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Wealth, health and luck

Red chi-pao and a feast usher in the Chinese New Year of 4697

Wednesday, February 17, 1999

By Gene Collier, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Rolling up Route 28 to cover a rock slide one day with the great photographer Lake Fong, when Lake says in the manner in which he broke many silences back in Hong Kong, "You ever think about writing about Chinese New Year?"

 
In preparation to greet the Year of the Rabbit, Lani Li, left, helps her daughter Megan put on a red chi-pao. Traditionally, the color red is used to help chase the great beast Nian. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

"Ummm," I said definitively.

"There's a lot of food. A lot of food."

"Hook us up," I said.

So Lake explains some of the ancient traditions right there in the car, subsequently downloads some research material for me and puts me in touch with the supremely charming and gracious Linda Eng, who invites us to the lovely Monroeville home she shares with her husband, Gim, for New Year's Eve.

Had I only been able to get Lake to write this, the whole gig to me would have been a phenomenal meal on company time. But you can't have everything.

"Each food means something," Lake had told me. "Some mean wealth, some health, some good luck."

Many of the legends and traditions related to the Chinese calendar have the customs of the generic American New Year of the late 20th century beat to heck. This new year is The Year of the Rabbit, for example, one of the 12 rotating signs of the Chinese zodiac - dragon is next, followed by snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, boar, rat, ox and tiger. This is superior, obviously, to our own just completed Year of the Lewinsky. In the Chinese calendar, yesterday was the first day of the year 4697, for example, which means that people who observe this calendar have had the Y2K thing solved for nearly 3,000 years. They'll do the Y5K thing without even getting flustered.

Most of these Chinese New Year traditions are simply too old to be traced, much less fully explained. As Americans, we can say that only about Dick Clark.

 
Linda Eng of Monroeville brings food for a traditional Chinese New Year dinner to the table. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

We are greeted at Linda and Gim's home by Lani Li, one of Linda's six sisters, three of whom are here tonight. Linda's nephew and six of her nieces are here, two with their husbands. Linda's mother is here as well. She is Jenny Khuu. Jenny has nine children in all. They are spread from Philadelphia to Seattle.

Linda is in the kitchen.

Almost immediately she serves us tea, an eight-ingredient brew from expensive herbs for special New Year's guests that includes chrysanthemum, cranberry seed, rock sugar and four other things I couldn't write down fast enough. Water is considered the eighth ingredient.

"These are all from old traditions," Linda says, indicating that she wouldn't be fussing over this on the average Monday. "These are dried tangerines. When you pay someone a visit on New Year's Day, you take two tangerines and the owner of the house will give you two of something else."

As meticulous as Linda is, not all of the Chinese New Year's customs are practical. The firecrackers, for example.

"We'd hang firecrackers from a fourth floor balcony of a building all the way down to the bottom and light them," she says of her life in Vietnam, where her family sustained the New Year's customs of their Chinese ethnicity. "The next morning there would be all this ash, but you're not allowed to sweep it out. If you must sweep, you sweep in."

Sweeping out, it is thought, takes the luck from the house. The firecrackers have to do with the central legend of Chinese New Year, the one about the great beast Nian with the very big mouth that would swallow a great many people with one bite. When I mentioned this later at the dinner table, Linda's sisters giggled, as though this were either no longer relevant or hopelessly oversimplified, but there's no way I'm letting all of Lake's research go for naught.

The firecrackers were supposed to scare the beast away as are the traditional red decorations associated with the feast. Linda's sister Hoa Nguyen is wearing a brilliant red chi-pao, a satin Chinese top. Her little niece, 2-year-old Megan Li, is balking at putting on a red vest for this occasion.

"When she says no," her father, Yin Li, tells me, "she's not going to change her mind."

When the meal is ready, Linda brings each dish to the table in a beautiful presentation. She explains each dish to me, its content and meaning, while 15 people try not to fix us with the international glare for "Can we get on with it?"

There is pork sausage and liver sausage, mushroom and angel hair (Chinese angel hair is black), there are rice cakes and radish cakes, there are dumplings in a sweet sauce that symbolize togetherness or reunion, there is crabmeat soup, scallion garnish, cauliflower and shrimp, pork and eggs, bean curd egg roll, and there is boneless stuffed chicken. "It means go and be wealthy," Linda says. "With the bones out, you can stuff more wealth into it."

And there is something else.

"My, what is this?" I ask ravenously.

"That," Linda says, "is Jell-O.

"But it's so colorful and shaped so intricately. How did you do that?" I said.

"With a mold," she said.

Linda's supreme charm prevents her face from signaling what everyone is thinking: This is what happens when you let a complete idiot in your house at the holiday.

Lake and I are offered something to drink with dinner. We select ancient Chinese Cokes. The others don't drink anything, saving room for the feast. Judy, the youngest of Jenny's children and the wife of Tim Shine, pours for us. One serving bubbles over the top of Lake's glass.

"Does that mean anything for the coming year?" I ask Lake. "No, but don't break anything. That's extremely bad luck at Chinese New Year. I broke something once when I was small. I got beat."

At the head of our table sits Gim. He came from China in the '30s, some 40 years before Linda's family fled Saigon. Gim Eng was drafted into the U.S. Army for World War II and fought in the Pacific. He went to the University of Michigan on the G.I. Bill and later to Columbia, where he took a degree in nuclear engineering. He is retired from Westinghouse's nuclear engineering department.

"It was great," he told me. "That was in the '50s. Everything we did, we were the first to do."

Tradtionally, the end of the meal is only the beginning of the celebration. Observant families might stay up all night playing cards or board games or mahjong, a form of gambling. But in America, tomorrow is merely a school day, and the children are growing impatient waiting for their "lucky money," a cash gift from the adults in fancy red envelopes.

Megan has even gone to the red vest, a major concession. You get lucky money until you are married the tradition goes, although Lake says he still asks his mother for it because he is the youngest in his family, and she gives it to him. With this Lake is obviously tempting the great beast Nian, which means that although he has gained me a fabulous meal and introduced me to an extended family of great dignity and warmth, I can't go anywhere else with him now unless he brings firecrackers.



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