The Chinese Year of the Ox began Friday, Feb. 12. To commemorate it, an excerpt from Beyond Lowu Bridge by Roy Cheng Tsung, which Passager published in 2014. This scene takes place when Roy is 13 years old, shortly after he and his parents moved back to China from New York in the 1950s.
We celebrated my first Chinese New Year, Year of the Horse, in Beijing with my father’s bosom friend Uncle Wei and his family. I was a little confused. “But we just celebrated New Year’s,” I said.
“That was the Western calendar,” my father explained. “We have our own, and all of our traditional festivals are still based on the lunar year.”
“Why Year of the Horse?” I inquired.
“We have twelve favorite animals. Each year is named after one. When we think of the horse, we think of its loyalty, its intelligence and strength. We have a saying in Chinese: a horse that travels a thousand miles a day.”
I thought of a great white stallion galloping across the plains of the Wild West with a masked cowboy on its back. “Hi-yo, Silver!” I said. My father winked. “You see, even the Lone Ranger recognizes the energy and goodness of a horse like Silver.”
We gathered in Uncle Wei’s house for the New Year dinner. Aunty Wei placed a large fish dish prominently at the center of the round table. The meal had many courses. My favorite was dumplings filled with minced pork, finely chopped vegetables and garlic chives. Each dumpling was a sealed packet with all the goodies of the filling retained inside, juicy and tender, tasty and fragrant. Aunty Wei proudly brought out a Peking duck fresh from the oven. The shiny brown, thin, crispy skin was absolutely divine. It was served with pancakes, spring onions and sweet bean sauce. Uncle Wei got out a carving knife and sliced the duck in front of us just like a chef in the famous Peking Duck Restaurant in the old city’s Front Gate Street.
The last course was dessert. “Ah, glutinous rice cakes from the South!” exclaimed Uncle Wei, who was a northerner.
My mother’s face lit up. “Yes. We always had them for New Year in my hometown down south.”
Uncle Wei raised a cup of wine to my father. “Welcome home, Old Brother.” And to everyone he said, “Happy Year of the Horse. May all of your wishes come true.”
After dinner, I followed the kids outside. The courtyard was decorated with red and orange paper lanterns that shone brightly in the night. It was freezing, but the air was still and I could smell burning wax from the candles. Soon, we got down to business. Firecrackers! We loved the ancient New Year tradition of lighting firecrackers to scare away evil spirits. Happily for us, although evil spirits were frowned upon as feudalistic superstition in Communist China, firecrackers had not been banned.
The firecrackers were rolled up in heavy red paper and burst with deafening explosions. BANG, BANG, BANG!
Uncle Wei rushed out of the house. “Not in the courtyard! Let’s do it outside.”
Symmetrically built along the north-south axis, the entire housing compound was private, enclosed with a large, heavy gate at the entrance. The gate had a fresh coat of red paint. Two lanterns hung on either side of the entrance. Uncle Wei inserted one end of a long rod into a hole in the entrance post, and hung up a string of braided firecrackers. Everyone stepped back as he lit the long fuse.
The crackers popped and banged in a series of blasts and flashes. The acrid smell of burning black powder filled my nostrils. The kids jumped up and down with glee.
“Look what I brought,” exclaimed Little Four, a neighborhood boy. He pulled out a skyrocket.
“Hooray! Hooray!” we all yelled.
“Over there, please.” Uncle Wei pointed to a spot away from the entrance and walls. Little Four planted the little skyrocket on the ground and we formed a circle around him as he lit the fuse. The tiny flare snaked its way along the fuse; Little Four plugged his ears just as the spark reached the rocket.
POW! The little rocket shot straight up into the air with a trail of sparks. Then, a distant pop, followed by several more. Red, orange, white and green sparkling shapes lit up high above in the starry sky and blossomed into magnificent chrysanthemums. Then laughter and the clapping of little hands. Cheers and hoorays. My father beamed with delight as he stood next to Uncle Wei.
For a moment, I forgot all about New York City.
A Chinese New Year excerpt from Roy Cheng Tsung’s book Beyond Lowu Bridge. To buy Beyond Lowu Bridge or Roy’s new memoir Ox Horn Bend, or to learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to passagerbooks.com. You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts, and various other podcast apps.