Happy New Year of the Rat!

You’re never more than 6 feet away from a rat in London! Apparently, that’s not actually true, but it’s sensational enough to be memorable. Rats have a poor reputation but are quite remarkable creatures, having excellent navigational skills and the ability to memorise complicated routes (unlike myself!) Their swimming skills are particularly impressive. These rodents can swim for half a mile across open water and hold their breath for 3 minutes whilst squeezing themselves through narrow pipes! Thus, they can thrive in the sewer systems of our cities. 

January 25th 2020 welcomes the Chinese New Year of the (metal) Rat. The Rat is the first of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, so here we begin a new cycle. People born in the year of the Rat are thought to be quick-thinking, optimistic, energetic, creative, thrifty and successful, but content with a quiet life!

2020 also has a ‘yun’ (leap) month. (I told you about those in a previous post – they happen every few years in the Chinese calendar.) So, you’ll be pleased to know, you’ll get a second chance at April this year, just in case you make a mess of it the first time around!
If you were born in 2008, 1996, 1984, 1948, etc., you are a Rat. This is your year, so get out there and pursue those pipe dreams – may they lead to exciting and fragrant destinations!
Wishing you a happy and successful year of the Rat!

Kung Hei Fat Choi

Happy New Year of the Pig!

An animated gif of a chinese new year pig sucking up everlasting noodles.

Pigs have a reputation for gluttony but, apparently, this is undeserved as they only eat until they’re full. Being from a culture that greets each other with Have you had your rice yet? I don’t need much prompting to talk about food, so this seems like a good opportunity to mention some foods that are traditionally included in a Chinese New Year meal. Traditional foods are always symbolic, it’s all about bringing luck and fortune to those who consume it. But, from what I can tell, this association with good fortune is based on the tenuous rule of ‘looks like or sounds like’! (If you read last year’s post you’ll know how confusing the Chinese language can be, as it’s packed with similar sounding words with completely different meanings). So, here’s something to think about while you’re eating:

fish – Yu sounds a bit like the word for abundance or surplus. The fish should be served whole, with its head and tail intact. When placing the dish on the table, point the head toward your most honoured guest or respected elder. Don’t be tempted to eat it all, this symbolises surplus, remembr!

noodles – Noodles are symbolic of longevity because they’re … long. Obviously extra-long noodles are preferable and be careful not to cut them in the cooking process.

dumplings – Their shape resembles the ancient gold ingots which were used as currency. The more dumplings you eat, the wealthier you will be in the coming year. Any excuse!

fat choy – Unfortunately named, as far as I’m concerned, fat choy sounds like the Cantonese phrase meaning to have great prosperity, as in the New Year greeting Gung Hei Fat ChoyFat choy also translates as hair vegetable. It looks like black hair, is eaten as a vegetable but is in fact a type of photosynthetic bacteria found in the Gobi Desert (bet you weren’t expecting that!)

spring rolls – Fried. Looks like gold bars

satsumas, kumquats – Looks AND sounds like gold (gam)!

Year cake – Nian gao sounds like year high. This isn’t cake as you’d imagine it. It’s a thick paste of glutinous rice flour, brown sugar and Chinese red dates, set into a cake shape which is then sliced and fried. FRIED!

February 5th 2019 welcomes the Chinese New Year of the (earth) Pig. People born in the year of the Pig are thought to be responsible, determined, good-tempered and compassionate, though perhaps a little gullible. If you were born in 2007, 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, etc., this is your year!

Gung Hei Fat Choy! Nian nian gao gao! (That’s Wishing you great prosperity with year on year success! not Wishing you black hair with year after year of cake! though that sounds pretty good too.)

Mo and Dave

Happy New Year of the Gau!

animation of dog on a globe with a megaphone for Chinese New Year of the dog

Beware of the dog! The Cantonese word for dog is gau, but it can also mean 9, enough, to teach, old, lump, plastic, to stir, if said in a different tone.

As there are a limited number of syllables in Chinese, tones are used to differentiate words. Tone is one of the trickiest aspects of learning to speak Chinese and can lead to much bewilderment. This is demonstrated whenever Dave, my husband, tries out some Cantonese on my mum. It goes like this:

He annunciates a short phrase (usually food related). She looks at me blankly. I repeat it. She exclaims ‘Ah!’ in recognition, and he says, ‘That’s what I said! – I’m hungry.*’

‘No, Dave. You just told her you have diarrhoea!’ And so it goes on.

So even good pronunciation is hard to understand with incorrect tone.

It’s difficult to hear the tonal variation unless the words are spoken in succession, so here’s some absolute nonsense I made up earlier for the purpose of illustrating the point. This isn’t so much a tongue twister as a tone twister!

**Gau6 si4, gau2 zek3 gau2 hai2 gaau1 ngoi6 gaau2 gaau2 zan3. Ngo5 gaau3 gau2 zek3 gau2 gaau2 gaau1 seoi2. Dang2 keoi5 gaau2 dou3 gau3, gaau1 bei2 ngo5 lei6 gaau1 wun6 gau2 gau6 gaau1.

Translation: Once upon a time, 9 dogs were messing about outside. I taught the 9 dogs to stir glue. When they’d stirred it enough, they gave it to me to exchange for 9 lumps of plastic. 

16th February 2018 begins the Chinese New Year of the (earth) Dog. People born in Dog years are thought to be brave, loyal, independent and kind. If you were born in 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970, 1958, etc, this is your year so make the most of it. For everyone else, you should just be more dog anyway!

Kung Hei Fat Choi

Wishing you joy and prosperity,

Mo and Dave


*ngo5 tou5 ngo6 = I’m hungry. / ngo5 tou5 ngo1 = I have diarrhoea.

**the numbers denote different tones in the Jyutping romanisation system for Cantonese:

1 high, flat / 2 mid, rising / 3 mid, flat / 4 low, falling / 5 low, rising / 6 low, flat