How to celebrate Chinese New Year 2014 in Toronto
Chinese New Year (CNY) is upon us once more. Despite the seemingly high degree of publicity it gets here in our beloved Greater Toronto Area, it still pales in comparison to some of the other larger metropolitan areas around the world, like Singapore, where you better hope that you stocked up on groceries before the event hits, lest you end up staring at closed signs throughout the city. Then again, this isn't Asia. I get it. But I still want to be able to get my BBQ pork at T&T during the new year period.
Despite the increased exposure it now enjoys, the whole rigmarole surrounding Chinese New Year is still often not completely understood by many. What's with the tacky red decorations? What's up with those red packets? Does everyone eat out? Will Tom Brady ever win the Super Bowl again? Fear not, I'm here to help you navigate some of the basics of CNY.
While regional differences do exist between overseas Chinese communities, in this post I will just outline some of the common denominators that most of these groups have (which is what you will most likely see in the GTA).
Here's a quick guide on how to celebrate Chinese New Year in Toronto.
There seems to be an unwritten rule among Chinese households and businesses to put as many tacky-looking red stickers up when CNY rolls around. Each of these decorations, much like the rest of Chinese culture, have their own specific meanings, which usually have something to do with prosperity, luck, or happiness in the new year. They're usually joined by garish pictures or cartoony depictions of an animal signifying what year it is (the coming year is the year of the horse.)
The colours also have meaning. Red symbolizes luck and happiness (which is also why you'll see a lot of red at Chinese weddings), while the gold represents...well...gold, which is another way of saying monetary fortune or wealth. If you want to be really authentic, hang any 福 (fu = meaning luck) signs you come across upside down. It's meant to signify that luck is arriving since the word for upside down in Chinese is a homonym for the word to arrive.
WHERE TO GET THEM
Chinatown is teeming with small stores that sell these, as are many Asian supermarkets. It's also almost a slam dunk to find them at any of the T&T Supermarket locations, but if a less chaotic browsing atmosphere is what you're after, go out of the downtown core and to little mom & pop shops inside malls like Pacific Mall or the delightfully ugly New Kennedy Square. Each decoration shouldn't cost more than a few bucks, but you can get really big and/or ornate ones for close to $20.
The most well-recognized symbol of CNY, the red envelopes (known as hongbao in Mandarin or laisee in Cantonese) are given by married couples to single people, but especially children. In order to receive these, the children would need to respectfully wish the seniors a happy new year and also wish them luck, prosperity, and all that other good stuff. This is all worth it because of what's inside: moolah.
The colour is almost always red but occasionally I've seen gold ones. When you put money in them, there's also a saying among certain circles not to give amounts in multiples of four (i.e. $40) as the Chinese word for four is a homonym for the word death. So whatever you do, do NOT give $44 because ain't nobody got time for that.
WHERE TO GET THEM
Along with those previously-mentioned Chinese stores and supermarkets, many banks actually give them out if you request them (alas, with no money inside). You will also find blank red envelopes given out as gifts in many Asian snacks too (such as the ever-popular Hello Panda cookie snacks, ubiquitous in Asian supermarkets).
Chinese New Year is synonymous with good food and good times with family and friends, not unlike a giant New Year's/Thanksgiving celebration. Fortunately, there are many restaurants that excel in this, and many of them have their own special CNY menus that (usually) serve 10 people or more. Make sure you order a fish dish, as the Chinese word for it is a homonym for abundance.
WHERE TO EAT
Some of my favourite restaurants for CNY are listed below. Please note that the special menu is usually not posted until very close to the actual New Year's date itself. The regular menu items are usually still available too, giving you plenty to choose from.
This large restaurant chain has always been a staple for my family and has locations downtown as well as in the suburbs. They have a multitude of special set menus for CNY, such as the Spring Happiness Set Menu, good for 8 people ($228) which covers everything from Peking Duck to steamed fish. If you wish for a feast fit for a king, you can go all the way up to the gargantuan Royalty Dinner, which has a 5 pound lobster as part of its opulence ($498).
This large family restaurant is the perfect place to try out Yu Sheng, a fish-and-vegetable salad which is a CNY tradition in South East Asia among the Chinese immigrants. Many of their special menus will incorporate this dish, along with their staple dishes like laksa and curry, offering you a wonderfully unique CNY experience not unlike what you would get in Singapore or Malaysia.
Home to one of the best Peking Ducks in town, this restaurant at the back parking lot of Pacific Mall is always rammed with visitors during the CNY period. They also usually have some special menu items, but make sure you try their crispy beef along with the aforementioned duck from the regular menu. Absolute perfection.
There's always oodles of visually striking performances when CNY rolls into town. Many places have the traditional lion dance show, meant to bring good fortune to usher in the new year, while others have a cornucopia of variety acts such as martial arts demonstrations or Chinese astrology predictions. After covering your house with CNY decorations, receiving your red envelopes, and enjoying your large meal, make sure to check out many of this year's exciting performances. Here is a small sampling of where you can go catch all the hoopla.
Royal Ontario Museum (FREE with admission)
The ROM offers a range of interesting activities on January 25th (a full week before the actual CNY date), with Chinese musical performances, Tai Chi demonstrations, a lion dance, and even a Chinese tea tasting ceremony. Activities start at noon.
Starting at noon at Chinatown Centre and Dragon City Mall, you can catch lion dances, martial arts demonstrations, and Chinese opera at both locations on February 1. The Toronto Zoo will also make a special presentation, meaning you may catch a Panda Mascot sighting.
Pacific Mall (FREE)
This shopping centre for all things Asian has performances on various days, starting from a real-time New Year's Eve countdown party at 10 pm on January 30, a full-blown celebration festival on 2:30 pm on January 31, and the always popular lion dance performances going from store to store within the mall on February 8 at 12:30 pm.
How to you like to celebrate CNY? Add your suggestions to the comments below.