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Dragons, money, luck ...

"the more dumplings you eat, the richer you’ll get."

Jennifer Wong/The Guardian

Chinese New Year began yesterday, but the big Melbourne celebration in Chinatown is today, so I will make up for missing the start of the festival - I was hosting lunch with friends - by just jotting down a few random thoughts.

So a couple of brief words about dragons first. After all it is the year of the dragon - the top of the tree in terms of all that matters to the Chinese, prosperity, success, power ...

Chinese dragons tend to be much more colourful than those of western cultures. Ours tend to be grey brown, even black sometimes and are generally evil. Mind you in recent times we have have had rather friendlier versions of dragons, particularly in children's media. Even the magnificent dragons of Game of Thrones had their good side. Powerful and fearsome yes, but not innately evil as old-time dragons used to be. Those old-time dragons also often guarded a hoard of treasure, which does sort of align them with the Chinese dragons, because of their influence on prosperity. The other thing to be said of the dragon in Chinese astrology is that it's the only mythical creature of the twelve. Mostly though they are associated with power and strength - hence their close alignment with the emperors - and also good luck. Some are predicting a birth rate high in Asian countries this year. If you are born in the year of the dragon you are much more likely to be successful they say, and some Asian countries are experiencing a low birth rate right now and so more babies are being encouraged. Don't leave conception until later than May 15th said one Taiwanese obstetrician!

Someone even discovered that children born in the year of the dragon do in fact tend to be more successful, although the writer put this down to more attention being paid to them and more opportunities being given, rather than any mystical relationship to the qualities of dragons.

As to food - well the Chinese for dragon is 'long' 'loong' or 'lung' so any food with the same name is considered lucky - like lobster 'longxia', asparagus 'longxcu cai' and 'longli' - a kind of fruit.

I began this post by looking to see what the traditional foods for the Chinese New Year were. Well there had to be some - and these seven did indeed crop up frequently. The thing that really leapt out at me however, was how many of them were associated with money and with luck, not to mention the associated concepts of success and prosperity.

I confess, I had always thought that the Asians were very much into luck - fortune cookies, gambling and all of that. Indeed I think I am right in saying that some parts of Taoism depend on throwing sticks in the air and seeing how they fall. Sincere apologies if I have this wrong. It always seems to be that they are big gamblers as well. Not that Australia has anything to be proud of in that respect.

Luck, of course, does not just have to be related to prosperity. Happiness, good health and family come into it too and indeed family reunions are a big part of the Chinese New Year. This dish shown here Tang yuan are glutinous rice balls cooked in a sweet sauce, often with some kind of filling. This one has a filling of black sesame which seems to be a common choice. You can have savoury versions too. And these are associated with family and togetherness. I have to say that when I was looking for pictures of these, I mostly found them somewhat unappetising looking - much like peeled but whole hard-boiled eggs. But then again I do like hard-boiled eggs so maybe these are good too.

In a way, however they epitomise to me the general unappealing nature of the yum cha kind of Chinese food.

Before we leave the non mercenary nature of the whole thing, let's turn to longevity noodles. The Chinese seem to be quite literal with language sometimes and these noodles which are supposed to represent a long life, are indeed long. It's quite a skill to make them. I think you somehow start with a long sausage of dough, which somehow or other you divide. There's a quick TikTok video which shows you how. I don't think there is a particular recipe for the finished noodles, it's more that the noodles have to be long.

Back to the money though. Why are the Chinese as obsessed with money and wealth as they seem to be? To the point that on occasions such as New Year, weddings, and other such celebrations we have the tradition of lai-see - the red envelopes that are handed out to the young by the old - or older. I believe that once you are married you are no longer eligible to receive these.

The Chinese were one of the first civilisations to invent a standardised currency around 1000BC, and the tradition of gifts of money at times of celebration began a long time ago. Back then, however, the coins were tied together with red string, not put into a red envelope.

Now I am sure that the poor would only be passing a couple of coins to their children, but among the rich, the sums included in the envelopes can be huge. My son mentioned $10,000 given to an ex-girlfriend who admittedly came from a wealthy family. But I did see large figures quoted as the average spend amongst the Chinese on this tradition. But then I guess we spend a lot of money at Christmas - on toys and other gifts however. Not money. To me there is something soulless about money as a gift, although I readily admit that money is often much appreciated as a gift - particularly for teenagers onwards perhaps. Maybe the Chinese, are in fact more generous and more honest in knowing that really we may just want money. Maybe.

When it comes to the food there are three forms in which the money connection is most obvious: moneybag dumplings, pot stickers, and spring rolls.

They are all connected to form - the moneybag dumplings perhaps being the most obvious. Here I'll sneak in a photo I took in the city on Friday of workers in one of the Chinatown restaurants making these dumplings in the window. It looked easy but I bet it wasn't:

The pot stickers are shaped like the original gold ingots - a kind of boat shape - which is shown in the same picture and the spring rolls are shaped like silver ingots. And "Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during the New Year celebrations, the more money you can make in the New Year." So good health is obviously not one of the concepts attached to dumplings.

The last New Year's dish is a whole fish - or an animal - although the fish seems to be more common.

Apparently the reason for this is that the Chinese name for fish is similar to the word for surplus, which is, of course, a measure of prosperity. Most often the fish is steamed but sometimes baked or fried. I see that this one has a red sauce, red chopsticks, red napkins, and something looking like those old gold ingots. Money, money, money.

So why are the Chinese so apparently obsessed with money. There is apparently a saying in China - no money, no life”. Well I think the main reason is, probably obviously, related to the fact that life has been difficult for the majority of the Chinese for centuries. It's a bit like that frugal heritage that I was talking about recently. In recent history the poverty includes famine and the Cultural Revolution.

I found an interesting article by one Kiefer McKenzie on a website called Medium, pondering on this obsession. My guess is that he is an American, or maybe English or Australian/Chinese and he thinks that things are changing as the Chinese become more prosperous. He now thinks it's not enough to be rich you also need to be sophisticated, although how this affects what you eat at Chinese New Year I don't know.

"it’s not enough to be rich, you must also be sophisticated. And to be sophisticated is to be a connoisseur. ... I bet you’re thinking, what the bloody hell is the difference between materialism and connoisseurship? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s the difference between purchasing the most expensive bottle of cognac on the menu and carefully picking the perfect bottle of wine to go with your meal. One requires more knowledge." Kiefer McKenzie/Medium

Which leads him to think that knowledge will be the new currency of China. Although, of course, you probably need money to acquire knowledge. Although maybe not in China. The article was written back in 2016. Times have changed again. Maybe it's back to money.

But there will be fireworks - now they cost heaps of money.

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