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2020 Chinese New Year Celebrations | Q&A with Tokki’s Creative Director

Chinese New Year is upon us! Also known around the world as “Lunar New Year” this special holiday is traditionally a time for the Chinese to honor their deities and ancestors, as well as to clean their homes so as to “sweep out” any ill-fortune and make way for incoming good luck.

The festival that occurs each time this year is commonly called the Spring Festival and festivities such as gifting, good food, and the Lantern Festival, which take place on the 15th day of the Chinese calendar year. Chinese New Year is one of many new year celebrations that happen around this time of year for many different Asian cultures, including in Korea, Vietnam, and Tibet.

Lanterns Chinese New Year. Photo cred: Culture Trip

2020 Chinese New Year Animal: Year of the Rat

As we say goodbye to the Year of the Pig and welcome in the Year of the Rat, we find ourselves at the beginning of the Chinese zodiac. The rat, which is the first zodiac sign of twelve in the Chinese zodiac, represents surplus, resourcefulness, wealth, and vitality. We are looking forward to an abundant year indeed!  

Lunar New Year: A Q&A with Tokki’s Creative Director

In a recent meeting, Our Creative Director, Loann Lam, shared wonderful stories and memories she has celebrating the Chinese New Year. She graciously offered to share these with all of us. Loann is an Asian American of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. Her family celebrates both Chinese New Year and Tet, which is also known as Vietnamese New Year. These are two different celebrations and cultures, but as her family is bi-or-tri-lingual, they naturally incorporate both cultures and have adopted some new traditions that feel all-inclusive to the grandchildren in her family, who are of mixed descent.

We asked her some questions about how she and her family celebrate and honor these special days, and she was gracious enough to share with us some beautiful answers. Now we want to share them with you!

Red lantern

What does Chinese New Year mean to you?

This is a time to reconnect with family and friends. A time to reset, prepare your family and your house in order for the rest of the year. Clean out your closets and get your business in order is what they say.

During Tet and Chinese New Year, we would greet or wish each other prosperity, good luck, good fortune, or for a long healthy life to those we meet. When I was a kid I was quite confused by this. Why was everyone going around wishing everyone else prosperity and to live to 100 years old? And what if we forgot someone, would that person be doomed? 

My adolescent mind took it to mean that the holiday involved superstition - as if you were not in control of your destiny, or that we all needed a little luck to get through life. Now as an adult, I see it completely different: each person is using their personal power and energy to bestow goodwill or fortune to those they meet, even strangers. Like a blessing.

How do you celebrate Chinese New Year and Tet as an Asian American? 

My parents like to have plum blossoms and other flowers throughout the house. In January, it feels like spring inside. They like to invite extended family and guests over. There is the casual exchange of gifts – usually tea, pastries, fruit baskets to go along with well wishes, good luck, and prosperity for the rest of the new year.

As everyone nibbles on food and pastries, children run in and out playing, they greet new guests or adults and usually collect red envelopes from the adults with money in it. There isn’t a presentation or a “time” to open gifts. It just happens casually over normal exchanges and interactions. The amount of money in the red envelope doesn’t really matter either. It is about the community of elders who are thinking of you (your aunts, uncles, godparents, etc.) and want to wish good things in your future (whatever they are).

Plum Blossoms. Photo cred: Tesselaar Flowers

What is a fond or favorite childhood memory you have about Chinese New Year? 

My fondest memories are the moments the day after when there are no more guests, and leftovers are strewn all over the kitchen. When I am too full to eat another bite and feel the need to go walk it off. My parents and I end up sitting around drinking tea.

We chat, and our entertainment is the previous year’s zodiac predictions. We keep tabs on what did or didn’t happen. We have a good chuckle. The funny thing is it doesn’t have to be Tet or Chinese New Year for my mom to end every phone conversation or when I leave to go to the airport with the usual: “Bye honey. Good luck, okay?”

Is gifting a part of the Chinese New Year celebrations? If so, what types of gifts and gifting rituals?

Gifting is always a part of the celebration. Usually, the guests come with gifts, and if you are visiting someone you should bring gifts. The color RED is very important and symbolizes good luck. Pink and Red flowers, red tins of tea, red wrapped cookies, red paper envelopes…when we were little my mother would dress us in red — it is as if you are manifesting your own good luck energy surrounded by all the red and good wishes.

Note: This Chinese New Year Sparkles Tokki wrap can easily fit cookies, tea, and many other special Chinese New Year gifts.

Chinese New Year Sparkles Tokki Wrap

What rituals and traditions are most important to you?

Over the years, our family traditions have been modified a bit. When I was little, my parents used to take us to Temple to see the fireworks and dragon parade. But as my parents aged, we have simplified our celebrations. My parents still like to give their grandchildren red envelopes. My mother now buys pastries, or we bring them, she doesn’t hand make them anymore.

My parents like to skim over the zodiac and astrology charts for each of us and the grandchildren — and my siblings and I predict, laugh and tease each other about what the charts say. And then we have a family dinner. Just like Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is an opportunity to connect.

Red Envelope. Photo cred: Ted.com

And, finally…Food! Are there any particular foods that you make in celebration of the Chinese New Year?

Food – especially dessert –  is central to the celebration. I have to be ready to embrace lots of gluten during this time!!

Some of the yummy desserts my mom would make or buy are sponge cake, sesame balls, banana tapioca with coconut, or glutinous rice balls with sweet ginger syrup.

(Loann was awesome enough to include some cool links to recipes, which we’ve included below. Make your own Lunar New Year treats!)

Paper-Wrapped Sponge Cake:

Paper Wrapped Sponge Cake. Photo cred: O&O Eats

Paper wrapped sponge cake is a type of Chinese pastry. It is one of the most common pastries served in Hong Kong. It can also be found in most Chinatown bakery shops. In essence, it is a chiffon cake baked in a paper cup. In the bakeries of Chinatown, San Francisco, it is commonly referred to as "sponge cake.” 

Glutinous Rice Balls in Syrup:

Chinese: Tang Yuan
Vietnamese: Che troi nuoc

These sweet rice balls are the hallmark dessert of the New Year celebration. They’re the sugary equivalent of a dumpling, often infused with black sesame, red bean, or ground peanuts. It's an auspicious dessert because the round shape of the delicacy signifies unity within the family.

There are variations of different fillings, the Chinese version uses black sesame inside. Taiwanese and Vietnamese version has mung bean filling.

It's usually simply served in the water it was boiled in but can also be boiled in a sweetened syrup flavored with ginger, fermented sweet rice, or red bean.

Black Sesame Glutinous Rice Balls (TANG YUAN). Photo cred: Huang Kitchen by Angie Liew

Steamed Rice Cake:

Chinese: Nian gao
Nian gao, sometimes translated as year cake or Chinese New Year's cake, is a food prepared from glutinous rice flour and consumed in Chinese cuisine. While it can be eaten all year round, traditionally it is most popular during Chinese New Year. 

Vietnamese: Banh Bo Hap
Steamed rice cakes with honey-comb like texture, infused with creamy coconut milk. Vietnamese steam rice cakes are originally from Southern China and gained its popularity through the Vietnam region, especially Southern Vietnam.

Sesame Rice Balls:

Chinese: Jian Dui
Vietnamese: Banh Cam

This chewy-yet-crispy dessert is a staple year-round but is especially enjoyed for Lunar New Year. It is traditionally filled with a sweetened red bean paste and coated in sesame seeds.

Sesame Balls Recipe (Vietnamese Bánh Cam). Photo cred: HungryHuy

Egg Tarts:

The egg tart is a kind of custard tart found in Greater China deriving from the English custard tart and the Portuguese pastel de nata. The dish consists of an outer pastry crust filled with egg custard.

Fruit Baskets:

Certain fruits are eaten during the Chinese New Year period, such as tangerines, oranges, and pomelos. They are selected as they are particularly round and "golden" in color which symbolizes fullness and wealth.

Thank you so much, Loann! Happy Chinese New Year and Tet to you and your family!

More Holiday Celebration Ideas

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