The Mysteries of Chinese New Year

In 2013 I spent Chinese New Year in Zhaoxing, a tiny village in Guizhou. The resultant food-and-firework-related trauma led me to put together a survival guide to the experience. Happily, this year survival will not be uppermost in my mind – Mr Yak and I are staying in Hong Kong.


Firecrackers at dawn, Zhaoxing © Jo James

This year, I decided that it was time to solve some mysterious aspects of the Chinese New Year (hereafter CNY) celebrations that have baffled me since our arrival here in 2008. Why do building lobbies across town sprout miniature orange trees? What do the displays of weirdly-shaped lemons mean? And what’s the story with all the astrology guides that appear in 7-11? Below, I present my findings, plus a special CNY offer for y’all. 恭喜发财! Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái! Kung Hei Fat Choy! May the Year of the Horse be a good one for us all…

P.S. Many thanks to Helen, Mr Yak’s mama, for helping explain most of these 🙂

Mystery #1: What on earth are these? And can you eat them?

Any ideas? © Someone else, I'm afraid

Any ideas? © Someone else, I’m afraid

In Chinese, this odd little fruit has a perfectly respectable name, “Five Generations in the Same House” (五代同堂 wǔ dài tóng táng – mh dai tuhng tong in Cantonese). In English it seems to inspired a plethora of rather racier names, including “Nipplefruit”, “Tittyfruit”, and even “Apple of Sodom”.

While the nipplefruit may look like a citrus fruit (I’ve previously thought of it as the ‘weirdly-shaped lemon’ mentioned in the introduction), it’s a member of the nightshade family found in tropical South America and the Caribbean. Like its distant cousin deadly nightshade the nipplefruit is poisonous, and has traditionally been used in Trinidad to cure athlete’s foot.

How it came to be imported into Hong Kong and Taiwan as a decorative plant is one mystery that I haven’t solved yet, but however it got here it’s a popular addition to seasonal flower arrangements. The Chinese name comes from the fruit’s shape, which often has five lumps protruding from the bottom of a single fruit. In Chinese culture, having five generations under one roof is considered very fortunate and desirable – although it sounds like a recipe for the mother of all family arguments to me…

Mystery #2: What are these? And can you eat them?

Delicious Gold Heaps for Sale! © Jo James

Fried Piles for Sale! © Jo James

These, dear readers, are literally called “fried piles” or jiānduī (sounds more like jeemdoy in Cantonese) and they are indeed edible, although you may need reinforced teeth if you want to eat the red stuff on top. Balls of popcorn mixed with syrup are covered in a thin layer of pastry, which is then rolled in sesame seeds and deep-fried – crunchy and delicious. Sometimes the dumplings are left left plain and round, sometimes they’re shaped like pomegranates and sometimes they’re decorated like the ones above with rock-hard candy on top.

Jiandui are made, given and eaten at CNY for several reasons. They’re round, which in Chinese culture symbolises a whole family gathering together to celebrate. They’re sugary, for a sweet start to the New Year. And the ones shaped like pomegranates – pomegranates containing many seeds – symbolise a fertile year ahead, possibly with many sons or grandsons on the horizon if you’re really lucky.

Mystery #3: What’s with the forests of mini orange trees? 

Orangey fields forever © Jo James

Orangey fields forever © Jo James

I love the metre-high orange trees that appear each year – so pretty! – but I was less impressed when I tried to eat one of the oranges. While the fruit might look ripe, the trees have been forced to fruit by the application of a cocktail of chemicals, leaving the fruit mouth-puckeringly sour.

Hongkongers give CNY gifts of citrus fruits – usually tangerines and mandarin oranges – as symbols of abundance and prosperity in the year ahead. Much like satsumas at Christmas time in the US and UK, the bright fruit brings some colour to an otherwise wintery festival and while the trees might not produce delicious, sweet fruit, the meaning is the same.

Mystery #4: What is really inside the astrology guides on sale in 7-11?

Convenience Store Astrology, Circle-K, Cheung Chau © Jo James

Convenience Store Astrology, Circle-K, Cheung Chau © Jo James

From December onwards inch-thick astrology guides materialise on Hong Kong’s newstands alongside copies of Mingpao Daily and Old Master Q. My choice for this year (Mak Lingling’s Guide to the Year of the Horse) clocks in at an amazing 428 pages – how on earth can a horoscope be so long?

The first 150 pages are filled by horoscopes for each zodiac sign, broken down into an overview, plus sections for finances, work, love and health, then a further horoscope for each birth year. Ms Mak then goes onto give a more specific horoscope on the basis of your day of birth (200 pages) and a Fengshui guide (78 pages). In my case it seems like it’s going to be an argumentative year ahead, unless I learn to bite my tongue and be flexible – good advice, I suppose – and it’s going to be a good year for travelling…

Which brings me to my special CNY offer: E-mail me at jo[at]little-yak[dot]com with your date of birth and I’ll translate what Mak Lingling has predicted for your year ahead – for the first ten people, at least 🙂

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