Tuesday, Feb. 5 marks the official start of the Chinese New Year. The traditional holiday, also known as Spring Festival, will conclude on Feb. 19. Some of Casper’s Chinese community were gathered at J.S. Chinese Restaurant on Monday to celebrate the start of the Year of the Pig with friends and family.
There was plenty of food at the celebration from beef ribs to stuffed dumplings to spiced boiled crayfish and, in celebration of this year’s Chinese Zodiac animal, braised pig’s feet. Part of the traditional way of celebrating the New Year, which is scheduled according to the lunar calendar, is getting the whole family together to share a big meal.
“When we used to celebrate Spring Festival in China, my family always made a splendid meal including 20 dishes or so placed on a big table for around 15 people,” said J.S. owner Cindy Tang. “The dishes would include food we don’t usually have like grilled pork, beef or lobsters, but we must eat dumplings on this special day, and only handmade ones.”
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Tang, who moved to the United States from Qingdao in Northern China about ten years ago, said that the meat or vegetable stuffed dumplings are a requirement for families in China’s North when it comes to celebrating the New Year. She explained that specific traditions vary by region and differences between Northern and Southern Chinese culture are particularly pronounced.
“I don’t know exactly what dishes Southern Chinese people will eat at Spring Festival,” Tang said. “But in the North we’ll also always have fish.”
“We also will have fish!” chimed in Yu Ying Tang (no relation) who comes from Guangzhou in Southern China.
“Eating fish signifies that there will be plenty of food for the year to come,” Cindy Tang continued. “[About a century ago] in China I know that if families couldn’t get fish for New Year’s, they’d set a carved wooden fish on the table to take its place.”
No matter the regional differences in celebrating the holiday, some commonalities stand out. The group had pushed together a couple of tables in the J.S. restaurant and laid out the multitude of dishes for everyone to share. In Chinese culture it is common for shared plates to be placed in the center of the table, with everyone reaching for these dishes to sample as they please.
But celebrating in Casper is different because most of the people here still have family back in China. Some of them got up from the table to go video chat with relatives there.
“Technology has really affected some of the traditions,” Tang said. “When I was young everyone would go out onto the street the morning of New Year’s, and I mean everyone! That’s where you’d see all your relatives. Now everyone has WeChat (a messaging app similar to Facebook) so they can just call each other or send red packets online.”
Red packets, or “hongbao” in Mandarin, are red envelopes stuffed with money. Tang explained that children used to go around to all of their close and distant relatives during the New Year and get a little money stuffed into their pockets or given in one of the red envelopes. WeChat has a feature to send money in the form of electronic red packets and Tang said that this has become quite popular today.
It is not only the technological changes which make celebrating Spring Festival in Casper different, however. Tang explained that Casper’s Chinese community is relatively small so their get-togethers involve people who come from culturally different regions in China.
“When we get together there’s people from all these different places so over time our traditions start to get mixed,” Tang said. “Even with language, you used to be able to guess what town or city someone was from by the way they spoke. Especially with the younger people, they’re talking to each other online all the time and maybe they’ve lived in a lot of places so they start to sound the same when they talk.”
Tang also said that the smaller Chinese population in Casper makes celebrating the holiday here different in other ways as well. She spent a few years in Los Angeles before coming to Wyoming and she said that bigger cities might have outdoor markets and other activities during the festival.
“We’d also usually set off fireworks in China,” Tang said. “Obviously we don’t do that here.”
When asked whether there was some particular meaning to the Year of the Pig, Tang initially demured. She said she thought it was just part of the cyclical rotation of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. But upon reflection, she said that some people might think having a baby in the Year of the Pig would be lucky. She explained that the pig is thought of as an animal that can take it easy because it has plenty to eat and plenty of time to relax.
Though she emphasized the importance of family, friends and food over the significance of any symbolic meaning to the year’s animal, Tang said she really enjoyed the Paradise Valley dual language immersion students’ performance at the Nic last Friday, Feb. 1. The students were at the Nic to celebrate the New Year and raise money for the fifth graders’ planned trip to China. J.S. donated the food for the event. (Oil City’s Dan Cepeda captured photos of student performances at Paradise Valley last week. Those can be seen here.)
“I’m really proud of those students,” Tang said. “To have that kind of program in a remote place like Casper, it’s not like L.A. or New York. We’re really proud.”
The Monday night get-together at J.S. was full of lively conversation and laughter. And much more food than the guests could finish.
“To get united in such a far place from our hometown makes us feel like home,” Yu Ying Tang said. “And the little union makes me enjoy the time here.”
J.S. Chinese Restaurant is located at 116 W. Second St. in Casper near the Fox III Savers Theater.