Family reunions are substituted by dinners at the Chinese restaurants that dot Regent Street Sheila Russell

The first Lunar New Year I celebrated in Cambridge crept up imperceptibly.

I remember when I realised I had no idea the new year was approaching. I was in the dining hall when a friend from home asked how I was spending it. I checked my phone and leapt at the date. It was New Year’s Eve. There were no aural or physical markers around me to suggest that anything celebratory was afoot. The franticness of each day did not seem to abate. It was disconcerting having been reminded of my severance from the familiarity of home, an absence of the usual flashes of red and promises of rest.

Having grown up in Singapore, where the Chinese constitute an ethnic majority, the imminence of the new year’s festivities was always made apparent by the gaudy red streamers that adorned shopping malls, the nasal trill of festive music in public spaces, the surreptitious appearance of oranges and snacks in my family’s living room. The new year brought two consecutive public holidays in Singapore, in which there always remained the anticipation of having a long stretch of days without school. While neither of my parents are from Singapore, their parents each experienced a variation of the Lunar New Year in the contexts they grew up in – Chinese communities in Malaysia for my father, the cacophony of festive Hong Kong streets for my Korean mother. The nexus of our upbringings brought its own set of expectations – new clothes, reunion dinners with friends and family, an impetus to reflect on the year that had just passed.

“In every Lunar New Year there is remembering and forgetting, imagining and reimagining what it is to be ‘Chinese’”

While the Gregorian calendar prevails as the global arbiter of measuring years, the communities of the East Asian cultural sphere, a broad designation referring to people of Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese descent, continue to adhere symbolically to the lunisolar calendar. Based on the cycle of the moon, the calendar governs holidays and the selection of auspicious days for events such as weddings or funerals. The boundaries of the Lunar New Year shift every year along with the festivities held in accordance with it. The peculiarity of my experience was not only one of forgetting its approach, but also of forgetting the customs it is accompanied by. This experience is not particular to me or other international students of Chinese descent, but rather to entire generations of diaspora who have grown up beyond the bounds of the idealised cultural home of ‘China’.

A number of cataclysmic events resulted in the super – generational displacements of the Chinese through the 19th and 20th centuries. Civil wars, starvation, foreign invasions, and political corruption galvanised emigration to work in places such as the Americas, Australia, South Africa, Southeast Asia, and Zealandia.

In Sons of the Yellow Emperor, Lynn Pan writes that Chinese coolie emigration began after slavery was abolished throughout the British possessions, with desperate European merchants replacing African slaves with indentured laborers from China and India. As cultural theorist Ien Ang writes: “Diasporas are transnational, spatially and temporally sprawling sociocultural formations of people, creating imagined communities whose blurred and fluctuating boundaries are sustained by real and/or symbolic ties to some original ‘homeland’.”

I find a familiar narrative in tracing my paternal family’s history: the story of my ancestors fleeing from China and landing on the banks of the Klang River in Malaysia in 1880, where they built a hut and set up a home. The passage of time has brought me and my cousins successively further from some kind of ‘cultural core’ as we’ve settled in Singapore or the United States, with each Lunar New Year revealing anxieties of what ought to be preserved.

A Singaporean upbringing yields the practice of yusheng, the tossing of a salad in which each ingredient bears some kind of symbolic importance relating to prosperity. A Christian upbringing gives a religious inflection to the notion of ‘blessings’, one contingent less on materialistic aspiration but more on gratitude toward material providence. Lunar New Year in Singapore becomes a syncretic celebration, one conscious of a broader multiethnic context and a willingness to distinguish ourselves from China. There are drastic differences in thinking through ‘Chineseness’ in terms of Singaporean centrality and British marginality.

“I see a new anxiety in Cambridge as my friends and I try to make sense of the season”

I see a new anxiety in Cambridge as my friends and I try to make sense of the season. The first things to disappear are red packets – none of us are married so there’s no reason for us to give out money. Spring cleaning (to sweep out the bad luck) disappears under the never-ending list of tasks that are set before us. It may slip our minds as to whether our debts have been paid off or if our decorations have been hung. Certain celebrations are a little more grandiose – gala dinners with drinks, gambling, and lion dances. Others are more modest affairs.

Big family reunions are substituted by group dinners at the Chinese restaurants that dot Regent Street or the simultaneous hot pot dinners in the comfort of college kitchens. Our tongues tumble as we try and remember the chengyu (a type of traditional Chinese idiom) that are apt for the season. Embedded in these practices are the stories we tell to reassure ourselves of a sense of cultural belonging, an appeal to an idealisation from which we have long found ourselves separated. In every Lunar New Year there is remembering and forgetting, imagining and reimagining what it is to be ‘Chinese’.


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The 5th of February 2019, a Tuesday, was the first day of the Lunar New Year. I FaceTimed my family. My mother wore a red blouse and my brothers modelled new shirts. My dad wandered into my brother’s room and was pleasantly surprised to see me on his screen. They were about to depart for an afternoon of visiting. I would soon leave for lectures. I shut my laptop screen and let the silence settle, but not for too long. Cambridge had its own festivities in store.

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