Chinese New Year holds many memories for Annie Chinfen, and being 92 and living with Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t stop her celebrating now. Annie explains the significance of the celebration, and what it means to her.
Chinese New Year goes back more than a thousand years. It started because China was a farming country, and the day was special because it marked the end of winter and the start of the new spring.
It was special for lots of reasons. But prime among them is the opportunity for a family to come together. You would invite everyone in your family to come and eat at a round table.
It is important to honour our ancestors and remember those who have passed away. And it is also important to acknowledge parents and older people, because in Chinese culture, older people have great importance. Young people hold their hands together and bow. In the old days, their head had to touch the floor!
It was a great tradition for families to save their money so they had the chance to celebrate the new year well. And provide the best food you could. It is also a great tradition for older people to give money to younger people in a red packet or envelope. It is called ‘Lucky money’, and it is to wish people good luck. And the young people would have sweets and cake.
For younger people, they also get given an earthenware pot with a slot in it for money – almost like a piggy bank. But you couldn’t access the money, so you saved it up all year, and at the end of the year you would smash it open. It was to encourage saving, because in Chinese culture, saving is important.
Chinese New Year is not like it is in the west where you celebrate that one day. In our culture, we celebrate for 16 days. And over those days you would go and see people at their house, and receive people at your house.
‘It is really important for the whole community.’
It is common for a plum or a peach tree to be cut and put in the house, because the blossoms are red and pink, and those colours, along with gold and silver, are the colours of the celebration. The tree is for good luck because everything blooms!
But the memories I have of Chinese New year, growing up in Hong Kong, are amongst the warmest and nicest memories I have. Our house would get a total clean in the days running up to New Year.
I came from a very big family, and we were quite well off, and there was such excitement. I would get new clothes. And getting 'Lucky money' was so exciting and made me so happy. I remember my father very clearly – it was very important to him. We would release firecrackers and the louder the bang, the luckier it would be for business or farming.
That stopped when I was 11 because the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in the Second World War.
Chinese New Year is still important now. It is still a reason to phone each other and send gifts. My family are all over the world. It is chance to have a reunion and bring the generations together. It connects you to your community.
‘I can’t go back, but I can mark those traditions with other people like me.’
When my daughter, Rachel was young, I used to take her to Soho in London and see the amazing celebrations there. The lion dance or the dragon dance, and all the Chinese drumming and instruments and songs.
As I live in Essex, lots of people in the community used to meet in Harlow, and we would have a day when 200 or 300 of our community came together.
This year there won’t be big celebrations, because of coronavirus. Chinese culture is quite cautious! But we will probably get together – me, my daughter Rachel, my grandson James and their partners, and order lots of nice food. And I will still be giving out 'Lucky money'!