Happy new year: Kent family prepares to celebrate Chinese Year of the Ox

Ann Lo

Ann Lo

It’s a long way from her small village of Fuzhou, China, but Ann Lo and her family try to keep the traditions of the Chinese Lunar New Year alive.

As always, Lo will gather her family around her for this year’s festivities, Jan. 26, to share the food, fun and tradition with which she grew up.

“It was so fun,” she said of the New Year’s celebration when she was growing up. “New Year’s Eve, I tell you, we didn’t sleep.”

According to Lo, who owns the China Star Restaurant in Kent, everyone in the small village would make new clothes and new shoes for the new year and the firecrackers began at midnight and didn’t stop for days.

There were games and parades and “lucky red envelopes” filled with money and flowers everywhere.

And there was food, lots of food.

Lo has been in America for 28 years and she has her own American-born family now, but each year when the lunar new year and spring festival rolls around, Lo calls her daughters home and the whole family gathers to celebrate with traditional foods Lo remembers growing up.

“I have two daughters born here, but I want to show them my culture, my tradition,” she said.

Daughter Jenny Sam said each year the day brings delicacies that aren’t usually served for the rest of the year, making the day even more special.

“I associate it with food,” Sam said, adding that family is a big part of the event as well. “You see a lot of relatives when the new year’s coming.”

For Sam, one of the highlights each year is a special pastry, made of sweet rice flour and pan fried to a golden brown. It is one of the sweet treats that only seem to get made during the holiday.

Then, at midnight, Sam said another favorite treat is a small, sweet rice dough ball served with a ginger/brown sugar broth.

Each year, other traditional foods are served as well. According to Lo, among the food served on the New Year is a long noodle, to represent longevity.

“This new year, if I didn’t see the noodle, I’d be sad,” said Sam.

Also served each year is a fish course and a special vegetable, both of which grew out of Chinese puns.

According to Lo, the Chinese word for “happiness” sounds like the word for “fish” so fish take on a special meaning around new year, appearing in signs and banners as well as on plates, though Lo said some Chinese, such as her husband, go vegan for the day, not eating anything living.

Lo also noted that according to custom, the fish must be served whole, not fillets; the head, tail and fins must still be on.

Also served is the vegetable called “fat choi.” It too is essentially a pun, stemming from the New Year’s greeting “gung hay fat choy” (note the spelling pun...), which Lo and Sam translated as “wishing you good luck and prosperity.”

And along with the food, of course, there are family, friends and the lucky red envelopes, which Sam said made the holiday kind of like Christmas.

“I show my girls all those traditions,” Lo said.

At the restaurant, Lo tries to keep the New Year’s traditions alive and is celebrating with Lucky Red Envelopes (stuffed not with cash, but food prizes) to every customer beginning new year’s Eve (Jan. 25) and continuing until supplies run out.

Lo said she will also be wearing a traditional Chinese dress for the big day and her chefs have been busy carving special centerpieces made of vegetables. Late last week, the chefs carved out of carrots jumping fish hoisting signs with the greeting as well as a long, intricate dragon and a large ox, celebrating 2009’s astrological place as The Year of the Ox. Some tables are decorated with flowers also carved from carrots.

The restaurant is also decorated with cherry blossoms, another traditional New Year’s item.

“Even though I live here more than 28 years, I still have that,” Lo said, smiling as she pointed to a large display of the bright pink flowers.

Of all the changes to traditional and new experiences of celebrating thousands of miles from home, Lo said one thing that has still not changed is the way everyone in the village would be sure to wish others the bets in the coming year.

“Back in the country, every family goes to every family and says ‘Happy New year,’” she said.

This year, she expects the tradition to continue with nearly non-stop phone calls from well-wishers and family alike.

“That’s the one thing I still get,” she said, smiling.

Lunar New Year is Jan. 26.

China Star Restaurant is located at 24437 Russell Rd., Suite 120, Kent. For more information, call 253-850-7070.

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