They welcome the spirits of good fortune and invite them in for a drink.

A table is covered with offerings for the gods. The three main meats of Chinese cuisine—pork, chicken and fish are present. Oranges, which are a symbol of good luck, are always included, along with rice cakes and spirit money. Candles are placed in a shrine. Incense is burned and family prayers are offered.

When the incense has burned down about halfway, the gods are considered to have had their meal. Nice thing about these gods, they don’t actually eat or drink what is being offered to them. They just take a good whiff and inhale the essence of the food. At which point, the food once again belongs to the family. The gods expect the food to be taken home, cooked, and eaten by the family that offered it. It’s a win-win situation.

Next comes the burning of the spirit money. The Chinese, like many ancient cultures, believe that what you need and enjoy in this world you will need and enjoy in the next. And the way to send things from one world to the other is to reproduce them on special paper, and then burn the paper. The physical aspect of the thing disappears in the heat of the fire. The essence of the object goes into the smoke and the smoke goes up into the other world, where it is received by the spirit to whom it was sent. To send something to the other world that was made of stone or metal would be difficult, wasteful and expensive. Paper, however, is the perfect medium. In Chinese communities around the world, there are furnaces devoted to transferring stuff in symbolic form from here to there.

An essential ritual of the Chinese New Year is giving gifts of money.  The currency, which in this case is real, goes into a red envelope. The envelope has the magic power to take your bills and turn them into lucky money. The lucky money has the power to increase the recipient’s ability to acquire additional money. In Chinese culture, red is always the color of happiness and good fortune. It’s also a good idea to use some of the lucky money to pay off as many of your debts as possible before the New Year begins.

In China, lucky money is often given to children in order to send them off on the road to prosperity as soon as possible. 

New Year’s is also the time to stock up on paper gods. Paper gods are available in many shops, but you don’t actually buy one. It’s considered impolite to try and “buy” a god. After all, these are not Olympic judges or major accounting firms. What you do is invite the deity to come over to your place for a visit. And you pay the shopkeeper for assisting you with the invitation. You are also allowed to buy candles and incense from the shopkeeper who helped you with the invitation.

The tradition of decorating your home with lucky prints goes back to the 10th century. The most traditional and beautiful examples are printed from wooden blocks that have been carved with intricate designs. The prints vary in size, depending on where they will be in the house, and how much detail is needed to express the essence of the god’s personality. The materials and production are usually inexpensive. When it comes to sacrificial offerings, it’s really the thought that counts.

In almost every Chinese home or restaurant there is a little space that belongs to the kitchen god. It’s usually occupied by a small shrine or a paper print of the kitchen god’s image. The kitchen god comes in two forms: family size and industrial-strength. Family size is used in the home and comes either as a god or a goddess. Industrial strength is used in the work place and only comes as a god.

One of the primary tasks of the kitchen god is to keep an eye on the family and to make note of how they behaved during the year. Just before New Year’s the kitchen god goes back to the other world and reports to the Jade Emperor on what’s been going on in the house. As a general precaution, the kitchen god’s mouth is rubbed with honey in the hope that he will say only sweet things. The Jade Emperor likes to know when you are sleeping and when you are awake, and if you have been bad or good. So be good for heaven’s sake.

The Chinese like to keep the images of their gods close at hand. Some images are carved out of wood and stone; some are molded of clay; some are cast in metal. But the most common images of Chinese deities are those that are made of paper. They are an essential part of Chinese culture and the most popular paper images are the ones that are printed for New Year’s.

Unlike a western New Year’s celebration, which tends to be limited to New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, Chinese New Year festivities go on for over two weeks and on the second day of the New Year everyone honors the god of wealth.

The gods always take a vacation over New Year’s and they always return to earth on the fourth day of the year. They are welcomed back with firecrackers and offerings of spirit money. The welcoming ceremonies often take place at the end of the day, because no one wants to offend a god who might be getting back to town a little late.


BURT WOLF: One place where Chinese traditions in America are still very strong is the kitchen. Michael Tong was born in Mainland China in 1944, went to high school in Hong Kong and then on to the United States where he graduated with a degree in civil engineering. Today he’s the owner of three of the most important Chinese restaurants in New York City, Shun Lee West, Shun Lee Café and Shun Lee Palace.

MICHAEL TONG ON CAMERA: The chef is making boiled dumpling has a filling of chive and meat and roll over a dough, make the shape like a treasury shape of the ancient Chinese dollar. Now the chef is making a different shape of dumpling. This is the we usually call a pan-fried dumpling so the boiled dumpling and the pan-fried dumpling come into different shape. But in Chinese New Year the meaning is the same is for prosperity. In Chinese New Year we serve whole duck, a whole chicken referred as Phoenix. Phoenix in Chinese means wealth and I mean prosperity and this is why we serve duck in the Chinese New Year as a celebration. We are celebrating Chinese New Year, we got to have a duck. Chinese do have greens for New Year’s Eve dinner or New Year’s dinner. Greens means health. Greens means forever young so bok choy is one of our very light vegetables. Here we have the chef cook for you sauté the bok choy with ginger. Fish is one of the most important ingredients for Chinese New Year dinner. Fish means abundance, plentiful so for surplus business I mean saving, fish is the most important that we wish for the coming year. Here we have a steamed fish with ginger, scallion, and Chinese pickle.

BURT WOLF: Like the foods of western New Year, many of the foods of the Chinese New Year have been selected because of their symbolic value. Lotus seeds, peanuts and pomegranates represent a hope for the birth of children during the coming year. The use of fruits with seeds is a common expression of the desire for many offspring. Grapefruits, oranges and tangerines show up because of their association with good luck. And there are lots of candies and sweet foods in the hope that they will produce a year filled with sweetness.

The Chinese word for fish rhymes with the Chinese word for surplus. Accordingly, if you eat part of a fish dish on New Year’s Eve and the rest on New Year’s Day, you may be able to transfer a surplus of good luck from one year to the next.

Chef Tsai at the Taiwanese restaurant in the Grand Formosa Regent in Taipei works on his good luck with a dish of braised fish with soy sauce. Oil is heated to 365 degrees. A whole fish goes in and cooks for five minutes. When the fish is ready, it’s drained away from the oil and set aside.  The wok is rinsed out and two tablespoons of oil go in. A quarter of a cup of fresh ginger that has been cut into strips, plus a quarter of a cup of scallions that have also been cut into strips. A few strips of hot red pepper.  The fish returns to the wok. A quarter of a cup of soy sauce is added.  Then a quarter of a cup of chicken stock. Two minutes of cooking and flipping and as soon as it’s warm and the sauce has thickened, the fish goes onto a serving plate and the sauce goes on top.

There is always an egg dish at New Years because eggs are a symbol for rebirth, which is also why they’re so important at Easter. And round foods are essential because they illustrate completeness. A round omelet is perfect for Chinese New Year.

Three eggs are beaten together in a bowl, along with a half-cup of chopped water chestnuts and a half-cup of sliced scallions.  A little salt is added.  A half-cup of oil is heated in a wok.  The egg mixture goes in and gets cooked on top of the oil. The edges of the eggs are folded in to make a round fluffy omelet. The oil is drained away, the omelet is flipped and it’s ready to serve.

Poultry dishes are also common at New Years because chickens are associated with good luck. Chef Tsai prepares a dish of chicken with chili. 

A wok is heated. A cup of oil goes in.  Then two cups of chicken are stir-fried for one minute.  The chicken’s been cut into bite-sized pieces and marinated for fifteen minutes in egg white, a tablespoon of sugar, a tablespoon of soy sauce, a little salt and pepper, and half a teaspoon of cornstarch.  Then the chicken is drained away from the oil, except for two tablespoons worth, which are added back into the wok. Two dried red peppers are tossed in and stir-fried for a minute.  A little soy sauce goes in, followed by a little Chinese vinegar.  A teaspoon of cornstarch mixed into a little water is added, just to thicken things up.  The chicken returns to the wok.  And finally a half-cup of peanuts are stirred in.

The dumpling is another New Year’s food with important symbolic meaning. On New Year’s Eve, the women of the family gather in the kitchen to make special dumplings. They undertake the task according to a set of ancient rules. Young children are not allowed in the kitchen during the dumpling making because they might say something that could interfere with the development of the good luck which is building up inside the dumpling. Custom demands that if there has been any disharmony between the women in the family, now is the time to work things out. It’s widely believed that New Year’s dumplings will not cook properly if there is any ill will among the members of the family. If anyone says anything unpleasant, the dumplings will be stolen from the pot by an evil spirit. And never count your dumplings while you are still making them. The more you count, the poorer you will be in the coming year. If a dumpling breaks up in the boiling water, the whole year could be filled with unpleasant experiences that will break up your happiness.

Chef Chou demonstrates his technique for improving your New Year’s luck. Dumpling dough, which is similar to the water and flour dough used for pasta is formed into one-inch pieces.  Each piece is floured, pressed into a disc, and rolled out into a flat three-inch round.  The rounds are filled with a mixture of vegetables and pre-cooked pork sausage meat and sealed.  Then they are set into a steamer basket that has been lined with aluminum foil to keep the dumplings from sticking to the basket.  The basket is placed on top of a wok that is filled with boiling water.  The cover goes on and the dumplings are steamed for ten minutes or until the filling is fully cooked.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: For centuries, it has been the custom to place a gold or copper coin inside some of the dumplings. If you got a dumpling with a coin inside, it was a signal that you were going to have a prosperous year. Recently however in order to avoid having people choking on hunks of metal in their food, the coins have been replaced with little pieces of candy. Some of the dumplings also contain sugar-coated lotus seeds. If a married woman of childbearing age receives a dumpling with a lotus seed inside, it is a signal to her that during the next year she is going to have a son. Now I have always suspected that lotus seeds were chauvinistic but this really proves it.

BURT WOLF: These are the traditional dishes you would get at a Chinese family meal at New Years. They should deliver the good fortune with which they are associated especially if they were prepared within view of the kitchen god.


BURT WOLF: The calendar that we use in the western world is based on the earth orbiting the sun. And every time the earth makes a full orbit we call it a year. But for some cultures a year is measured by the time it takes the moon to make twelve orbits around the earth.

The moon-based calendar was developed to meet the needs of farming societies and was used for thousands of years to tell people what had to be done at a particular time in order to have a successful harvest.

Harvest instructions were considered to have come directly from the gods and sent in relation to the position of the moon. To this day, much of Asia’s religious and cultural life is based on what is happening with the moon.

The Chinese lunar calendar is based on a twelve-year cycle with each year being devoted to a specific animal—The Dragon, the Snake, the Pig, the Mouse. Many people believe that the animal of the year in which you were born will influence your life. I happen to be a tiger. 


BURT WOLF: The days of the New Year’s celebration come to an end with the ritual of the Lantern Festival, which has been part of the Chinese New Year for over 2,200 years. The people of ancient China believed that the first full moon of the year sent out a magic light that made it possible for people to see the heavenly spirits as they moved around on earth. Torches were added to the ceremony to make the job easier and eventually the torches became lanterns.

At some point, the Lantern Festival turned into a special event for children. Probably because the date of the first full moon of the year is often the date on which children go back to school after the New Year’s holiday. Parents began to construct elaborate lanterns that their children would take to school. Their teachers would light candles inside the lanterns to symbolize everyone’s hope that the children would turn out to be bright students. As the traditions that are part of a Lantern Festival developed, people began coming together to march through the streets with the lanterns. Fireworks were set off, and riddle guessing contests were introduced.

The traditional food of the Lantern Festival is a round sticky rice cake. It symbolizes both the new moon and the unity and completeness of the family. Some people believe that these cakes contain the power that controls aging, and that you will not gain the year of age that comes with the New Year until you eat this cake.

Of all the festivals involved in the cycle of the lunar year, none is as dramatic or as ancient as the celebration of the Chinese New Year. For Taste of Freedom, I’m Burt Wolf.