Jacob von Bisterfeld
Upon my arrival in China, many moons ago and after I became an expert chopstick practitioner, invitations to attend dinner parties staged by local Chinese families started to stream in and so it came to pass this year, a Tiger Year according to the Chinese Zodiac which features 12 auspicious animals, that I was invited to partake in several "pre-during-and-post" Spring Festival dinners, including the usually strictly "Family Only" New Years' eve dinner with a family in Hangzhou.
The importance of the Chinese New Year festivities can be approximated with the Western Christmas celebrations, the Muslim Eid al-Fitr, and Hindu Diwali.
The Spring Festival celebrations in China, however, MUST be graced, if at all possible, with the presence of the entire family in the ancestral house, including grandparents, great grandparents, uncles and aunts, regardless of how far individual members have to travel, which, in this vast land, could entail return trips of 3,000 km.
Cheers to the Year of Tiger!
Food preparation and cooking is usually a multiple mothers affair and commences soon after daybreak on New Year's eve because the number of dishes to be prepared at the family reunion dinner should amount to the number of revelers plus one and that means a lot of preparation and cooking.
Seating at the dinner table is strictly by seniority and children are to be seen only, not heard. Alcoholism is relatively rare in China but during official dinners and celebrations, binge drinking is encouraged by way of incessant rounds of toasting with the ubiquitous 60 percent proof Moutai, a rather potent alcoholic brew.
At the conclusion of the dinner, hongbao, red pocket envelopes stuffed with money are handed out by the adults to all unmarried children. When the clouds of gunpowder smoke and mounds of bright red, featherlight, firecracker swarf have been cleared and tripped eardrums have been reset, it was time to watch the spectacular New Year Gala show on TV.
The rest of the evening and early morning was spent by the adults by playing cards or Mahjong and by the children by chatting with friends on social media, and playing video games all night without being reprimanded by the normally bothersome parents and grandmothers alike.
I was also happy to be invited again to a New Year lunch in the countryside, twixt lush farmland and near the mighty Huangpu River, a pilgrimage of mine that has become a tradition for the past 10 or so years.
There, "Al fresco dining" gets an entirely new meaning, considering that my farming friends appear to enjoy fresh country air, of which there is an ample supply, and no winter heating.
At an ambience of around 6 degrees C, with doors and windows wide open, one needs to be well prepared to brave these icy conditions.
When reinforced with 3 woollen long johns, several pullovers and a windproof hooded storm jacket I am usually warm enough throughout the proceedings, despite the near freezing temperature and occasional wind gusts,
The venue for this annual gastronomic event is a rather ancient country house equipped with a traditional wood-fired stone cooking furnace. After the multi-dish and super delicious dinner, a traditional Chinese finger guessing game was staged. The modus operandi is that two people stretch out fingers at the same time while shouting out a number from 1 to 10. If one shouts out a number that is equal to the total number of fingers extended, then he or she will win, while the loser has to down an alcoholic drink as punishment.
In this traditional Chinese finger guessing game, people stretch out fingers at the same time while shouting out a number from 1 to 10. If one shouts out a number that is equal to the total number of fingers extended, then (s)he will win, while the loser has to down an alcoholic drink as punishment.
My final inauguration of the Tiger Year was at a New Year dinner cum house warming party at a Chinese family who had literally worked themselves up in a mere 10 years, from rags to riches. The communal underground car parking included two parking lots directly adjacent to the games room of their 5 story luxury apartment.
Ten years ago, the family subsisted on the proceeds of a small utility shop from which they branched out into manufacturing and by working day and night they now own a factory with a well-paid and happy staff of 100.
All this was and still is possible in China, where the unlikely can become reality.
The author is a freelancer in Shanghai. The views are his own.