Sunday marks the beginning of Chinese New Year
Roast suckling pig is carved in front of guests during Chinese celebrations.
The year of the pig starts Sunday, when the Chinese New Year officially begins, and Raymond Leung, vice-president of Canadian operations for Manchu Wok, has fond memories of the holiday, which begins the day before, with a thorough housecleaning by every family, after which all brooms and dusters are put back in the closet.
“You don’t sweep the floor on the first two days of Chinese New Year,” he says, “because you’ll sweep the good fortune away.”
The pig is an auspicious animal in China, respected for its honesty and fortitude, and esteemed for its good manners, aside from its culinary virtues. “In Chinese culture, the pig is one of the major foods you have on the table,” says Leung. “In every Chinese celebration you have to have a roast suckling pig to be carved in front of the guests. When they roast the pig it turns red, and red is the hottest colour for the Chinese."
On the morning of New Year’s Day, Leung, says, no one washes their hair — “The custom is that you’re going to wash away all the good luck for the year.” — and everyone puts on brand new clothes, with an emphasis on auspicious, celebratory colours like gold and red.
“Red is considered a bright, happy colour, so it brings the wearer a bright and sunny future. Death and dying are never mentioned — it’s forbidden.”
Immigration, and the move to cities, means that some customs have changed; New Year’s Day was usually spent visiting respected older relatives, but as families have come to live farther apart, big restaurant dinners have become a new tradition, and malls have replaced the markets where all-night celebrations and dragon dances took place. One constant, however, is the Leih Sih, the red and gold envelopes containing money, given as presents to children.
“Kids are spoiled on New Year’s Day,” Leung recalls with a laugh. “The parents just let us do what we want to do because they don’t want us to cry, because you will cry through the whole year.”
Leung says that Manchu Wok will celebrate the year of the pig by featuring one of its signature dishes — sweet and sour pork — in its restaurants for the first month of the new year. It’s fortunate for restaurants like Manchu Wok that this is the year of such a versatile culinary ingredient — it would be a challenge to find a suitable dish to feature in the year of the rat, monkey or dog, for instance.
“I was born in the year of the snake,” Leung says, laughing again. “They are good-looking, smart, and are very detail-oriented people.”
mind your manners
The pig is considered a well-mannered, polite animal in China. Chinese New Year holiday traditions are well-established; here are a few important customs to remember:
It is a custom to visit relatives and friends during Chinese New Year to wish them luck. Married couples and seniors give out lucky money wrapped in red packets (Leih Sih in Cantonese, Hong Bao in Mandarin) to single adults and kids as a sign of fortune.
When invited to a family party, small gifts like wine, tea, or candies are welcomed. Also fruit, pastries, and flowers are a safe choice.
Avoid serving food items or purchasing gifts in increments of four. Though four is an even number, it reads like death in Chinese.