Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Happy Chinese New Year!

Yes, it's that time of the year, when everyone in Taiwan simultaneously decides to go Somewhere Else, shops shut down for a week, the highways turn into parking lots, and neighborhoods resound with the banging of firecrackers and the crackling of mah-jhong tiles banging into each other. It must be Chinese New Year again.

This year the Shih-Turton clan met halfway between our twin locations of Taipei and Taichung, in the windy city of Hsinchu an hour and a half southwest of Taipei, now one of the world's dominant locations for technology companies, but still more famous among the locals for its fine meatballs and bean thread vermicelli. It is often said that the Chinese live to eat, but this is erroneous, for it is even worse than that: among the Chinese, living and eating are synonymous.

Because, like all human festivals, New Years is just an excuse to eat great amounts of food, our New Year celebration actually begins a couple of days before the nation goes on holiday for a week, with a trip tothe day market in Fengyuan. My wife always goes there to pick up some fresh-made spring roll wrappers for her trademark Vietnamese spring rolls.

Buying the spring roll wrappers.

Day One
We rose at 5:00 AM and stumbled onto the highway at 5:30. I've lived in Taiwan for many years and have become conditioned to thinking that on the second day of New Years, one must get out early, although things have improved mightily in recent years.Further, we are heading north, towards Taipei, whereas the mob is on the southbound side, as all those migrants to Taipei return home to Ma and Pa's in Miaoli, Taichung, Pingtung, and points elsewhere.

Dan-dan snaps me as we rest at the local McDonalds.

Early morning in Hsinchu: fog and empty streets.

Sheridan models a sweater her aunt bought her.

A key tradition: The Red Envelope. No, it's not a story by Edgar Allen Poe, but an envelope stuffed with $100 bills. Here Uncle Chi-kuo passes out cold hard cash to the kids waiting patiently in line. Any event that combines tons of great food with handouts of cash is well worth driving a couple of hours to participate in.

Zeb tallies the loot.

My father in law, almost eighty but still hale. Nothing makes relatives smile like getting a red envelope.

One father who is an electrical engineer: useful. One sister in law who can explain anything, from airline routing to cellphone operation: competent. One sister in law who can listen with total concentration: important. One slightly crazed mother in law: priceless.

My wife sneaks into the pic.

Empty streets in mid-afternoon, a scene replicated all over the island.

Chi-kuo grins.

My wife fries up some Vietnamese spring rolls. She grew up in Vietnam.

The results.

And of course, they must have fish sauce: basil, lemon, fish sauce, garlic, sugar, water.

Wrapper, fresh pork, pepper, carrot, bean thread noodles. Yum.

Fruits and sweets are a must.

That great feeling of knowing that they are sitting in traffic listening to screaming kids and you are sitting in a living room with the kids screaming on the third floor where you can't hear them.

My sister in law who works for the Canadian Trade Office arrived armed with pesto sauce, basil, and pasta. Here she whipped up some fresh tomatoes in pesto sauce. Yum. Nothing like a multicultural family.

Chicken and onions.

Everyone's favorite: cukes marinated in vinegar, oil, and garlic.

Every year at Chinese New Year it's time to play the game of: what bizarre food can we torture the foreign in-law with? This year they brought out what I thought were insect larva. I would have eaten those with no trouble as I have eaten insects on many occasions. However, my sister in law quickly explained what was really lying on top of that excellent whole chicken. No, these are not larva, though once, they were. It seems that they are a fungus that kills the larva and occupies their bodies, filling out the skin and taking their exact shape. For some reason, despite this attractive description, I declined to eat them.

Peter and Jessie eat the fungus stuff.

Day One: Fun
Peter rolled out some Hsiaohsing Wine that was allegedly thirty years old, with Chiang Ching-kuo's portrait on the bottle. I didn't know whether an old unreconstructed Taiwan independence supporter like myself should be drinking such stuff, but after a couple of glasses I was quite ready to vote straight KMT. That was followed up by white wine. After drinks, a cappuccino from McDees, and another from Starbucks, a plate of cheese, pesto and tomato, spring rolls, medicinal soup, cold chicken, a pasta salad, and assorted fine chocolates, I was floatin' like a buttertub and stingin' like a tree. As I absorbed intellectual stimulation via The Stepford Wives from HBO, Peter (Chi-kuo) decided to introduce my kids to the joy of things that go boom! and vroom! This was greeted with much enthusiasm by the younger set.

My nieces Hongtzu and Hongyu learn the joy of boom.

After blowing up the neighborhood and shattering the peace of the diners at the restaurant across the street, we fled to the quiet acres of Shiba Jian Shan (18 Peak Mountain), a park area in Hsinchu. The broad walking paths were filled with holiday goers, old couples ambling along, power couples jogging purposefully past, and young children running in every direction.

The park was formerly an ammo storage site.

Day 2: Fun in Hsinchu
Peter took us out to a park by the sea for day two, in which we rented bicycles for a cycle by the sea. Once again it was cool and foggy, perfect weather for everything but pictures.

Dan-dan, Zeb, and my niece Aiwen prepare.

I took my wife and mother-in-law on this outlandish tricycle. After a few minutes of pedaling along, groaning with effort whilst they chatted merrily behind me, I resolved to commit them both to weight-loss programs as soon as the ride was completed.

Yes, that's right, you guessed it. That red and white smokestack there signals that the Sea View Observation Building, with its beautiful glass windows and fantastic views across the Taiwan Strait, is a trash incinerator. And the bicycle path goes right past it, with everyone inhaling deeply as they pump their way upslope. Because as every Taiwanese park planner knows, you can never have too many dioxins.

And so we headed home along crowded highways. Another New Year, another set of resolutions to be briefly enjoyed before being permanently ignored, and good memories of happy family times.