How to Prepare for the Lunar New Year of the Clever Red Fire Monkey

Celebrate the Lunar New Year of the Monkey with tangerines, koi, red and gold. Photo" Anna Mindess

On my recent trip to China in early January, I was surprised to find scads of scampering monkeys swinging on red and gold banners all over Beijing. “It’s weeks before February 8, the start of the new Lunar New Year; isn’t it a bit early to start decorating?” I asked my guide.

“Oh no,” she replied, “it’s such an important holiday, people begin preparations way ahead.”

Although I’m back in the East Bay now, part of me is still in China, wishing I could celebrate this New Year of the Monkey appropriately, with festive decorations and symbolic lucky foods. As I headed to a job in downtown Oakland last week, the clever Monkey spirit must have heard my wish, because I happened to pass the perfect store on the edge of Chinatown, called Chanco. Its personable owners, husband and wife Jimmy and Sandra Lam, were happy to help me find everything I need to warmly welcome this year’s Fire Monkey (who is supposed to usher in a year of passion, creativity, and joy).

Chanco Housewares in Oakland Chinatown. Photo: Anna Mindess
Chanco Housewares in Oakland Chinatown. (Anna Mindess)

Chanco’s long red sign on 7th Street proclaims it a Housewares and Restaurant Supply Shop – my equivalent of a free ticket to foodie Fairyland. I was smitten the moment I stepped inside the cavernous interior filled with neatly arranged shelves displaying over 10,000 items. Aisle after aisle of kitchen treasures: from elegant Japanese crockery; super-sized soup tureens; teeny teapots; to a profusion of gadgets (such as graters, peelers, curlers, zesters in a range of sizes). Chanco, a year-and-a-half-old, family-owned business, caters to a range of customers, from devoted home cooks to small restaurant owners to the elder residents of Chinatown.

Auspicious red dishes
Auspicious red dishes (Anna Mindess)

When I asked Sandra what kind of dishes I would need for a Chinese New Year feast, she replied that it is important to use one’s best dishes or perhaps, like the custom of buying new clothes, a new set of dishes. She pointed out a few favorites for these festivities: red dishes with Chinese characters representing blessings, such as “longevity”; traditionally elegant blue and white patterns; or those featuring pink flowers, powerful dragons, or lucky koi fish.

Pink floral bowls
Pink floral bowls (Anna Mindess)

An essential element in the preparation for Lunar New Year is a thorough house cleaning and Sandra directed me to a section of the store stocked with a rainbow-hued range of brushes, brooms and gloves. “Remember to sweep toward the door,” she says, “you are sweeping out all the bad luck accumulated in the last year.”

Sweep away last year's bad luck
Sweep away last year's bad luck (Anna Mindess)

It’s important to maintain a positive attitude to welcome in a new year of health, family togetherness, longevity, wealth and other blessings. There are lucky foods to eat, and other auspicious traditions to observe.

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“I love Lunar New Year because it is the time of year where everybody pauses from their busy lives to spend time with family and relatives, especially the elders,” Sandra says. “Growing up, my grandparents lived with us. My grandmother was kind of strict about keeping the New Year celebrations cheerful, as an omen for the coming year, so she didn’t let us watch any violent or sad TV shows, speak about bad things or eat anything with a negative connotation like bitter melon. ”

Sandra comes from a family of entrepreneurs. If you live closer to San Francisco, visit Kamei, a housewares store run by her aunt for over 20 years.

The quintessential dish on every Chinese New Year's eve table is a steamed fish. The Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds like “surplus” and heralds prosperity. It is essential that the fish is served with head and tail attached to make sure that the coming year has both a good beginning and ending. In a previous post when Lisa Li showed me how to buy a live fish, she explained, “Another important aspect of Chinese New Year tradition is not to finish the fish course on New Year’s Eve, but leave some to be eaten the next day so that the abundance of the yu will continue into the New Year."

The classic preparation for the fish is to steam it whole and Chanco carries a range of steamers that appeal to different groups. Sandra has noticed that Southeast Asian customers (Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Burmese) love aluminum cookware, including steamers because they heat up faster.

Fish-shaped cake mold
Fish-shaped cake mold (Anna Mindess)

Chinese cooks prefer stainless steel because they deem it a healthier material to cook in. Yet, bamboo steamers are also part of traditional Chinese cooking and believed to enhance the ingredients being steamed. Chanco has all of these in a range of sizes, as well as fish-shaped molds for lucky fish sponge cakes.

Lunar New Year Banners
Lunar New Year Banners (Anna Mindess)

At Chanco, you can also find the red and gold banners that are hung all over the house to usher in good luck, little red envelopes with mischievous monkeys that are filled with money and handed out to the kids and lucky bamboo plants believed to attract positive energy.

Bamboo is always lucky
Bamboo is always lucky (Anna Mindess)

All I need to buy now to complete my preparations are fresh flowers, such as cherry blossoms and traditional foods, most of which have auspicious connotations.

As I found out previously, it is essential to serve a whole chicken with head and feet, symbolizing family togetherness. And although many Chinese New Years’ foods vary by family and village, the one universal dish is crescent shaped dumplings. Traditionally, dumplings are made on New Year's Eve by all the members of the family, working together. Their shape represents gold ingots and symbolizes good fortune for the upcoming year.

      Lucky food homonyms abound in the New Year’s menu. Sandra gives me some examples in Cantonese:
    • Lotus root, lee nau, sounds like "come every year," to insure whatever you desire is ongoing.
    • Pigs’ feet, chu sao = everything is within reach
    • Dried oyster, ho see = good things are coming
    • Lettuce, san choi = growing wealth
    • Shrimp, ha = laughter or happiness.

Here’s an exhaustive list of lucky-sounding foods.

“These traditions were a bigger part of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, “ Sandra says with a sigh. “Nowadays, younger peoples’ lives are so busy, rushing around from one thing to another, there is no time to do all the preparations.”

For members of the older generation, part of the pre-New Year preparation  is baking ten or more sweet rice cakes, daikon radish cakes or puffy sponge cakes to give as gifts to family members. Chanco has a huge assortment of disposable foil pans in a myriad of shapes. Perfect to hand out to visiting relatives. “Cooking these is still a big deal for our elders. They give cakes to the younger members of their family and feel very useful again,” says Sandra.

Steps to Prepare for The New Lunar New Year:

  1. Clean your house from top to bottom to rid it of any bad luck from last year. Sweep it out towards the door.
  2. Clean your internal house as well, paying off debts and resolving any quarrels with friends.
  3. Get some new clothes and a haircut before the big day (scissors are to be avoided so you don’t snip off any good luck).
  4. Prepare food ahead of time for family and to give away. Knives also must be put away so you don’t accidentally cut off any incoming good luck.
  5. Decorate the house with red and gold banners. Red signifies happiness; gold represents prosperity. Red lanterns work well, as do charms with fancy knots that protect from evil and ensure longevity.
  6. Set out branches of plum and cherry blossoms (the first fruit of the year to blossom).  Bid farewell to winter and anticipate spring. Kumquat, orange or mandarin trees are especially prized. If nothing else, display a bowl of these orange fruits in your home.
Sandra, Jimmy Lam and family
Sandra, Jimmy Lam and family (Anna Mindess)

Chanco
410 7th Street [Map]
Oakland, CA, 94607
Tel: (510) 238-8988
Hours: Mon-Sun 9:30am-6pm
Facebook: Chanco Oakland (Housewares & Restaurant Supply)

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Chinese New Year events, including San Francisco Chinatown’s Big Parade on Feb 20.

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