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Festive Chinese New Year couplets are on sale in Oakland Chinatown. Photo by Katherine Wei.

Sweep out the old, sweep in the new: Chinese New Year traditions in Oakland

on February 5, 2016

Editor’s note: an introduction to Chinese New Year Eve feasts can be found here.

The Chinese-speaking world is getting ready for the Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, which will begin on February 8. Only two weeks ago, a good portion of Oakland’s Chinese-speaking community was haggling for celebration knickknacks in the annual Chinese New Year Bazaar, buying a variety of merchandise to ward off the torrent of bad luck that the coming year may bring.

In case good fortune pauses at your door or ill luck decides to approach, there are strips of red paper called “spring couplets” tacked to the top, left and right of the doorway (to be read in this sequence as well); calls for a good year and greetings to well-wishing visitors are written on the paper with black or gold ink in Chinese calligraphy. Plants like miniature orange trees flank the doors of some households for the same function, as the pronunciation for “orange” in Chinese is the same as the word “auspiciousness.”

People born in the year of the zodiac animal for the coming year are said to suffer the wrath of the god Taishui and will be challenged in various ways for a year. (For example, people whose zodiac animal is the Monkey will be destined for bad luck this year). Illnesses, work and studies-related issues, as well as general bad luck, will be imminent unless one prays to Taishui in his temple as the New Year arrives.

“It is not just the Monkey this year,” said Janice Cheung, manager of Oakland Library’s Asian Branch. “The Tiger, Snake and Boar will have run-ins with the Monkey in 2016. According to the Chinese Almanac, these people will have to pray to Taishui as well.”

And lest other people’s bad luck rub off on you, many people buy lucky charms in the shape of small pieces of jade or different animals. They hang them on their necks or bags like talismans.

Once every purchasable shred of luck is secured, families tackle the massive task of actively scrubbing away misfortunes from their homes. Each household will be scoured from top to bottom by every member of the family, ridding themselves of garbage, unusable items and dirt in order to welcome the new year with respect. Instead of sweeping away with abandon, the Chinese caution that one must only move the brooms in one direction: sweeping into the room from every doorway. This way, dust and dirt is raked up without allowing a speck of good luck or wealth to escape the house.

“Do your cleaning vigorously, but do it before New Year’s Eve. There should be no cleaning or taking out the trash from then on, until the fifth day of Chinese New Year,” said Carl Chan, a board director at the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. On New Year’s Day and the three following days, waste is considered “riches” that ought to be kept until the holiday ends and businesses begin operating on the fifth day. “That is the day when the trash becomes a source of poverty, so we must throw it out,” said Chan, who was born in Hong Kong but moved to Oakland with his family 34 years ago.

On New Year’s Eve, red envelopes will be given by grownups to the younger generation. The custom stops when a child or grandchild is officially employed: It then becomes their turn to give their elders red envelopes. The red envelopes are distributed late at night, after the family reunion dinner ends and the children stay up late to see the year out, a traditional way to pray for their elders’ longevity.

“We’ve been doing that since we were kids. Normally our parents wouldn’t allow this, but Chinese New Year is something special,” Chan said, beaming. The cash each envelope holds varies according to the will of the giver, but tradition has it that the contents are to be even numbers, to round off a good year. “Good things come in pairs,” goes an old saying, and odd numbers are meant for “white envelopes,” money that is given to the family of the dead at a funeral as a way to pay respect. The New Years gift money is often gambled away in rounds of mahjong while people wait restlessly for the clock to strike 12.

As the New Year arrives, it is greeted with a slew of firecrackers and the banging of gongs and drums, for the year is also said to be the man-eating Monster Nien (the Chinese character for “year”), advancing on each household to gobble up its inhabitants. The noise and explosives are meant to shoo the monster away, so the year will be off to a wonderful start.

“You should come and watch this in Oakland Chinatown this Sunday. Many shop owners start off their firecrackers right after they close the stores, around 5 or 6 p.m.,” urged Chan.

Visiting begins on New Year’s Day. People pay their respect to family friends, distant relatives with cookies and candy, and stay to chat about how the past year has been like. “At home, we prepare a [snack] box that usually carries eight different snacks. Friends come over we offer them sweet things from the box, sweets that will bring you good fortune, good luck and good health,” said Chan.

Yet for some Chinese families, women are not allowed to visit their parents’ homes on the second day of the New Year. “It is said to bring bad luck, but this is not practiced so much anymore. … Mainly we are all glad just to have an excuse to get together,” Chan said.

“The funny thing is now the second and third generation Chinese-Americans tend to follow the traditional ways more than folks who are immigrants,” he added. “It is possible that they don’t understand the reasoning but they still follow the rules. Why break tradition? It won’t hurt anyone.”


The Oakland Museum of California will be holding its Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day Celebration on February 14 with Lion Dancers and vendors galore, and the  Oakland Asian Cultural Center has its own family-friendly Lunar New Year Celebration on February 27 in Oakland Chinatown.


  1. Tanja on March 5, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Do you know where to buy the jade animal charms in Oakland? I’m from Hong Kong and just moved here and need to buy some for a friend. Thanks!

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