The Chinese New Year festival is centuries old and is celebrated from China to many other countries as far south as Malaysia and the Philippines. Chinese all over the world, including here in San Ignacio, Santa Elena and all over the country of Belize, continue to honor their customs, traditions and beliefs. Although the Chinese use the Gregorian calendar, the Lunar calendar is also widely used, especially in traditional activities intertwined with superstition as it determines lucky days. Today I observed, like many other Belizeans, that a group of Chinese men from the Western Chinese Association, were visiting all the Chinese-owned restaurants and shops. As they entered the premises, fire crackers where lit, creating an instant loud noise. The Chinese lion started dancing across the parking lot into the store. It danced, moved its mouth and blinked its eyes as it interacted with the owner of the establishment. The owner then either gave the lion a small red envelope or placed the envelope on the counter and the lion appeared to eat it while dancing. The lion then danced out of the store and moved on to the next business establishment.
The Chinese, very much so like Belizeans, are superstitious people. In fact, they are like most people in South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. In the southern United States, we see lots of areas where people talk about different spiritual beings and myths. It seems to disappear but then reappears further north, when they talk about Mothman and Bigfoot. The Chinese talk about the “nian” which is a mythological creature resembling a lion. It is a large feline beast, sometimes shown with or without horns. As the myth goes, this beast lives under the sea or in the mountains. Every so often, it comes out to consume people, but prefers children. The villagers quickly figured out that the Nian is afraid of noise and the color red, so therein we have the birth of several traditions.
The Chinese New Year is held in the new moon that falls between 21st January and 20th February. The day of the New Year is the luckiest and for the next consecutive days a few traditions will be kept. There will be no cleaning of their home or place of business, as this is considered sweeping the good luck out the door. Some people would not bathe or cut their hair during this time period, as it is also considered to be removing or washing the luck away from you. Firecrackers are lit so as to ward off evil things like spirits or bad luck. Many red and golden colored decorations are placed around the house. Children are given money in a red envelope, but it has to be a new paper bill, as an old bill would also be bad luck. A long red cloth is placed over the entrance way of the house to welcome visitors and give luck to those that enter. During this time, family members can show up randomly and food has to be available to feed them.
The Chinese lion is actually a puppet. I visited Daniel Wu from the Chinatown Store in Santa Elena and he gave me a crash course in the handling of the lion. He explained that the head’s frame is made of bamboo and weighs about 10 pounds, but can be very exhausting because of the dance and position the handler must assume in order to do its actions. Both handlers must be in perfect sync. The one handling the head is in a crouched position. The frame of the head sits on his shoulders, with his right hand extended forward, holding the bamboo frame with his thumb. The mouth of the lion is moved using his other 4 fingers. The left hand of the handler controls the movement of the head and has available buttons built into the frame that, when pressed, activate the blinking of the lions eyes. The lion’s second operator is crouched directly behind the first handler and is holding onto the belt of the person in front. Verbally the handler in front will tell the guy behind the next actions, if it is to walk forward, stop or jump. The handler in the rear also controls the lion’s tail.
It was nice to have seen our Chinese community celebrating their new year while also keeping their traditions alive. Happy New Year to all my Asian friends and much blessings.
2016 is the year of the monkey: the year of the fire monkey to be exact. Fire monkeys are ambitious, adventurous, but irritable. I love monkeys but I am not looking forward to a year of ambitious, irritable people. I’ve had enough of that already with the political candidates and it’s only February. Living on Cape Cod I never thought much about Chinese New Year or it’s celebrations. It wasn’t until my trips to Belize that I experienced it first hand.
Chinese New Year is a big holiday in Belize. Belize surprisingly has a lot of Chinese in their small population. It is a place where persecuted persons of all origins have landed and settled down. There is also a significant Amish population. Every group has their own specialty. The Amish farm and grow vegetables. They are the primary providers of fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy. The Chinese very often are shopkeepers. In the Northern section of Belize all the grocery markets are owned by the Chinese. There of course are Chinese restaurants. On our first visit, the Chinese New Year was fast approaching so we decided to try out a “Belizean “ Chinese restaurant.
In the tiny village of Sarteneja we went to eat the at 88 restaurant. It was a Chinese restaurant that had morphed into Belizean standards. To enter you walked through a large opening that admitted people, insects, bicycles and feral dogs. The first sign you saw said “No Spitting Inside”. The moderate enclosure had some plastic tables and chairs; some covered with laundry that needed folding. On one side was a bicycle with a lawn mower engine on it and a wandering dog. Each wall had the same 1998 girly calendar as the only décor. We had been in Belize for a while so we weren’t deterred. The menu was extensive, listing many choices. But as usual in Belize, that is only for show. They actually had three items they were cooking that day. Although not our first choices, they seemed tolerable enough and we ordered. The rest of the layout included a small television turned to Nickelodeon being watched by the owner behind the counter. Her eyes never left the screen. We were the only people in the restaurant and we assumed that like our Chinese restaurants at home, lunch would be ready in about 15 minutes. After we placed our orders, we waited 90 minutes for our food. No other customers came in except a young boy who walked in barefoot and pulled up a seat to watch TV. He ordered food to go and waited well over an hour. He watched TV and amused us with his beat box noises. The owner continued to ignore us, and him. I thought she should at least be folding the laundry. I was so bored I almost started to. When the food did come it was amazing terrible, and we had to walk to a neighborhood store to buy ice cream on a stick to wash the taste out of our mouth. We were surprised by the lack of friendliness, but chalked it up to a bit of local color. Bad food but a good story. I do think if I am greeted at a restaurant by a sign that tells me not to spit inside I may take a pass next time.
We were still in Belize when Chinese New Year arrived. We had traveled to Belize City to spend the night before catching a flight home. During all my travels in Belize I have felt comfortable and safe except in Belize City. Belize City is known for a lot of gang violence, and murder. Once at the hotel, we stayed in and ate at the hotel restaurant rather than venturing far from home base. The Chinese restaurants were all having specials for the New Year but I wasn’t ready to roll the dice again so soon.
Our night passed safely and comfortably and in the morning our driver picked us up to go the airport. Five minutes into our trip shots rang out and we both hit the floor of the cab, sure we had driven into a gang war. The driver kindly did not laugh at us, but instead explained that it was Chinese New Year and the sound was fire works.
In front of us, pick up trucks were driving up and down the street shooting off fireworks (into the crowd and the buildings) and blasting boom boxes. Dancing dragons lead the parade that we were now a part of.
That is the only Chinese New Year celebration I have been a part of, but every year the memory surfaces. We made it to the airport unscathed although I could have used a change of underwear.