Dragons and dumplings for Chinese New Year
Author Chris Cheng recalls his own Chinese New Year experiences
3 February 2016
What a privilege it was for me to be asked by NLA Publishing's Susan Hall to create a Chinese-themed picture book to complement the Celestial Empire exhibition. Writing is invigorating for me, and if I can create works like New Year Surprise! that reflect my culture that is wonderful. To add to this, having my friend Di Wu create the art, in a rural setting that he knows so well, was a real joy! His art is exquisite.
I LOVE dragons. I could say that my former life in Zoo Education when I saw a Komodo dragon was the inspiration, but that would be not quite true, for I have always loved dragons. Not the destructive and rampaging ones that battle knights and imprison victims and become ensnared with dragon slayers, but those all-powerful, all-wise, revered, celestial and elegant dragons from my ancestral heritage.
But the dragon wasn't the inspiration for crafting this book. When I saw the art from the book, Long Established Customs of Chinese Festivals, in the Library's Asian Collections, the story fell into place. I knew that my story would be about a festival; the problem was deciding which one. There are so many that are part and parcel of Chinese life. But that problem didn't last long because for kids, there is one festival that they adore over every other, and that most important festival to a young child is Chinese New Year.
I have glorious memories of feasting in Sydney's China Town and being deafened by the raucous crashing and banging of the cymbals and drums and the suspended fire crackers exploding one by one from the awnings. Of watching the people young and old outside the restaurants, cheering the dancing dragon (and the lion) on to achieving even greater heights, performing more powerful dances and making noise ... much more noise. The streets were crowded, the dragon and the dancers could barely move, but those of us watching would clear a path as the dragon danced from restaurant to restaurant bringing good luck and prosperity. We were amazed at those dragons and the energetic dancers that created the movement. We were enthralled at how they could keep going. And after the spectacle had passed, we had to continue eating dumplings—which really wasn't a chore (they were delicious) but, oh, the excitement of the dragon!
And visiting relatives—what a delight. All those red packets with paper money. There are lots of packets gathered if you have lots of relatives! Even now, the red packets appear. Sometimes they are lavishly embossed red envelopes with gold lettering and they always contain a gift.
And those dumplings, little treasures that our very Australian family only ever consumed in China Town (or occasionally at a relative's house)! A Chinese meal was a treat. We ate like there were no more Chinese feasts to come—ever. The duck and the fish were bursting with flavour. My mouth salivates at the thought.
But back to dragons. Today, our house is home to very many dragons, on shelves, on walls, on bowls, adorning walls, in books, on desks. Whenever we acquire another, it finds its own special place. Now, if I could just have my very own set of ‘dragon robes' ...
Chris Cheng's New Year Surprise! was released by NLA Publishing in February 2016. An exhibition based on Chris' story and featuring Di Wu's artwork is on display on Level 4 of the Library until 22 May.