Chinese New Year celebrations used to be a mere blip on the general consciousness. Those who were so inclined might make a pilgrimage to Binondo, where the Chinese engaged in inscrutable festivities among themselves; business partners might receive a red box of tikoy, brown, unyielding, and better suited for doing home improvements like gluing down loose roof tiles than for actual eating.
How things have changed.
Just as Christmas used to mean a surfeit of fruitcake and balls of wax-dipped cheese being lobbed around (and quickly passed on)—which no one seems to do anymore —the way we celebrate Chinese New Year has been different in the recent past.
Among other things, it has become much more ecumenical; it’s something everyone is welcome to indulge in, and no one needs to trace his lineage and prove he’s a quarter Chinese on his mom’s side to be able to participate. Anyone who feels like celebrating Chinese New Year can, and should, join the revelry.
However, the current administration has taken to declaring Chinese New Year a special nonworking holiday, which I believe is a mistake. Not only are there too many holidays as it is, which slows down trade unnecessarily, but it also shines a light on the Chinese-Filipino community as being different and in need of special attention.
Unlike Ramadan, which is a religious observance, Chinese New Year is an important, but a secular, festival for Chinese-Filipinos. To mark it as a nationwide nonworking holiday feels like pandering to the cultural preeminence of the country’s financial elite.
But the best thing about observing Chinese New Year these days is that the widespread influence of China in the region means that the celebration has broken out of closed walls and family-bound practices. The red boxes of gummy tikoy have been replaced by fancifully-molded fish in gay colors, of a much more palatable and less snot-like consistency.
The symbolism of sticky tikoy is the family that sticks together; perhaps the new, lighter texture hints at a cohesive but less codependent relationship.
The big thing this year that many restaurants are doing is adopting “yu sang,” a historical but atypical dish that is undergoing a renaissance: it’s like a kind of salmon sashimi as part of a salad that everyone gets up and tosses together.
It is more a mainstay among the migrants to Singapore and Malaysia, and not so much a part of the local Fujianese or Cantonese repertoire.
I haven’t tried it. I’m writing this a few days before the celebration, so I’m collecting menus from my favorite Chinese restaurants to try and decide which looks best.
The past year has seen two very strong newcomers to the scene: Lung Hin at Marco Polo, and Crystal Dragon at City of Dreams. Both are hotel outlets, and both are from ownerships that have strong ties across the region.
In this sense they are similar to Shangri-La (and, formerly, the Mandarin), in that they are able to bring a more modern, international and innovative way of celebrating the festival. The Shang Palace menus start at P19,888 and top out at P66,688 for 10 persons, which is a parade of all the expensive ingredients: abalone, lobster, sea cucumber, duck—the Chinese equivalent of foie gras and truffles that mark an occasion as luxurious. Shark’s fin is now off the menu in all the establishments mentioned here.
Interestingly, Crystal Dragon’s most expensive menu also competes at P6,888 per head for a minimum of four persons. (Eight is considered the most auspicious digit in contemporary numerology, closely followed by six.)
Crystal Dragon’s new menu has more eights in its price but fewer showy ingredients than Makati Shang’s. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a better menu. But even without taking the considerable savings into account, the “Happiness” menu at P3,680 per head looks much more compelling, the dishes familiar yet novel enough to be interesting: the pivot of making “classic with a twist” work is just how far to twist.
Lung Hin has moved in a more traditional direction since the more avant-garde offerings when it first opened, and this is reflected in its New Year’s menu, which plays it comparatively safe, though the more interesting dishes that initially divided opinion when the hotel opened are still on the a la carte menu.
Most of these outlets will be fully booked by Thursday morning, but all of the restaurants covered are extending the Chinese New Year’s menu until the weekend.
But more important than the amount of abalone or oysters, or even whether or not the dishes rhyme with the words for “abundance” or “prosperity,” is that the family (however one defines it, because sometimes friends are one’s best family) has to be together, or else it’s not worth observing at all.
Thank goodness, the round, leaden tikoy is a thing of the past; but the togetherness it symbolizes is at the heart of the celebration.
Crystal Dragon at City of Dreams Manila, tel. 8008080; Lung Hin at Marco Polo Hotel, Ortigas Center, tel. 7207777; Shang Palace at Makati Shangri-La, tel. 8138888.