Happy New Year!
Huh? At the end of January?
Sorry. I should clarify this.
Gon Xi Fa Cai!
Ah, that’s clearer, right?
The penny – or should I say yuan? – should now have dropped.
“Oh… you mean Happy Chinese New Year! Of course! Well… a very happy new year to you too!”
Yes, this weekend marks the start of the Chinese New Year. Celebrations right across China – and the rest of the world, including Australia – will go off like a firecracker or two.
It’s so wonderful to see how these celebrations have become a popular and integral part of our Australian cultural calendar. I think back to when I was a child… um, cue the way-way-way-back-in-time harp music… when I was around ten.
My connection to anything remotely Chinese was almost non-existent. It was all via television and my World Book Encyclopedia (the 70s and 80s version of Google) that had given me my first real glimpse of the part of the globe called Asia.
There was a TV show at the time called “Monkey” (sometimes referred to as “Monkey Magic”). It was dubbed into English and pitched primarily at kids. I’ve learned since that it was actually a Japanese production. Based on the famous Chinese novel, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, it was filmed in North China.
This show was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was way ‘out there’ compared to the after-school programs we were used to, most of which came from the US. But I remember loving it. I got a massive kick out of watching these fast-talking, gregarious, super-fighting, mystical characters. If this is what life is like in China, well, okay then, that’s cool.
A year later after the showed was aired, around the time I was about to begin high school, I remember my small country town was abuzz with the news that a Chinese restaurant was about to open in the main street.
For a couple of reasons this was HUGE news for everyone. For one thing, we didn’t have restaurants in our town. We had pubs, and a couple of cafes, and a fish-‘n-chip shop, but generally if people wanted a special dining experience they’d travel to a larger regional town – and for us that was forty minutes away.
Secondly, a Chinese restaurant… well, that’s so… exotic. Yes… exotic. How lucky are we!? How lucky is our town to get the WONG SING.
Going to the Wong Sing was a major occasion. I remember my family getting dressed in our finest – that’s how much of an event it was for us. And as far as I was concerned, I was going to China for a couple of hours.
What do you call this? Lemon chicken. And this? Sweet-and-sour pork. And that’s fried rice! And these crunchy awesome prawn cracker thingies? And fried banana fritter with ice cream – genius! Oh. My. God. Food from China is awesome!
I was having the same blissful taste-bud reaction to these new dishes that my Anglo-Aussie friends had had when my Italian mother served them her homemade lasagna or tiramisu for the first time.
As my teenage growth spurt continued so did my exposure to Chinese culture. It was no longer constrained to TV shows or the frequently visited Wong Sing. By now I had learned at school about the Chinese people’s long and continuing role in Australian history. From the first officially reported Chinese immigrant in 1818 to the lives of Chinese miners during the Gold Rush years. My parents had also started taking us to the Bendigo Easter Festival, where we came face to face with Sun Loong, the longest imperial Chinese dragon in the world.
When I was eighteen, I was a Lions exchange student to San Francisco and on the first few days of my arrival my host family took me Chinatown – the oldest in America and the largest Chinese community outside of China. I soaked in the food stalls, the colour, the smells, and the impact that that community had on that city.
A number of visits to Hong Kong in my late twenties broadened my knowledge and experience of Chinese culture. And while working as an actor in London’s West End in the 90s, I was thrown into a beautiful giant melting pot of nationalities and cultures – and Chinese, again, was part of that mix
Jumping forward a decade, in 2002 and 2008, I was thrilled to learn that my books Bravo Billy and Sally/Dave – A Slug Story were to be published in China. I wonder what my 12-year-old-self scooping up that last spoonful of banana fritter would of thought of that?
Recently my parents decided to host international high-school students. They now have three Chinese teen boys living with them. It’s a joy to see my folks, who had also been seen as exotic when they immigrated to this country, share their own personal cultural stories with their ‘new kids’. And I get the biggest kick of watching my Mum and Dad (that’s him in the image below) telling their Chinese boarders about their own memorable trek across mainland China – a trip they had taken a year ago with my younger sister, who now happens to live and work in Hong Kong.
Listening to my parents retell their story about getting separated in a busy Shanghai train station, or how they travelled for 30 hours in a crowded bus to Guangxi, I can’t help but smile and think how far we’ve all come from the time we sat down at the Wong Sing. How our lives have been enriched, not only by the Chinese culture, but by the many nationalities that make up this great country of ours.
A few years ago when my nephew was about six, he had learnt a few words of Chinese at school. When asked by a shopkeeper what nationality he was, he replied:
“I’m Australian. I’m Italian. I’m Greek. And… I’m Chinese.”
As far as my young nephew was concerned, learning to express himself (even a little) in those languages meant that he was already part of those other cultures. His own ethnicity was not limited by his (Greek and Italian) genetics. How beautiful is that?
I think that’s a lesson we can all learn from.
We are one… we are many. And we are all the better for it.
Gon Xi Fa Cai everyone!