Chinese New Year: Holiday is all about being family 

click to enlarge Patricia, left, and Ford Lee will gather and prepare food for their family on the holiday weekend. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Patricia, left, and Ford Lee will gather and prepare food for their family on the holiday weekend.
This Chinese New Year’s Eve, Patricia Lee, 81, a several-generations San Franciscan, plans to cook dinner like she does every Wednesday for her daughter’s family, who live above the Anza Vista unit Lee and her husband share.

That is quite a departure from her childhood growing up in Chinatown, when her mother on the day before Chinese New Year — the most custom-heavy day of the nearly two-monthlong festivities — would make her wear a traditional Chinese dress. The entire family would gather for a big dinner and spend the rest of the evening on the firecracker-filled streets visiting friends.

“It’s very different for us now because my parents and my aunts and uncles are all gone and so we do New Year’s with our children and grandchildren, and for us it’s selecting a weekend day that everybody is available,” Lee said. “So we don’t celebrate on New Year’s Eve or Day.” Her husband, Ford, 83, a first-generation Chinese-American, agreed. The huge family gathering for “hoi leen,” the start of the New Year, doesn’t have to happen on the eve or day, or even that weekend, he said.

“Nowadays, people even extend it to the second week or third week and they still call it hoi leen,” he said. “It’s not like we used to do it as one big celebration for the New Year.”

While New Year’s Eve and Day will be relatively quiet for the Lee family, Patricia and Ford will have their plates full that Saturday or Sunday. As the elders, they will buy the ingredients on Clement Street and cook for all 14 relatives that live in the Bay Area, if they decide to dine at home. Their dinner would consist of a mixed-vegetable stew called jai; melon soup, chicken, fish and pork dishes; and some desserts.

Alternatively, the Lee family might decide to eat out at one of their favorite spots — Golden Horse Restaurant on Nob Hill or Kirin Chinese Restaurant in the Richmond district. There, they would also order melon soup, sweet rice-stuffed chicken, Peking duck with steamed buns, pork belly, clams and raw fish salad.

“It’s sort of traditional,” Patricia Lee said of the restaurant items. “Some of the dishes are banquet food dishes. We throw in a lot that are just favorites of the family.”

Afterward, the Lee family will exchange red envelopes, a tradition that younger, single members of the family love because they contain money. Among their abandoned practices — some by law, as firecrackers have since been ruled illegal in San Francisco — are Patricia Lee’s mother-in-law’s custom of buying new curtains for the kitchen to symbolize the start of the new year.

“That’s what she was used to doing but my parents were born here and they just didn’t. I think it’s being Americanized,” Patricia Lee said, explaining that her mother-in-law, an immigrant from China, was “100 percent a housewife.”

New Year’s Day for the Lee elders will likely be largely uneventful.

“We’ll probably just be at home and have a simple meal,” Ford Lee said. “It’s sort of sad, when I think about it,” Patricia Lee said, chuckling. “All my children are at work, the kids are in school, and I guess things just change.”

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Bio:
Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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