Cultures Sauvages (Raw Cultures) is a radio show on Radio Eponyme, a local radio of Mulhouse. The show was created in 2017 and talks about culture and especially music and literature. Since October 2019, I’m doing a chronicle every month about my travels and I decided to draw something to illustrate my adventures!
The January 11th 2020 show was about New Year and the Best Of 2019. You can listen to it -in French- right here:
MY FIRST CHINESE NEW YEAR IN TAIWAN
新年快樂! – Xīnnián kuàilè! – Happy New Year!
When I was living in Taiwan, Chinese New Year was held on February 15th 2018. The Year of the Rooster was flying away and let his place to the Year of the Dog. Chinese New Year is widely celebrated worldwide by the Chinese and Asian communities, mainly by the populations referring to the lunisolar calendar (see my post about the Mid-Autumn Festival in Taiwan).
During Chinese New Year, Taiwanese people have a whole week holiday to see their families and close ones. Although, the Chinese New Year celebrations are lasting at least two weeks, starting with the Spring Festival and ending with the Lantern Festival.
SOME CHINESE NEW YEAR TRADITIONS
While the streets of Hualien -the city I used to live in- had been decorated with red lanterns starting December, we need to change the decorations of the World Inn hostel where I’m volunteering starting January. We have to hang new lanterns and change the red banners at the front door announcing the Spring Festival and the upcoming Year of the Dog.
This year, Agnes’ Dad painted the banners using calligraphy. Usually are painted wishes, Chinese characters for happiness, luck, wealth and longevity, as well as Spring (春 – chūn). I learn that the Chinese character for happiness (福 – fú) is usually written upside down because an upside-down-happiness (literally 福倒 – fúdào) is a homophone to upcoming happiness (福到 –also pronounced fúdào)!
We have to fill up the golden plastic ingots with candies and sweets. Those ingots are called yuánbǎo (元寶). They look like little boats, but those ingots were used as currency in ancient China and became symbols of wealth and prosperity in our modern days. Quite often, they’re even filled up with chocolate money!
Along with cleaning up the whole house, those preparations are also called “Spring cleaning” since the Chinese New Year is announcing the Spring Festival (春節 – Chūnjié).
MY NEW YEAR’S EVE WITH A TAIWANESE FAMILY
On New Year’s Eve, families are gathering and everybody’s cooking all day long for dinner. Our World Inn Family is invited at Hugo’s and his parents and we all bring some traditional food: I have a vegetarian quiche, a chocolate mousse and some mulled wine!
We eat dinner around a round table, filled with numerous plates – it does look like a Christmas dinner in Europe! You can just pick anything you want and I’m lucky, I’m seated right in front of all the veggies!
At the centre of the table lies a big fish: eating a whole fish for New Year means abundance and prosperity since the word fish (魚- yú) is homophone to the word extra (餘 – yú), therefore having fish leftovers during the New Year’s Eve dinner means you’ll have some extra money… There’s a whole symbolic for the New Year food: grapes are symbols of wealth, fertility and family harmony, oranges mean luck, especially moneywise, green veggies are often symbolling family bounds and shrimps a symbol of happiness.
In the dining room, there are many pictures of Hugo’s father in different places of the world as well as a huge world map filled with pins: those are the countries he visited. We’re amazed looking at the map because there are pins on places like Antarctica, the Galapagos and many countries in Africa – he travelled in more than 80 countries! He’s also the one making us tea at the end of the dinner, in the Taiwanese traditional way.
As we’re making room for dessert on the table and bringing my chocolate mousse, oranges and grapes, Hugo’s father gives each of us a red envelope (紅包 – hóngbāo). Una, my friend and host, trained us before to receive those properly with the appropriate words:
恭喜發財 – Gōngxǐ fācái – Where we wish for a lot of money
身體健康 – Shēntǐ jiànkāng – Where we wish for health
萬事如意 – Wànshì rúyì – Where we wish that everything goes great
This is the second red envelope of my life – I just received another one a few weeks ago from Serena’s parents, the young girl I’m teaching English to. Those red envelopes are filled with money and are given by the elders to the young people during the Chinese New Year. They’re a symbol of luck and Una tells me that traditionally I should put it under my pillow for a year to become richer!
After this wonderful dinner and many thanks, it’s time for some scratch lotto tickets! Those games are very very famous in Taiwan and you can find those yellow lotto shops everywhere around. During Chinese New Year, people are used to playing money games and betting games because you’re supposed to be lucky… or maybe not. I bought an adorable dog-shaped scratch lotto ticket and won nothing – not even a bit of money to buy another one. Clearly, I’m not the luckiest girl on Earth when it comes for money!
Afterwards comes the time for fireworks! We’re in Asia, so let me tell you that’s a big deal around here. You can buy any kind of fireworks and firecrackers in the street or in any supermarket, and I do really mean ANY KIND. Some of them are GIGANTIC. It’s even crazier than in Germany! I’m a little bit shocked to see how easy it is to get those and I’m just hoping my hosts are aware of all the security measures: I’m not planning on leaving Taiwan with a missing arm or a missing eye. We then make on our way to the riverside with a bag full of fireworks. The fireworks are indeed supposed to scare demons and wake up the good deities in Asia and this is why every festival gets it share of fireworks and firecrackers.
The sky was exploding. It was filled with colours, smoke and music. How beautiful this night was! This was my very first traditional Chinese New Year and I couldn’t wait for the fifteen more days of celebration to come, and especially my crossing of the island from East to West through the mountains…
ROAD TRIPPING IN THE MOUNTAINS, BETELNUTS & TĀNGYUÁN
Because the next day, on February 16TH, on New Year’s Day, I’m hitting the road like billions of Taiwanese with my partner in crime, my lover. Before he leaves this island and my warm embrace, I’m going to show him some Taiwanese marvels in the mountains. We cross the island from the East Coast to the West Coast, from Hualien to Longtan, close to Taoyuan to celebrate the New Year’s Day with my friend Vita by the Lake with tons of fireworks.
On that New Year’s Day, we spend the day on Road 7, one of the roads crossing Taiwan from East to West, from Luodong to Daxi. We encounter our first cherry blossoms, many proofs that Spring is on its way. Our eyes can’t get enough of the forests and mountains we’re sighting on the way. We stroll through Daxi’s old streets, full of people and street food for the New Year celebrations before arriving exhausted to Vita’s house.
As usual, she’s hosting Couchsurfers. There are indeed two German teachers living and working in mainland China who came to Taiwan for the holidays. We have our pockets full of firecrackers as we make our way to Longtan Lake and its beautiful temple on the water. Here we have fun most of the night and we even stop for our first taste of betelnuts on the way back.
For the record, betelnuts come from a kind of palm tree that you can easily spot anywhere in Taiwan. Combined with a betel leaf and some slaked lime, those famous nuts have euphoric and energetic effects. Many Taiwanese, especially taxi drivers, are chewing these nuts holding a cup in their hands. For the betelnut makes your mouth water A LOT, and you’re spitting some red liquid which can even stain your teeth. This substance can become dangerous if chewed on a regular basis and can indeed cause throat and oesophagus cancers. Well, I honestly thought it was disgusting, both to taste and chewing, but the experience was worth it: watching the vendor prepare the little nut was a very interesting sight.
Back home, I ask Vita where her Mom is: “She’s spending the night with friends playing Mah Jong!” Here’s another New Year’s tradition: playing Mah Jong and betting some money! And it seems that her mother is quite a good player. On the next day, impossible to know if she managed to win but she’s waking us up with a hell of a breakfast! As usual at Vita’s, there are way too many delicious plates on the table, and this time there are even vegetarian Hakka pink dumplings.
After our memorable stay at Vita’s, the mountains are calling us again and especially the famous Hehuanshan summit (合歡山) which is 3 416m high! We’re driving on Road 14n the one connecting Puli in the West to the Taroko National Park in the East. This road and its marvels have conquered my heart again, despite the cold, the snow and the altitude sickness.
Fifteen days later, the celebrations end with the Lantern Festival and the tasting of tangyuan (湯圓), those glutinous rice balls cooked in sweet water. Usually eaten for Chinese New Year, they’re then called yuánxiāo (元宵)and are filled with black sesame, peanut or red bean cream. Let’s just say that it looks a lot like a mochi soup and it obviously became one of my favourite desserts!
I always enjoyed describing the Christmas Holidays in Alsace as the ultimate celebrations ever thanks to the pretty decorations, vivid traditions and also their length: spending three days eating almost non-stop is quite a challenge!
Until I discover Chinese New Year and its two weeks celebrations, traditions and food! This memory is such a precious one for me because I could spend this Chinese New Year with Taiwanese families and I was invited to their table as a family member. I really loved strolling in the streets decorated with red lanterns, crowded with families on vacation, and exploding with fireworks on nightfall.
In 2020, Chinese New Year will start on January 25th and the Year of the Pig will end to make room for the Year of the Rat (鼠 – shǔ), the first of the Chinese zodiac sign. It’s supposed to be a good year for savings, projects and literature, so it’s time to write that book you were always dreaming of my friend! And Happy New Year, Bonne Année!