One of my earliest and favorite memories of Chinese New Year is being at my popo’s house when she was making gau, the traditional brown sugar mochi. It would take her all day, kneading the dough on the floor before putting it into huge stockpots for steaming. When it was ready, she would pour some into a coffee cup for me — a molten, caramelly, pudding-like treat. I was acting as taste tester, which wasn’t really a job because it was perfect every time.
On the other hand, my mom would make jai, known as monk’s food, and for some reason each year’s batch would come out differently. It was like uncorking the first bottle of a vintage wine: always a surprise, but not really fixable once the batch was done. Thank goodness, there were more good jai years than bad.
Then Mrs. Lee next door would make fresh gin dui for us as a Chinese New Year gift. They were always hot, lightly crisp, and filled with char siu. Since they were so delicate, they needed to be eaten right away or they’d deflate. These weren’t like the heavy, doughy restaurant gin dui; these were the real deal.
You may not have people in your life like Mrs. Lee, my mom, or my popo, so if you want a primer on celebrating Chinese New Year, I have a list of eight things you need to optimize ringing in the Year of the Dragon on January 23. This year is supposed to bring prosperity for all, so celebrate big.
1. Li See
If you're Chinese, the number one thing on your list for New Year is giving — or better yet, receiving — li see (also pronounced lai see), the traditional red money envelope. You can get this at just about any store in Chinatown, usually in packets of 10 to 12. The red color of the envelope symbolizes good luck and is supposed to ward off evil spirits; any amount is appreciated, as long as you don't give your money in increments of four, which symbolizes death. Tip: Make sure to ask what kind of envelope you're buying. Some are for the New Year, others for wedding or birthday.
Most of these were from Night in Chinatown last weekend. The next (and last) big event is the Chinese New Year Festival this Friday and Saturday at the Chinese Cultural Plaza, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. It’s free to the public and will feature food vendors, cultural demonstrations, retail items, and fortune telling.
Here’s a list of other happenings around town. Remember, you can celebrate Chinese New Year for the two weeks following January 23. Gung hei fat choy!
Mililani Town Center
January 21, 10 a.m.
If you can’t come to Chinatown, Chinatown will come to you. Lion dance performance followed by visiting the merchants around the center.
Royal Hawaiian Center
January 21, 3:30 p.m.; and January 23, 5 p.m.
Performances will begin in The Royal Grove with a blast of firecrackers. Lion dancing and a martial arts performance by Lung Kong Physical Culture Club.
Hawaii Kai Towne Center
January 21, 11 a.m.
Lion dance performance and kung fu demonstration by the Wah Ngai Lion Dance Association. The lion dancing will continue throughout the Center to bring good luck wishes to shoppers and merchants for the coming year.
Waipahu Festival Marketplace
January 22, 9 a.m.
Another lion dance performance. Come early for parking, as this event gets crowded.
Kahala Mall Center
January 22, 10 a.m.
The Wah Ngai Association will do a lion dance featuring acrobatic pole jumping, followed by visitation around the mall.
Ala Moana Center
The big lion dance is on January 28, noon at Centerstage, when 20 lions gather around a large firecracker cage, then disperse throughout the mall to bring good wishes to all.
Waikiki Beach Walk
January 27, 6 p.m.
The Chinese Lion Dance Association will feature a lion dance with the acrobatic pole jumping, followed by visitation to merchants around the Center.
Narcissus Coronation Ball
January 28, 5 p.m.
The Chinese Chamber of Commerce presents the Narcissus Coronation Ball at the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Coral Ballroom. A Chinese epicurean feast followed by program celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Chamber, with Halau Hula Olana, opera singer Ms. Bai He, and the crowning of the 63rd Narcissus Queen and her Court. The evening concludes with ballroom dancing. Tickets, $68, available at 808-533-3181