Gung hay fat choy! The Chinese new year begins today, celebrated by many of the estimated 100,000 Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles County.
As the year 4683, year of the ox in the Chinese lunar calendar, begins, several traditions are followed to clear out the bad luck of the old year and make way for the good luck of the new.
Debts are paid, houses are swept clean and special foods prepared. Firecrackers are lighted to ward off evil spirits.
"When they sweep out the house," said Perry Link, chairman of the department of East Asian languages and culture at UCLA, "the idea is the old bad luck gets swept out."
Those who owe money often are visited by creditors on New Year's Eve, he added, "to at least remind debtors they owe money. For people hopelessly in debt, New Year's can be a nightmare."
It is a time for family reunions, and there are many feasts featuring lucky foods to bring wealth. Tangerines or kumquats are popular because their colors resemble gold. Pig knuckles are eaten, Link said, "because knuckles clutch things, and in the new year you will clutch money."
Another lucky food is called fa tsai (in Mandarin) or fat choy (in Cantonese) and has to be imported from Hong Kong. Described as a "hairy vegetable," its taste is not important. It is prized for its name, Link said, which in both dialects sounds like the words for "strike it rich."
Gung hay fat choy, the Cantonese salutation for "happy new year," literally means "congratulations on getting rich."
According to Chinese astrology, each Chinese year is known by one of 12 animals, so an ox year comes only once in every 12.