Accessibility links

Breaking News

New Book Explains Chinese American Customs, Rituals and Superstitions

Chinese Americans are welcoming the start of the Chinese New Year with a blend of rituals – some imported from China and others that have taken root on American soil. Rosemary Gong describes that mix of old and new in her new book, Good Luck Life: The Essential Guide to Chinese American Celebrations and Culture.

Ms. Gong grew up juggling Chinese and American holidays. She and her family were the only Chinese Americans living in the small California town where she was raised, and they worked hard to preserve the customs inherited from her grandfather. He immigrated to the United States in 1920.

“Then in 2001 my grandfather passed away,” she recalls. “He was 93 years old, and that was the catalyst for me to assemble all this information. It is his legacy.”

In Good Luck Life, Rosemary Gong mixes favorite family recipes and memories with historical information dating back to ancient China. She drew on her own extended clan of Chinese aunts and uncles, and also did extensive research at the city library in San Francisco, where she now lives.

Of all the festivals and rituals she describes in the book, she says the most important is the Chinese New Year. In her own home, it set off a flurry of preparation every year. “We would begin by totally cleaning out our closets and our drawers and our cupboards,” she says. “We tossed out the old to welcome in the new. And we would also be sure we settled up our old debts and didn't take them into the New Year. After that, we would go shopping for new clothes. My mother told me that in old China this was the only time when people could afford to buy new clothes.”

Those new clothes always had to feature a touch of red. Rosemary Gong says red is a good luck color in Chinese tradition, and luck was important to Chinese immigrants to America. “All the superstitions and beliefs and practices stem from trying to invite good luck and optimism into our lives,” she explains. “This came from a generation that emigrated to America to try and survive.”

As Chinese immigrants began to establish their own communities around the United States, they also started to create their own traditions. Extensive Chinese New Year celebrations now take place in urban areas across America -- from Washington, D.C. and New York on the east coast…to west coast cities like San Francisco, where Chinese Americans host a flower festival, a Miss Chinatown U.S.A. pageant, and what Rosemary Gong describes as the oldest and biggest Chinese New Year's parade in the country.

“Over three million people participate,” she estimates. “The highlight is the Gum Lung dragon, which is carried by a hundred individuals through the city streets. And this dragon is followed by all types of firecrackers and red confetti. He's lit up, and he was specially made in China.”

Other Chinese American traditions are affecting everything from the way Americans eat to the sports they pursue. Chinese restaurants are everywhere in the United States these days, and many serve fortune cookies to end a meal, a custom Rosemary Gong says started in the U.S.A. American fans of boat racing are also joining in dragon boat competitions, a Chinese pastime that dates back more than 2,000 years.

Rosemary Gong says the ornately decorated boats typically carry 20 paddlers, a drummer and a steersperson. “All kinds of local teams get involved,” she says. “It's actually a competitive, qualifying sport that's evolving from coast to coast. So Portland and San Francisco and Philadelphia and New York -- and many cities in between along the Mississippi [River] -- conduct dragon boat racing.”

Some cherished Chinese traditions are getting a modern-day update. Take the custom of bride's cookie day, in which the bride hosts a family meal to celebrate her upcoming wedding. Today's busy brides, writes Rosemary Gong, sometimes forego cookie day and instead send relatives a gift certificate to a local Chinese bakery. But that doesn’t mean her generation is any less enthusiastic about preserving its heritage.

“They're very much like I was,” says the author, “a little confused about all of these rituals and traditions we grew up with, not having any background for them. And sometimes when we asked about them, the response would be, 'This is how it's always been done.' We're all so curious now, and we all want to understand where these traditions stemmed from.”

Rosemary Gong hopes her book will provide a guide to help preserve those traditions. Long a way to invite good luck, they are now a source of pride, as well, in a culture that spans two continents.