I will tell you about my experiences with the Chinese New Year while growing up in Vietnam.
Even though we are Chinese, both of my parents were born in Vietnam. My grandparents were from southern China and immigrated to Vietnam in the late 50s. My memories growing up were of poor but simpler times, filled with carefree days and happy moments.
During the holidays, whole communities celebrate with each other. An air of festivity permeates every nook and cranny of every street and alleyway. The populace takes to the streets en mass in their best clothing to stroll around and greet each other. Couples walk with hooked elbows while families stroll together in groups.
There was usually not enough room to drive a motorbike around, so mostly everyone walked during the 15 days of festivities. I remember being with the kids in the neighborhood, lighting firecrackers and running amuck, causing general mayhem. I remember visiting our family and friends to collect red pocket money so my parents could take them away to give to other kids.
On the night of December 30th, in Cantonese, we call this (Nien sam sap man) (The year’s 30th night), everyone in the whole country would try to stay up all night long. My parents would lay a big piece of cloth on our concrete floor and pile bottles of alcohol and plates of “drinking” food. My dad and all his friends would sit on the floor around the food and booze, drinking and hollering and being drunks all night long, while groups would break off to play cards or dice board games for money. (Gambling is huge during the Lunar New Year in Vietnam). I usually try to last through the night, but I am sure I didn’t quite make it through during one of those years and would fall asleep in the wee morning hours amidst the festivity.
On the first, we get dressed in our best clothing to visit our closest relatives, grandparents, and aunts from my mum’s side. They were a district over, so we usually had to fight through the crowds, firecrackers, and celebrations on the streets to get there. Traditionally, only married adults were supposed to give kids red pockets. Still, my brother, sister, and I all received red pockets, even from our older aunties. The adults usually cooked a big old feast. At the same time, the kids munched on New Year snacks such as strips of candied coconut and powdered candies, peanuts, and melon seeds called “gua zi”.
The New Year celebration usually lasts 15 days. In Cantonese, we say “Chzo yat sap ng” (the first and fifteen) to indicate the beginning and end of this period. The next 14 days were filled with visits to every friend and relative my parents knew just so my brother, sister, and I could collect our red pocket money, which my parents would then take away from us. They gave us a small portion of the money in return. The rest they would put into other red pockets to give to other kids. We weren’t particularly well off, but my parents had so many friends they would’ve gone broke every year if they hadn’t done so. My parents were very practical.
The 15th day of the New Year is the day of the Lantern Festival. The name for this day in Mandarin is “yuán xiāo jié“ (元宵節), in Cantonese it is “yuen xiu jit”. There is usually a big reunion dinner with all our closest friends and family at a restaurant, and lanterns and mandarin oranges were a big part of the theme that day. We would eat sweet round-balled dumplings to celebrate the first full moon of the New Year. The kids would count all the red pocket money we received and brag about how well we made out that year.
The Lunar New Year is celebrated in many countries other than China. The list includes Singapore, Nepal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, and most South-East Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines, and even parts of Japan and Korea. For me, it marked the end of the dreary winter months and brought the hope and excitement of new things to come. Even though it has been many years since we moved away from Vietnam, those memories of celebrations will stay distinctive in my mind for as long as I live.