Chinese in US Usher In New Year of the Rooster

Chinatowns from coast to coast come alive to celebrate longevity, abundance, and new beginnings with parades, pageants, parties, and plenty of feasting

ONLY once in the lunar year comes the chance to see lions and dragons dance in the streets.

You must push through the crowds to see: Colorful ceremonial creatures roam the Chinese neighborhoods to the relentless racket of tiny red firecrackers exploding everywhere.

Red and gold Chinese kites fly overhead, and in restaurants, Chinese chefs do tricks with noodles by tossing them high in the air.

Happy Chinese New Year.

Or, "Gung Hay Fat Choy."

Started on January 23, this is the year of the rooster, the year 4691 by the lunar calendar.

The Chinese New Year has always been the most significant celebration in the People's Republic of China. In old days - before the era of Mao Tse-tung - the celebrating continued until the Feast of the Lanterns, usually the l5th of the first month of the Chinese New Year. Today, it can vary from three days to three weeks. For most Chinese, it is a time for family gathering and feasting.

The most magnificent New Year events in the United States are in San Francisco where the large Chinese population enjoys an unequaled list of festivities planned by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Most activities are free and open to the public.

The Chinese New Year kickoff at Union Square heads a series of events such as the Children's Kite Festival, a 1993 Miss Chinatown USA Pageant, a coronation ball, fashion show, community street fair, and a Queen's Cup Volleyball Tournament.

The Chinese Historical Society and Museum presents timely exhibits. There is a Chinese New Year Parade on Feb. 6, a Chinatown Carnival, a second Spring Festival, and a Chinese New Year Walk. Many non-Chinese also celebrate, enjoying the special holiday dishes and banquets as well as the activities.

Eating is a dominant part of the holiday for everyone. Before the feasting begins, however, there are important customs and rituals for Chinese families.

This is a time for clean slates, fresh starts, and new resolutions. Bills are paid. Houses are cleaned from top to bottom. Chinese children look forward to sweets and don new clothes; and in some households, they are not punished when they misbehave. Many couples are married at this time.

Food is bought in abundance, as well as flowers, such as branches of quince blossoms. The holiday is also known as the Spring Festival.

The preparations for the New Year are almost as interesting as the celebrations themselves, says San Francisco resident Bruce Cost.

"It's the rush to be ready. It works up to a crescendo as the New Year comes closer and store owners stock up on supplies," says Mr. Cost, a chef, food writer, and teacher of Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking.

"The streets of Chinatown are full of activity," Cost continues.

"There are truckloads of quince blossoms. Many special delicacies you can't get other times of the year will now be available. Stacks and crates of goods are being delivered. Street vendors, stores, and market stalls display more of everything this time of year - clothes, toys, and especially food. Huge baskets and boxes of citrus such as oranges, tangerines, and the giant, grapefruit-like fruit called pomelo are displayed. The stores are selling mini-kumquat trees and little orange trees."

On the East Coast, red and gold good-luck signs and colorful dragon dances brighten the somber, gray days of winter.

In New York and Boston the traditional parade animals delight children who, with their parents, crowd the Chinatown streets for the spectacle. Brightly colored dragon or lion figures of papier-mache are supported by men who walk beneath.

Often accompanied by drummers, they entertain the crowd by roaming the streets and approaching store keepers who either attempt to frighten them away with firecrackers or treat them with oranges.

In Boston, one special New Year event is noodle tossing. Chinese noodle stretching by hand dates back as far as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220). Noodles are traditional in China where to be old is to be respected, and there is nothing more desirable than longevity.

Master chef Zhang Qiang demonstrates the ancient art of handmade noodle stretching at the Joyce Chen restaurants in the Boston area.

Swinging the dough overhead with great dexterity, he stretches and tosses the noodles that will be prepared in soup with mixed seafood, chicken, or spicy Szewchuan beef.

Such noodles are one of six courses that make up the Chen restaurant's Great Performance Banquet, which is described as "a feast of both the eye and the palate." Stephen Chen offers the New Year banquet annually at his restaurants.

"The Chinese never cut their noodles," says Mr. Chen. "By their length, they signify long life and hold a respected position at birthdays and Chinese celebrations."

The Chen banquet starts with a traditional Chinese cold platter of shredded jellyfish, sliced cold roast duck, braised shrimp, pickled vegetables, and other delicacies.

Hot appetizers include Mandarin pancakes, chicken wings, Chinese spare ribs, and fried wontons.

Served next is the famous Peking Duck, with crispy skin, hoisin sauce, and crisp scallion brushes - all wrapped in thin pancakes.

Then comes a whole, farm-raised, steamed bass, followed by Szechuan Orange Beef.

The handmade noodle dish is next. Then comes a special dessert called Ginger Ice Cream Truffle - a round ball of ginger ice cream with a hard chocolate covering.

At elaborate New Year's banquets in this country, this writer has been served such delicacies as shredded jellyfish, sea cucumber or beche-de-mer with its gooey, yet crisp texture; dark, gelatinous, "thousand-year-old" eggs (which are not really that old), "lion's heads" (pork meatballs), and shark's fin or bird's nest soups.

A fine Chinese banquet is leisurely, with dishes arriving in well-paced order. The texture as well as flavor and temperature of each dish determines its order with a crunchy dish followed by a smooth one or sizzling followed by cool.

Too often a banquet by non-Chinese is interpreted as a time to show off the most unusual foods in too great a quantity.

Today, when you order a banquet at a restaurant, you may be offered a choice of a certain number of dishes at a fixed price. Each menu is graded by the price, with the top price including such delicacies as the shark's fin and swallow's nest soup.

Some banquets end with soup, and a delightful one is Three-Treasure Winter Melon soup served from the hollowed-out melon carved with handsome designs on the outside.

One of the few sweets is Eight-Treasure Rice, a pudding made of glutinous rice decorated on top with a design made of fruits such as preserved dates, candied plums, lotus seeds, citron, orange peel, watermelon seeds, walnuts, and almonds. Almond cookies are often served with lychees or other fresh fruit.

For many families, a favorite holiday food is pork buns, meat dumplings made of chopped pork, cabbage, seasonings wrapped in a thin dough and served with dipping sauces.

Some prepare hundreds of these dumplings, often starting early and freezing them ahead. Also typical are glutinous rice dumplings, filled with sesame-seed paste, and a soup with long, bean-thread noodles symbolizing longevity.

"I remember Chinese New Year when I was small," Mr. Chen says. "The day started when my sister, brother, and I would find small red envelopes under our pillows. Inside was a brand-new dollar bill to ring in the new year.

"Then my mother would make tea. We would have oranges on the table, a symbol of good luck, and sweets such as candied melon to symbolize a sweet new year and nuts to symbolize growth.

"Another very significant New Year dish is a fresh fish, completely whole," he says. "My mother would make this at home for the family. A steamed whole fish is always part of a New Year dinner celebration, and it symbolizes abundance."

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