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Happy Indian Chinese New Year

By Savera R Someshwar
Last updated on: January 23, 2004 23:09 IST
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Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a Rat. 

Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani is a Rabbit. 

Amitabh Bachchan is a Horse. 

Shah Rukh Khan is a Snake, Hrithik Roshan and Preity Zinta are Tigers and Kareena Kapoor is a Monkey. 

Which is why Kareena, more than anyone else, should be celebrating. According to the lunar-based Chinese calendar, January 22 marked the first day of the 4701st Chinese New Year, the Year of The Monkey (Click here to find out which animal sign you belong to).  

Even as Chinese all over the world ring in the New Year, the Chinese in India celebrate the occasion in their own unique way. 

"In China," says Peter Liang, secretary of Bangalore's Chinese Welfare Association, "the New Year celebrations are elaborate." 

The Chinese begin preparing for the New Year much in advance. Houses are given a thorough spring-cleaning to get rid of the bad luck of the previous year. They are then given a fresh coat of paint; the windows are painted red and the house is decorated with paper cuts that invite happiness, health and good luck. They do not cut or cook anything for the first few days of the new year in case one cut one's link with good luck. They wear new clothes that are preferably red in colour. In the initial days of the new year, they avoid anything that could bring in bad luck and did only those things that would invite good luck. It was believed that whatever one did in the first few days of the new year would set the tone for the rest of the year.

Zeenath Hasan, owner of the Chung Wah restaurant in Bangalore, says, "My grandmother told me what one does and eats on New Year's day influences what one can expect in the year ahead. We leave the door open so that bad luck can leave and good luck can come in. We would decorate the house with red paper because red is the color of good luck. We would not clean the remanants of the fireworks because the red paper would spread good luck. We would not use scissors as it would cut off good fortune."

"There are many rituals from the old days that we no longer follow," says Liang. "For example, one did not bathe during the first few days of the new year so that one did not inadvertently wash away good luck. Today, it is not possible to do that. So we have created our own rituals." 

Bangalore has around 120 Chinese families, says Liang, and most of them met at the Emerald Isle Resort to bring in the New Year together. "This is one of the few occasions when most of us have the opportunity to meet each other and for the younger generation to learn about their culture," he says.

"I am the third generation of my family to be born in India," says Eddie Wong, 27-year-old son of Mumbai's best-known Chinese restaurateur Nelson Wong, owner of China Gate. "Except for the way I look, I am more Indian than Chinese. I speak Hindi fluently. But we celebrate the Chinese New Year because China is where we originated from; it is where our roots are. We cannot celebrate it exactly the way it is done there but we do try and emulate as much as we can." 

Wong -- who, according to the Chinese zodiac, is a Snake -- has never celebrated a New Year in China, though he does hope he will bring in a New Year in Hong Kong some day. 

His earliest memories of the Chinese New Year is the smell of fire crackers which are burst to welcome the New Year. It is believed the loud noise of the crackers would frighten away evil spirits and bad luck.

"We would burst mainly the long ladis [the green-and-red string cracker] and there was the excitement of meeting other Chinese kids. The holy men would choose the auspicious hour to welcome the New Year. There would be prayer sessions and we would burn silver and gold paper symbolising money that we were offering the gods in the hope that the New Year would be prosperous for us. Then came the party where our parents would celebrate and drink and gamble and dance. While the elders had a good time, we kids too would have our own party where we would do the same things," says Wong.

In Mumbai too Chinese families gathered together to celebrate the New Year. There are about 400 Chinese families in the megapolis, says Tulun Terence Chen, a second generation Chinese who owns the Kamling restaurant in south Mumbai and has been chairman of the Maharashtra Chinese Association for the last eight years.

"We began our New Year celebrations with a New Year's eve dinner on January 21. We then visited our temple at Mazgaon and cemetery to pay tribute to our ancestors. The next day, all the Chinese families in Mumbai came together for a party at Malabar Hill."

"Now," says Wong, "I enjoy the feeling of goodness that comes with the New Year. The whole atmosphere is so meditative."

Wong has to go and buy his fung paows, the lucky red envelopes filled with money that elders give younger people. These envelopes can be decorative and have little sayings in Chinese that bless the receiver with good luck, health, prosperity.

"Actually," grins Wong, "I am at an age where I both give and receive envelopes."

These red envelopes are normally given by wedding couples to children from other families, says Randolph Allen of Kolkata. "Both the husband and wife will give one envelope each to the children and unmarried people in the family because it is believed that giving two envelopes is auspicious."

Allen, whose family has converted into Christianity, no longer believes in Chinese rituals though he continues to follow some of them like the traditional dinner and the giving of fung paows.

The pageantry once associated with New Year celebrations by the Chinese community in India, particularly in Kolkata's China Town, no longer exists, even though many Indian Chinese head to Kolkata for the New Year.

"At one time," recalls 70-year-old Allen, "China Town would be littered with the remnants of crackers. There would be parades. There would a lion dance and a dragon dance [both are believed to scare away bad luck]. Each house would hang out a string of money and topped with a lettuce leaf. The dragon would come to each house and eat the lettuce leaf and take the money. This was considered auspicious."

Both Liang and Wong recall competitions between different Chinese communities at New Year.

Liang, whose ancestors are from Canton, also recalls a quaint custom of the Hakka community where the son-in-law, in the first year after his marriage, was required to go to his bride's home with gifts of chicken and fruit and red packets of money for her family.

"Many of these customs are no longer followed," says Liang. "But we do try to maintain the spirit and meaning of the Chinese New Year."

A feast for the soul

Additional reportage: Vijay Singh
Image: Lynette Menezes

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Savera R Someshwar