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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Those Chinese traditions now come with a waiter

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Chinese New Year goodies have drawn shoppers this month at Bo Wah Trading Co. and other Chinatown shops. This Sunday is the first day of the new lunar year, celebrated by several Asian cultures.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Shoppers find seasonal specialties at Kekaulike Mall in Chinatown. Symbolic foods and gift envelopes are traditions of the lunar new year.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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In Chinatown last week, Lucy Ching of 'Aiea was shopping for gau and red gift envelopes and thinking about the old and the new.

The old, which, at age 52, she remembers hazily but fondly, was a long, long day and night of celebration at Popo and Goonggoong's (her grandparents') house in Kaimuki. The new is dinner Friday night, with family crowded around a table at Legend Seafood Restaurant.

Like many Hawai'i Chinese three or four generations removed from the original immigrants, Ching said the annual celebration of the lunar new year, which begins Sunday, is important "but it's not what it was."

Still, Chinatown has been buzzing for the past two weeks, with many stores dressed up in red and gold, boxes full of crimson-wreathed rounds of glistening gau (steamed rice-flour pudding), bakery trays lined with puffy, sesame-flecked jin dui and specialities such as freshwater chestnuts, lotus root, candied fruit and bright oranges piled up in front.

Chinese stores may be outnumbered by shops specializing in Southeast Asian and Filipino foods, and these days you hear Marshallese and Vietnamese spoken as often as Cantonese and Mandarin, but Chinatown remains lunar new year central. The theme is predominantly Chinese, although the holiday is also observed by other Asians, including Vietnamese, Koreans and Tibetans.

To mark the event, Ching makes a special dinner her signature pork hash for immediate family one night. But for the big clan celebration, they make reservations.

Her longtime friend Nellie Hong acknowledges the changing traditions: "All the grandmas or grandpas that can remember the first or second generation, they're getting old or gone. We are the old ones now, and we still cook and come out to Chinatown, but not so much. Everybody's working, nobody has time to spend three days cooking," she said.

"We always get together at least the older ones, Popo (82 now), all the brothers and sisters and in-laws in my generation and as many of the kids and grandkids as we can get to come," Ching said. But the big house in Kaimuki is long sold; Goonggoong passed away and Popo has an 'ohana house with one of the siblings. "Nobody has room to have us all for a party and, anyway, nobody can cook like Popo and she's just not able to do that now."

Ching recalls many of the popular new year's food traditions: Whole fish sizzling with hot oil part of it left on the platter to assure a year of abundance. Popo serving jai, the vegetarian stew popularly known as monk's food, in the middle of the night, because it was supposed to be the first food you ate. Being schooled to serve her elders respectfully with tea (in hopes, she admits, of receiving those exciting red envelopes stuffed with money). And being careful not to say or even think anything bad while you were stuffing the dumplings.

Today, Ching's family buys gau instead of making it, gives the grandkids the crimson li see envelopes (but this year Ching is stuffing them with Starbucks gift certificates for the teenagers) and wonders if the fifth, six and seventh generations will even bother with that much.

Ching's granddaughter Courtney Sekigawa, 16, of 'Aiea says yes. "Actually, Chinese things are cool in my generation. I'm into feng shui and I know people who take herbs and stuff, and we like the green tea. ... Yeah, maybe I don't know so much about what all the new year foods mean or why we eat them, but I like to eat them and I think I'm always going to want to do that. I'm not into cooking but I have one cousin who is really into it."

She's talking about her first cousin Lucille Ching Chen, 24, of Mililani.

"I was the one always trailing around after my great-grandma, under her feet in the kitchen," said Chen. "She's kind of frail now, and she forgets things, but all through my childhood, she was this amazing woman, who could make a dinner for 25 people and still be in the kitchen doing dishes at midnight. She used to come get me and take me shopping when I was younger, so I can go to Chinatown and ... I don't speak Chinese but I at least know what I'm looking for how to tell a fresh fish or a good crab."

Chen will cook a full Chinese dinner for her husband, children and parents, she said, but can't imagine "doing the whole clan Chinese New Year thing! Only Popo could do that."

Chinese New Year traditions now come with waiter instead of grandma's cooking

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.