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Why the usual tikoy and feng shui press coverage of Chinese New Year doesn't tell the whole story

By Roselynn Jane Chan Villa Published Feb 12, 2021 3:14 am Updated Feb 12, 2021 3:49 am

I recently saw a Chinese New Year story aired by a local broadcast network’s primetime news program. It was typical of the Chinese New Year celebration news features reported every year. There will be a stand-upper with Manila’s Chinatown in the backdrop, and interviews with sellers of tikoy, lucky charms, and lucky fruit and food items. In general, the recurring theme is what the Chinese people do and recommend to bring luck and prosperity in the coming new year.

From a journalism standpoint, I suppose stories like this meet the newsworthiness criteria of timing, proximity, human interest, and significance. Chinese New Year, or the Lunar New Year to be more inclusive to cultures who follow the lunar calendar and celebrate the new year at this time, is important to over a billion people globally, and here in our country, to a huge bloc of Filipinos of Chinese descent.

In Manila’s Chinatown, people within the district as well as from other parts of the city along with foreign travelers look forward to the yearly celebrations to witness how the customs and traditions have been preserved and are still being practiced to this day.

Since the Chinese New Year celebrations are known to gather a huge crowd, it was important to provide information on how COVID will change things. The news in this year’s feature is that Chinatown street celebrations are cancelled, and that there will be a two-day liquor ban.

As I reflect on these news features and similar feature stories from other media outlets, I do find myself zoning out on the repetitive parts – the ones about tikoy and lucky food, crystals, feng shui, zodiac, and the like. Don’t misunderstand; I find comfort in the fact that many things remain the same every year, based on the news reports. But, I find that this sameness doesn’t tell the story for all Chinese Filipinos anymore.

I consider myself a curious outsider looking in, observing what’s important to the Chinese people, while on the other hand reacting to the report and thinking, that’s not how we do it. What I’m watching is an occasion that places high significance on material prosperity and bounty. While in practice, it is more about togetherness and good food. 

What we do at home is still quite similar to the reports – we buy tikoy. We like having a lot of fruit that happen to be round, like the kiatkiat and kiwi. We like to have a lot of food during Chinese New Year’s Eve and wear red. 

And yet, what we do is also starkly different from what’s on the news.

Our family does not follow feng shui. We don’t buy the round fruit for luck, we just happen to like fruit and round fruit is what’s available at this time. The new year that we celebrate as a major event is the Gregorian Calendar new year. For CNY, someone will just ask a few days prior if any of us wanted to have a thing. Our CNY meals are never planned so they don’t conform to tradition. One year there was even ampalaya, a definite no-no to traditionalists because it’s supposed to mean one whole year of bitterness. Whether we meet as a big group or just have regular dinner, there will always be good food.

How did our family end up with our own traditions? My maternal grandparents were first generation Cantonese immigrants in the 1930s, and 9 of their 10 children, my mom, aunts and uncles, were born in the Philippines. My mom is the 8th in the brood, and she fondly recalls how her Ako (the first older brother in Cantonese) would refuse customers and insist that the panciteria be closed early on Chinese New Year’s eve. He would prepare an elaborate set of dishes that my mom cannot anymore recall, but she remembers that her brother was the best cook and that he would prepare everything for them. 

When the first brother passed away, somehow the elaborate preparation for CNY also stopped. The second brother, my Uncle Johnny, would instead gather all of us in his spacious balcony decked with a full bahay kubo and swings on the 31st of December of the Gregorian calendar. This is the new year tradition that I was born into and probably explains why I don’t relate so much with Chinese New Year itself.

In this sense, I find a certain alienness to how the Chinese New Year celebrations are featured. I consider myself a curious outsider looking in, observing what’s important to the Chinese people, while on the other hand reacting to the report and thinking, that’s not how we do it. What I’m watching is an occasion that places high significance on material prosperity and bounty. While in practice, it is more about togetherness and good food. 

I think there are infinite layers of unexplored stories related to Chinese New Year and what it means to Chinoys. 

The author, standing at the center at the back of the boy in red, in one of their clan gatherings

For instance, do we not wonder why, after the bout of cool weather, the temperature starts to rise after Chinese New Year? My mom uses CNY as a climate marker and I had no explanation until I remembered that CNY is also the Spring Festival. Cultures that follow the lunar calendar celebrate the first day of spring as their new year. Does that explain the weather change and how cultures marked and celebrated the seasons before we had sophisticated weather gadgets? I’d be interested to ask PAGASA what they can say about this.

How many different ways do the third generation of Chinese immigrants, like myself, celebrate CNY? How different was it from the ways of their parents, or the first generation of immigrants? 

The story of my family is shared by so many other Chinoy families who have since formed their own traditions. How interesting it would be for Filipinos of non-Chinese heritage and Filipinos of Chinese ethnicity to learn about these stories told side by side the stories of the latest tikoy flavors and good luck charms sold in the shops!