The Past lies down the Road... or in youjiao

Fan Dai
Mar 18th, 2014

Fan Dai reflects on the changing face of Chinese New Year.

In the Spring Festival of 1990 my son, born 15 days before, lay motionless on the sofa, a rosy-colored blanket around him, while the family was having the reunion dinner. I was fearful that the increasingly loud and frequent firework explosions that were to culminate at midnight would not only damage his hearing but also shake his sense of safety.

A year or two later, Guangzhou became the first city in China to forbid fireworks in the city proper during the Spring Festival, to prevent fires, pollution and accidents that had happened mostly to children. 

While the positive side was clearly felt, Spring Festival no longer felt right without the loud and colorful celebration. In fact, the festive loudness isn’t the only thing missing on the special occasion. 


‘Mom, can I go to Jing’s for just one minute?’ I asked as I looked at myself in the mirror, after putting on the new clothes intended for the Spring Festival, a practice I had from my childhood.

‘It’s time for dinner. Can’t you wait?’

I couldn’t. I needed to show off right away to Jing who lived next door. I couldn’t afford to wait either, as Jing could spring into our apartment to display her clothes at any time. The 1970s were a time when salary was low, and both cloth and clothes were rationed, among other things. The Spring Festival was the only time we could have new clothes - other clothes were hand-me-downs from mothers, sisters or cousins.

Showing off our new clothes was one of the few excitements of our childhood, our girlhood, to be exact. In a time when a woman’s attraction was described by a line in one of Mao Zedong’s poem as loving arms rather than beautiful clothes, new clothes that were close to pretty-looking were hard to come by.


And there were the crispy triangles, youjiao (油角), a deep-fried dumpling-shaped snack made of peanuts, coconut, sesame and sugar. It carried the same metaphor for wealth while every family gave it a special touch. Such a specialty of Cantonese culture was so influential that my parents, who'd come from Zhejiang and Hunan Provinces and were not particularly good at cooking, were compelled to organize a youjiao-making session with me and my younger brother a few days before the Spring Festival. The air would be filled with the aroma of deep-drying youjiao. We would visit friends and relatives, part of the fun being to try their youjiao. Our family was never able to produce ones whose wrapping yielded layers of flour, though we understood that oil from pig’s fat was essential for the effect.

Youjiao and the like somehow slipped out of our life after we discovered modernity and other ways of life after China opened its door to the world after the early 1980s. The one thing that remained, or became even stronger, in relation to the Spring Festival, was the hongbao, red packet (红包), which was given to children, usually within the extended family or close friends’ families, for good luck, the color red representing vitality and happiness. Yet the amount of money in the red bag has become an issue for concern when it became a means for the giver of hongbao to win the favor of the child’s parent(s).


I became acutely aware that I hadn’t seen youjiao for around a decade when a friend of mine gave me a bag of them from his hometown earlier this year. Incidentally, on that day, I received a phone call from my favorite department store, asking me whether I had left behind one item after purchasing a number of clothes the day before. I was grateful for the call yet disturbed by my own negligence: I wouldn’t have been aware of the missing item if I hadn’t lost the innocent joy of showing off new clothes.


I was in Yunan Province for this Spring Festival with my husband’s family which lives at the edge of the city of Gejiu, where fireworks were allowed throughout the New Year festival. It was like traveling back in time. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, I listened closely to the continuous thunderous explosions in the residential complex, watching the firework soar up high and burst into a colorful spread that was either patterned or random.


It occurs to me that history tends to repeat itself, as fashion repeats itself every now and then, though such repetitions have adapted to the new context. Like youjiao, like fireworks. More interestingly, becoming nostalgic about something doesn’t necessarily mean what is being missed is what one desires. Many a colleague have told me that they miss their hometown when they are in Guangzhou, yet they miss Guangzhou after staying home for a few days. This is like many of us missing the time when there were no phones, and few could afford a TV set. No one wants that time back, but some of us do want to switch off the phone every so often, and scream at our children when they spend too much time watching TV.

We all get nostalgic as we grow older, but it doesn’t have to be altogether sad or heartbreaking. The permanent sense of loss in the nostalgic person probably comes from the knowledge that time simply flies and only moves forward.

Chinese New Year
Dai Fan


Fan Dai
Last blog date: Mar 18th, 2014


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