Celebrating Lunar New Year 2006

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Lunar New Year, the Year of the Dog, Gow Nien, 4704, begins its reign on Sunday, January 29, 2006, ousting the Rooster, the Don Quixote of the Lunar cycle.

Those born in 1910, 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, or 1994, are like their canine counterpart and are man’s best friend who craves devotion, tenderness and verbal endearments. Their friendships are highly valued because they can keep confidences and are always socially gracious. When upset or angry, they intimidate those who don’t know them well but basically their bark is always worse than their bite. Though sensitive, they flare up easily but cool down quickly. One flaw is that they make snap judgments about others and can be stubborn in their likes and dislikes. Sometimes dreamy and pensive, they tend to fret excessively and can be jealous because they’re unsure of themselves and prone to imaginary anxieties.

By nature, they are not materialistic and they are born leaders who eventually are rewarded for their patience and long-term investments. And like all the other animals in the Zodiac, they know exactly what the big celebration coming up is all about.

Chinese (Lunar) New Year is by far the most important of all Chinese celebrations. It is the equivalent of birthdays, Christmas and Thanksgiving, all rolled up into one so the Chinese spend lavishly on food and drink, particularly during the first two weeks. Many splurge and provide their families with an ample supply of chicken, duck, meat, fruit and vegetables.

Three days preceding the appointed date, houses are cleaned, new clothes are bought for everyone in the household and debts are paid because everyone wants to start off the New Year with a clean slate.
Years ago this holiday was celebrated for a full month but today the festivities lasts about 15 days. Some Asian businesses close for 3 days.

The family dinner served during the eve of New Year’s Day must involve a large spread. Fresh fish is a “must” as fish (yu) has the same sound as the word for abundance and implies the family will not want in the coming year. Togetherness and abundance for all are the keynotes of this particular time.

On the first day of the New Year, everyone dresses up. Relatives and friends bring food gifts since food is inextricably tied to the concept of prosperity signifying that there will always be plenty to eat in the coming year. Older people give out red money envelopes to younger children and unmarried people. Others visit the Buddhist temple in order to bring good luck to family members. Firecrackers and incense are burned to chase away evil spirits. Red banners are hung on front doors to encourage good luck.

In some larger major cities, the Chinese celebrations always include a parade featuring the traditional and colorful dragon dance. Another will be to eat delicious, traditional dishes prepared for just this occasion, which explains the old Chinese proverb that during the first part of the New Year, no one goes hungry. Since food plays an important role in all Chinese function, all meals are prepared in advance because cooking that special day is taboo.

The most popular New Year’s dish is Jai, or monk’s food. This dish originated with the Buddhist monks who were vegetarians and is still being served today. Monks went door-to-door and were given meager portions of vegetables. From this, the Chinese, being inventive cooks, came up with the meatless Jai dish.

The ingredients of Jai are a play on Chinese words, especially those symbolizing good luck. Fat Choy (hair-like seaweed) is wealth; Fun See (cellophane noodles) and Chin Ngee (fungus) are longevity; Foo Jook (dried bean curd sheets) means blessing every household; Bak Ko (ginko nut) means 100 grandchildren: Ho See (dried oysters) means good tidings and successful business; Gum Choy (dried lily flower) means gold and good luck and Hua Sing (peanut) means birth and promotion.

During the two-week celebration, parents, grandparents and friends will be honored with gifts such as oranges, candy, nuts or pastries. This period promotes benevolence, reunions, family unity and remembrance and people will pay homage to their deceased ancestors.

Candied preserved fruits and vegetables together with melon seeds are symbolic of Chinese New Year and signify something – melon seeds mean many children; and the long vines of squash and melon plants mean a long line of descendants; lotus seeds mean production of sons; carrots, tangerines and kumquats are also prized because, also being round and golden they signify prosperity – “kum” or “gum” in Chinese means “gold,” thus golden wealth. Coconuts are hopes for a strong relationship between father and son.

While many will enjoy special foods, events and festivities, it is no secret that the Chinese are superstitious, especially about New Year’s Day. Knives and scissors are put away so that no one can cut the continuity of luck for the year to come. Loans are not negotiated that day for fear that they might be loaning money for the rest of the year. Brooms should also be avoided as they sweep away good luck.

For many of us who live in areas where we cannot buy some ingredients necessary for a traditional Jai dish, you can always substitute and come out with a creative meal of your own, Here are a few easy suggestions to try.

One of my favorites is Velvet Corn soup and it only requires a few ingredients and you will end up with a delicious broth. First, skin and bone a chicken breast, dice into small pieces and marinate with 2 tsp. Sherry and set aside. Open a can of Chicken Broth (low sodium is desired) and add a can of water. When it comes to a boil, pour in a can of Cream Corn, toss in a few slices of fresh raw ginger and then when it comes to a boil again, toss in the diced chicken and continue to boil until chicken is done. In the meantime beat an egg and then slowly stir into soup. Turn to low heat until dinner is ready.

Another easy dish is Oyster mushroom chicken with veggies. This involves lots of chopping but it’s fun – you can add all kinds of vegetables such as zucchini, carrots, onions, celery, cabbage, and asparagus, whatever is in season. First, slice skin and bone two chicken breasts and dice into small pieces. Marinate chicken with oyster sauce & soy sauce. Heat up a skillet, toss in 2 garlic and just when you smell the garlic in the hot oil, toss in marinated chicken, cook for about 5 minutes then slowly add thin sliced carrots first, stir in celery, and slowly add the rest of the vegetables and thinly sliced mushrooms. Cook over medium heat mixing well and turn it down low to simmer. This is ready when you can run your fork through the carrots. Enjoy — This is absolutely delicious poured over rice.

How about shrimp? New Year’s wouldn’t be the same without some seafood. Shrimp with peas. Remove vein from 1 lb. medium sized shrimp. Cut half lengthwise and across into three pieces. Mix with 1 tsp. wine, 1 egg white, 1 stalk of chopped green onion. Put into medium hot oil and stir until barely cooked, for about 2 minutes. Remove from pan. Cook 1 – 10 oz. pkg. of frozen peas with a little oil, salt and water for a few minutes and add _ tsp. sugar. Pour in shrimp and mix together before serving.

Hopefully you’ll add these tasty recipes to whatever you decide to cook and enjoy on Lunar New Year.

New clothes also plays an important role during Lunar New Year. After watching many fashion shows on television to see what will be popular this year, there were some startling discoveries, especially about fashion. Perhaps we can travel back down memory lane to see how style and fashions kept evolving back every twelve years. Could it be that dress designers use the Chinese horoscope as reference and we aren’t even aware of it?

In 1922, females wore their hair cropped short at the ear with waves. The mannish shingle bob or Dutch boy was popular. Little makeup was used and the flat, angular look was in. Long, cylindrical corsets or hip belts, pantaloons and skirts above the ankle with black hose suppressed every body curve. Women wore men’s lounging robes, blazers, shirts and ties with cuff links.

In 1934 women liked to wear their hair brushed back across their head at sharp angles. Hats were worn on one side of the head, resembling record discs almost like the French berets that are fashionable this spring. Backless bathing suits during that year were made of linen and latex yarn.
In 1946 Harper Bazaar reported five casual trends. (1) Shirtwaists were worn with Civil War Phelps bags (2) Ginghams (3) Ballerina length skirts (4) Overalls (5) Woolen tights, hoods and tightly belted coats. The slightly idealized figure was natural, with no padding of any kind.

In 1958 the Chemise “Trapeze” and “Empire” dresses came in bright colors like ruby red, red-violet, lavender, orange, yellow, emerald and fuchsia. The popular “Shift” or sack dress with big buttons, patch pockets, fringes, bows, sashes and buckles, were often worn with Raccoon coats. At this time, Mohair came in, along with paisley and patterned wool knits. Shoes were round and square with thin heels. The rage was for pearl drop earrings and gold hearts often worn together.

In 1970 fashion was unprecedented. Skirts were all lengths, pants were worn for every occasion. Slow demise of the Mini as the polo dress and slithering look took over. Midi, mid-calf length showed up in early spring in denim, gingham and cinch-waist skirts. Heavy wool skirt were slit or buttoned with dark stockings and boots. Long trench coats of canvas, leather, vinyl and poplin. Hair teasing was now out and Afro was chic with natural, subtle makeup.

In 1982 we saw the new slim, unadorned and aristocratic look- minimalism – characterizes coats, pants and dresses by new designers, Zoran, Norma Kamali and Ron Shamask. Ralph Lauren’s elongated Norfolk jacket and long and lean button-front skirt were introduced in many ladies magazines.
In 1994, fashion hadn’t changed that much. As a matter of fact, the lines were still elongated with emphasis on simple, casual, serviceable clothes. Many still preferred the simple short hairdos but some opted for loose and flowing hairstyles. Of course, many found the popular French beret or hat to one side very flattering.

Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cher are only a few of the glamorous examples of famous females born under this sign.

In the world many momentous events took place during the Year of the Dog. The Girl Guides were founded on May 31, 1910 and the suitable uniform consisted of a jacket, skirt, tie, broad-brimmed hat, black shoes and stockings. Reader’s Digest was first published in the U.S. on February 5, 1922. In 1934, the first comic book was born and offered to the public for a dime in department stores. Initial press of 35,000 copies was a sell-out.
In 1970, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles, attracted many not only in book form but also as a movie. In 1982 Mistral’s Daughter by Judith Krantz was both a hit as a best seller and a movie.

On a sadder note, in 1982 Hollywood mourned the loss of two lovely women of the screen. Ingrid Bergman died on August 29, and Princess Grace of Monaco was killed in a car accident on September 14.

In 2006, brace yourself, for the Year of the Dog will bring happiness and disagreements at the same time. It will be a year of controversial issues like equality and liberty but effective changes will be introduced. The enchanting warmhearted, even-tempered dog will cause clashes, upheavals and rebellions of all sorts. We will learn by his aptitude for dealing with vast numbers of people from all walks of life to act with maturity and common sense.

During this year, we will find ourselves pulling away from the pursuit of chasing that mighty dollar and reflect more on what is important in life. This year we can relax more because the Dog’s ever-watchful eye will be the main force in keeping this time calm.

Valerie Lee Whong is a writer from Cupertino, CA.

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