Happy Chinese New Year! This will be my first Chinese New Year in Taiwan since around 2002, back when we were young enough to be able to take a vacation to Taiwan during the American school semester. My memories of Chinese New Year in Taiwan are dim (just some sparklers in the car port) but the ones back in the States are full of wonderful times eating all the Chinese food that I never got to eat throughout the year, including hot pot, spring rolls, fried pork chops, and Chinese corn soup. And of course, the collection of the red envelopes from relatives. Every child looks forward to that.
The Chinese New Year atmosphere is present in Taiwan weeks approaching its arrival. There’s the tension and stress of trying to book a train ticket out of town and scrambling to find a hotel wherever you’re traveling (note: my friends and I found the first, but not the latter; more on that later). There are long lines at banks and ATMs everywhere as adults line up to withdraw money to fill their red envelopes.
Red is a dominant color everywhere, from the red couplets hanging from every shop window (7-11 sports Hello Kitty ones), to the new shop vendors at night markets selling packets of red envelopes in various designs. Red lanterns hang everywhere glowing in the night. Household tables everywhere overflow with snacks and goodies that friends send each other because of the New Year. Food is just as present in the Chinese New Year as in any other major holiday. Having your house full of candies, sweets, Chinese biscuits filled with red bean or taro paste, sesame balls, mochi, etc. seems to be the norm.
The other weekend I visited Dihua Street 迪化街 with some friends to experience some New Year atmosphere. Dihua Street is a street in Taipei near Dadaocheng (MRT Beimen or Shuanglian) that is famous for its historic houses and shops selling Chinese tea, medicine, fabrics, and foods. Dihua Street is particularly popular around Chinese New Year due to an influx of vendors and stalls selling things for the celebrations. While the pickings may be vast and varied, everything is extremely overpriced because the hawkers want to make money, so be prepared to spend a lot of money if you buy stuff.
We visited on a Sunday night and the place was jam packed with people. It was like Taipei Main Station on a weekend times ten. We could hardly take more than one step at a time down the packed lane. Red Chinese lanterns were strung overhead, creating an exciting atmosphere. On either side were storefronts and vendors opened to the shoppers boasting displays of dried fruit, candies, nuts, tea, medicine, dried meat, and other snacks. One of the best parts of Dihua Street is the free samples! Every vendor has free samples available and you can try the food to your heart’s content, even if you don’t plan on buying anything. I ended up buying some dried fruit because it was so good, as well as some Chinese fruit jelly cups, a flashback to my childhood.
If you’re not into forcing your way through a horde of people, stepping on nut shells and sample cups on the ground, and loosing everyone in your group, definitely don’t visit Dihua Street close to Chinese New Year, especially on a weekend. I hear it’s more pleasant on a weekday after the New Year Day has passed. But it’s still a fun place to go and try various types of Chinese foods.
On our last day of class before Chinese New Year break, our teacher taught us how to write some couplets. Couplets are New Year wishes written on scroll paper (usually red) and hung as decoration around the New Year. The writings can be single words signifying wealth, good fortune, abundance, etc., or even four-word phrases (that the Chinese language loves). The four-word phrases can be especially clever because the characters overlap into one another. Some of the most common couplets seen are the spring couplet 春聯, 福 (good fortune, blessing), 滿 (full), and 招財進寶 (usher in wealth and prosperity). Certain couplets are hung over the rice jar to signify food never going short, others are put in wallets to signify lots of wealth. It was especially satisfying being able to read a great deal of the couplets since the words have been part of our vocabulary. We had lots of fun writing our own with calligraphy ink and brushes, although we complained that our handwriting looks like a 2nd grader’s.