Happy Lunar New Year!
I’ve been to several Chinatowns throughout the US and we have several amazing ones but there is something a little more authentic and exciting being in an Asian country during an Asian holiday. In Thailand, the most noted Chinatown is in Bangkok but I happened to be in Chiang Mai during the Chinese New Year and was delighted to be able to immerse myself in the sights, tastes and sounds celebrating the lunar new year, or spring festival. The streets in Chinatown were full of vendors selling all different types of foods and drink. Street food here is inexpensive so you want to come with some cash and an empty stomach so you can taste a variety of things.
We are Family
The new year is a time for family and a special time to honor your ancestors. Think of it as one big family reunion party and the celebration actually lasts fifteen days. If they are away from home, the Chinese will travel far distances to be with their family during this time of year. In preparation, people spend time thoroughly cleaning their homes before the new year. It is said to represent a cleansing of the old to welcome the new as well as sweeping any of the bad luck from the previous year away. People will prepare meals ahead for several days so not to have to use knives or scissors which could be superstitious for “cutting out good fortune”.
Exorbitant amounts of crimson colors will be displayed throughout the new year celebrations and for good reason. Red is a lucky color and signifies good fortune and happiness. The legend is that there was a mythical character named Nian who would come into the villages destroying crops and scooping up young villagers. The children wearing red would be spared by Nian and it was discovered that the beast feared the color red. The townspeople would put out fruit for Nian to eat and adorn the front of the houses in red to ward off evil which is why the iconic red hanging lanterns are popular at this time of year. You will often see red envelopes with money in them to represent luck and wealth in the coming year. Often times the envelopes will be given to children and unmarried adults so as a single lady, feel free to send some “lucky money” my way please!
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire
The Dragon is a famous Chinese symbol and during a lunar new year celebration you are almost guaranteed to see a Dragon Dance and I witnessed my first one today! Several people all help to make the paper body move fluidly like a river and the head bobs up and down bouncing through the street, swimming through the crowds of people as it serpentines to the beat of the loud drumming.
You’ll find that people feed the dragon by placing those red envelopes of “lucky money” in it’s mouth enforcing it’s place as a symbol for good luck, prosperity and fertility.
The popping sound of fireworks are heard in the distance throughout the celebration. We have heard them ringing through the sky over the past few days, the noise drives away evil during the festivities.
We decided to visit the Chinese Buddhist temple today in honor of the lunar new year and it was an amazing cultural experience. The Chinese temple has some similarities as a Thai Wat (temple) but I felt privileged to go on such a special occasion. We arrived and you immediately notice a physical difference from the golden, bejeweled Thai style temples. Dragons greet you as they peer down with open mouths, their shiny white teeth exposed as their powerful, scaled bodies wrap around pillars on either side of the Paifang. Almost immediately the pungent aromatic smell of incense hits your nose. A thin layer of smoke is bellowing from all directions as the practice of using incense is a major part of praying at the temple. It is lucky to have sticks of incense in threes so you will often see people holding several together in a bundle, shuffling through the temple, holding the sticks in between their palms and up against their forehead to pray. There are red candles that come in pairs and prayers with these are said in the same way.
I stood in awe taking in all of the beauty of the temple and allowing myself a moment to feel all of the wonderful energy in the room. It was busy with people coming in and out, carrying candles, incense and mandarin fruits to leave during prayer. I closed my eyes for a moment to take in the quiet noises around me. There was a low murmur of foreign prayers every so often and the tapping of bare feet on the cool floor, but it was overshadowed by the rattling of wood that echoed through the room. I open my eyes and looked toward the direction of the sound to see what it was. There was a woman kneeling in front of the rows of candles and incense. In her hands was a bamboo cup full of small, thin wooden dowels and she quickly shook them until only one dowel fell from the cup onto the floor. She then reached for two rounded wooden blocks which she shook and dropped to the floor too. She repeated the process several times before getting up. I was curious to know what the ritual was for and came to find out she was using Chinese Fortune Sticks or Kau Cim. The process is that you ask the deity a question and then shake the cylinder of sticks until one falls out. Each stick has a number that corresponds with a story of an “Oracle of Kuan Yin” that will provide an answer to your question. The wooden blocks, or Jiaobei, are thrown to see the validity of the answer. The Jiaobei are round on one side and flat on the other so throwing one of each is a yes and throwing two rounded sides is a no. If both sides land flat you can ask again, reminding me of an ancient version of a Magic 8 Ball.
Shake your tail feathers
After we left the temple, we strolled through the streets of Thai China Town, perusing fabric shops, souvenir carts and investigating food stalls, wafting in unusual smells and photographing mouth watering cuisine. As we wandered, a little old asian woman had a woven shallow basket full of morning doves in bamboo cages. We looked at the caged doves confused and the woman pointed to the bird and then quickly flapped her hand over her head and said in a thick accent, “good luck, good luck”. Feeling sad for the trapped bird and an opportunity to welcome good fortune we decided to buy a bird and release it from it’s wooden cage.
After several attempts of twisting and turning the wooden ties and some assistance from some nice thai strangers, our dove spread its wings and flew from the enclosure immediately seeking refuge in a nearby tree next to the Ping river. I feel grateful to have the opportunity to celebrate the coming of this year once in America and once here in Thailand.