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’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.
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.
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.”
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.