Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, January 31, 2003

Kung Hee Fat Choy... may happy times return

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Mimi Say, owner of M.P.Lei Shop on Maunakea Street, adds gold charms to a quince arrangement in front of her shop.

Photos by Bruce Asato • Honolulu Advertiser

Home is where the heart of Chinese New Year is. That's how it used to be, at least.

The Rev. Duane Pang, a Taoist priest, has memories of his childhood observances. A pair of tangerines and lisee — those red money envelopes for the keiki — were stationed on the bed, by the stove, in the fridge, in the car, a symbol of good luck.

The house was cleaned, top to bottom. His grandmother would make jin dui, or deep-fried sesame balls, for fund-raiser booths. There'd be the smell of cooking jai, the customary vegetarian dish. Later, when he was a young teen, he'd start training for the lion dances with his kung fu club.

These days it just isn't the same.

"It's been watered down plenty," Pang said. "I've been active doing this since 1966; even before that, I was helping my grandmother.

"We'd go to Chinatown, and lots of times went home at 2 a.m. Now it ends at 8 p.m. because of the firecracker restrictions and the merchants don't want to stay open because it's dangerous."

Chinese New Year charms and wall hangings are on display in Chinatown in anticipation of the Year of the Ram.

Photos by Bruce Asato • Honolulu Advertiser

The Chinese New Year, or lunar new year as it is known in most parts of Asia, arrives at midnight tonight. The first day of the lunar year coincides with the second new moon after the starting date of winter, no earlier than Jan. 20 or later than Feb. 20 on the Gregorian solar calendar used by most of the world since 1582.

It remains a popular celebration in Hawai'i but one that is observed at public events like last weekend's "Night in Chinatown" bash and in family gatherings at restaurants. Fewer of the younger Chinese-American generations maintain the homespun rituals.

Firecracker restrictions are a particular sore point with the old guard of the Chinese community. Sun Hung "Sunny" Wong, best known as the "Honorary Mayor of Chinatown" and an organizer of the recent Chinatown extravaganza, is not the least among the critics.

"The problem with fireworks is New Year's Eve," Wong said, referring to the Western variant, Dec. 31. "The problem isn't Chinese New Year."

For the past 2 1/2 years, the regulation governing Kung Hee Fat Choy, like the Dec. 31 celebration, is that people need to buy a $25 permit per 5,000 firecrackers to be purchased. Also, whereas Chinese New Year fireworks once were allowed from 9 p.m. on the eve until 12:30 p.m. the next day, now they're legal from only 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.his certainly puts a crimp in the old-style household celebrations, where midnight was critical milepost, marked with fireworks and other rituals.

"At midnight, we'd burn incense and open the door to welcome the new year," Pang said. "After that, we sacrifice to the ancestors, burning incense and making food offerings. And we'd serve tea to parents, with sweet meats, candied carrots and squash put in. If you're diabetic, you're in trouble.

"Then we sit down to a vegetarian meal at 2:30 in the morning."

None of the neighbors of Pang's mother's house, where the family party still takes place, ever complained about noise, he said.

Judy Ng of Shung Chong Yuein Chinese Pastry Shop in Chinatown readies trays of gau, a traditional New Year's treat.

Photos by Bruce Asato • Honolulu Advertiser

"They were all in their 80s, so they were half deaf, already," said Pang with a laugh. "And in the morning, they're going to get jai and goodies from the Pang family."

Pang is a rare example of the baby boomer who still knows how it's done — largely because most of his contemporaries have long since relinquished the religious practices that are at the center of New Year's traditions. These include offerings that business people make to deities of the Earth during the last full moon of the year, he said, and visits to the temple to give thanks.

"The kids nowadays don't have time," Wong said. "They have more important things to do."

Pang and Wong agree that the more recent Chinese immigrants, including those of Chinese ancestry who were Vietnamese or other Southeast Asian nationals, have reinvigorated the celebration. Chinatown merchants bring in decorations from China, some more elaborate than Pang remembers. But traditions vary regionally, so the practices aren't the same as what longtime residents remember.

Douglas Chong, a Chinese cultural historian and adviser to contestants in the Narcissus Festival pageant, has noted the change as well. Many of the newer arrivals are from the same part of south China as the original immigrants, but the practices have been updated, at least cosmetically. Lisee decorated with "Hello Kitty" or other popular designs instead of the traditional gold characters are the rage with the recent immigrants. By contrast, he said, the rituals recalled by the local Chinese community are frozen in the pre-war era.

Sabrina Pham of Kimi's Fashion II at the Maunakea Marketplace arranges Chinese zodiac charms. This will be the Year of the Ram.

Photos by Bruce Asato • Honolulu Advertiser

"Many of the Chinese here are descended from the original immigrants who came over 100 years ago," he said. "For these people, Chinese New Year has changed immensely. Once grandparents passed away in the '50s or '60s, a lot of the traditions were gone."

Or, if they're not gone, they're diminished. Where Pang used to help beat homemade versions of the sticky sweet rice cakes called gau, today people buy the store- or restaurant-made kind.

There is still marked enthusiasm for at least a commercial celebration. Downtown, the traditional displays of narcissus, quince or cherry blossom plants or cuttings abounded, as did the buyers. After the 9/11 financial bust, the holiday shopping was muted, said Kay Kadooka, shopkeeper at Flower Field at Maunakea Marketplace.

"People aren't afraid to spend money this year," she said.

Vietnam-born lei seller Mimi Say cautioned the uninitiated to look for red or pink blossoms for Chinese New Year decorations. "People put it in a vase and hang lisee in it," she said.

The fourth- and fifth-generation Chinese relish the trip downtown, or "being in the scene," Chong said.

"Where now it's, 'I want to go to Chinatown because it makes me feel Chinese, and then we can celebrate,' in the past the big celebrations went on at home," he added.

"And it was so rich," he said. "It went on for two weeks of festivities, and each day you would make different kinds of food."

Today, Pang and Wong do what they can to pass on traditions to younger kin or associates. Chong feels hopeful every time he meets a Narcissus contestant with a commitment to culture.

But he also worries that the interest expressed may be too little, too late, to stop the erosion of customs.

"These kids that are now in their 40s and 50s are saying, 'I'd like to continue,' but many times they don't know what they're continuing," he said. "They counted on grandma to do these things, and all of a sudden she died. They've been struggling ever since.

"People never realize what they've lost until they lose it."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.