or Chinese people, the Spring Festival is synonymous with family reunion. But what happens when people can’t go home? How can Spring festival traditions adapt in the age of Covid-19?
Perhaps the most iconic Chinese New Year tradition is making dumplings. A family making dumplings together around a table represents the Spring Festival in the hearts of Chinese people around the world.
Wrapping dumplings brings everyone together, giving people a chance to catch up after a year��s absence. It is entertaining and competitive – who can make the most beautiful shapes?
It is also conducive to conversation, unlike watching television and playing mahjong, two other typical New Year activities.
Dumplings were originally a way to stretch the scarce supply of meat further. Many people alive today in China remember when meat was scarce, but those days are long past.
For young people, the Spring Festival means not only dumplings but a table overflowing with all kinds of meat, fish and fowl.
The eating and drinking starts early and goes on for hours, ending with people sinking into a food coma in front of the television to watch the Spring Festival Gala. The gala is the must-see broadcast of the year and a source of discussion for days, similar to the Super Bowl.
As China becomes increasingly woven into the global fabric, its traditions spread too, often changing beyond recognition along the way.
For example, rather than dumplings, Chinese New Year is synonymous with the Prosperity Toss in Malaysia and Singapore. Also known as yusheng, this tradition involves a group of people sitting around a table tossing a salad of raw salmon and shredded vegetables into the air together with their chopsticks. The higher the salad goes into the air, the more prosperity everyone can expect in the new year.
The salad has its roots in southern China, but both Malaysia and Singapore claim to be the birthplace of the tossing tradition, which is less than 80 years old.
This is an example of Chinese changing their traditions when they go to other countries. But what about foreigners who have made their homes in China?
My friend Loren spent his first Spring Festival in China 20 years ago, in a village in Chongqing where villagers killed a pig to prepare for the celebrations.
This year, due to Covid-19, Loren and his wife decided not to travel to her hometown in Inner Mongolia, but instead stayed at home in Beijing, where he runs several businesses.
He and his wife knew they would miss her mother’s dumplings, and decided to incorporate her recipe into their New Year’s celebration.
Loren is no stranger to dumplings. In fact, he makes a living from them. He and a business partner invented Baozza – a fusion between pizza and baozi stuffed steamed dumplings.
This steamed dough stuffed with cheese and tomato sauce is already available in supermarkets in big Chinese cities, and is launching in the US later in the spring.
The Baozza is a true fusion of Eastern and Western cuisines and sensibilities. Younger Chinese who grew up eating pizza love it. Older Chinese who never got used to eating cheese are puzzled by the idea.
But this New Year, Loren left the Baozza at the office. He instead held a transcontinental dumpling-making summit.
Using the WeChat social media platform, he arranged a three-way video call with his parents in the US and sister and her family in Switzerland. At exactly 9am in Michigan, 3pm on Lake Geneva and 10pm in Beijing, they started their Europe-Asia-North American Chinese New Year celebration.
As they made dumplings together using Loren’s mother-in-law’s recipe, they caught up, sharing details of their lives.
They talked about the Chinese zodiac, and discovered Loren and his parents are all from the Year of the Monkey. His sister, brother-inlaw and youngest nephew are from the Year of the Pig.
Loren and his wife had sent five different kinds of Chinese tea to Switzerland as a Christmas gift. His sister liked the jasmine tea best, and her brother-in-law preferred the sweet orchid fragrance of the Da Hong Pao tea from Fujian Province.
They discussed Covid-19, which remains a problem in the US. Fortunately, the people in his parents’ small town in Michigan are following safety rules. Restrictions remain in place in Switzerland, but they are not affecting his nephews’ lives too much.
The tradition of making dumplings changes over the years, sometimes in ways that would be hard for previous generations to recognize.
More importantly, in a world that seems to spin faster each year, leaving many of us dizzy and disoriented, making dumplings with family represents continuity, and a focus on the important things in life that never change.