Arts and Culture

Chinatown, Honolulu and Chinese New Year Traditions

Most people in the US celebrate the new year on January 1st, but many Asians follow the lunar calendar, which is based on cycles of the Moon, rather than the sun. Chinese New Year has become one of the largest celebrations around the world. Here In Hawaii, with 38.6% of our population being Asian ancestry, many locals celebrate with enthusiasm, for everything you do during this time is considered to bring you good luck!

Chinese New Year lands on a different day each year, during the new moon in January or February and celebrations go on for two weeks until the full moon arrives. The new moon commences celebration with a Lantern Festival, where the streets are lit with candles and lanterns to “guide our ancestral spirits home.” Many families, friends and businesses celebrate with big dinners in Chinatown. These are Chinese New Year cuisine items and their symbolism:

  • Noodles – happiness and longevity
  • Dumplings and spring rolls – wealth
  • Tangyuan (sweet rice balls) – family together
  • Gao (glutinous rice cake) – higher income
  • Tangerines and oranges – fullness and wealth
  • Fish – an increase in prosperity

Chinese New Year festivities start in Chinatown, Honolulu, located between Beretania Street, Nuuanu Stream, Nuuanu Avenue and Honolulu Harbor; adjacent to Downtown Honolulu, it colors the city with texture and history. Over the past 10-15  years, Chinatown has been modernized and redefined.  Historic buildings have been restored and others renovated almost completely, saving only the brick walls or an industrial or Asian artifact of its rich history since 1900, Chinatown today is bustling year round, though especially during these few weeks, with dim sum restaurants, noodle shops and crowded Asian markets full of produce, imports, antiques, textiles, jade stone necklaces, bakery items, pottery, plants, flower leis and traditional Red paper envelopes to celebrate good luck, health & prosperity in the new year. Chinatown also an artistic hub here in Honolulu, home to established and upcoming artist galleries and top culinary restaurants: Senia, Alan Wong, The Pig & the Lady are just a few international award winning chefs whose restaurants have opened here. For entertainment, the historic, art deco Hawaii Theatre, is a must see with various concerts, musicals and comedy year round. For Pau Hana or post dinner or concert fun, there are a multitude of hip new bars and music venues found in converted lofts.

2018 is the Year of the Dog

Dogs are known to be loyal, trustworthy, friendly and consistent, so these attributes are said to color the year. Chinese horoscope and Feng Shui experts predict 2018 will be a year filled with good financial potential, social activities and a time to build positive image!

New Years is also a time for remembering our ancestors and celebrating with loved ones to help each other with a fresh beginning in all endeavors. On Chinese or Lunar New Years Day, Asian families get together. The children are expected to all come home for family celebration meal and festivities.

Good Luck Rituals

These are key in Chinese culture. If you’ve never celebrated it in Hawaii like a local, here are some basic customs to ensure you have a very successful year:

Clean Your Home

One of the main components in Feng Shui is clearing the path of clutter for good luck, healthy & prosperity to come to you. Having grown up in an Asian household we were cleaning the house all week prior to the first day of Chinese New Year!

Incorporate Red

Red is the most auspicious color and everything possible is enhanced with red to celebrate the new year boldly and attract health, wealth and good relations.

One of the best things about New Years, growing up as a child here, was receiving Lai See or red envelopes with money inside from Parents, Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents & extended family (Hanai) that were older. Traditionally, its given as a blessing to help suppress aging and the challenges of the coming year. Back in the day, some employers also gave red envelopes to their employees with bonuses in them. Though I wouldn’t expect this today even if your boss is Chinese.

Chinese Lion Dances

Chinese Lion Dances are perhaps the most familiar icon of Chinese New Years Celebration. Although they can also be held throughout the year, to commence a business grand opening or Wedding, you’ll see many of them all around Honolulu~ restaurants, stores, businesses & throughout Waikiki. While present during a Lion Dance, be sure to feed the lion some cash — better yet, in a red envelope with some cash— so you can receive its blessing as it chases away the evil spirits!

Narcissus Plants

Narcissus plants bloom yellow and white flowers early in the year and its blossom symbolizes gold, silver and wealth. Narcissus bulb carving and cultivation is an art and the best carvers get them to grow into different sizes and shapes so the blooms look like sculptures. If the narcissus blooms on Chinese New Year, it is said to bring extra wealth and good fortune throughout the year. It is reputed to augment/symbolize the hard work put into careers, so it’s an excellent gift for those who are seeking career advancement and luck.


It’s believed that avoiding meat on the first day of the new year will ensure longevity and enhance spirituality, so people eat jai, or monk’s food, a hearty vegetarian stew. Everyone has their own jai recipe, but the main ingredients usually include bean curd sticks, long rice, tree ear fungus, lily buds, mushrooms, black moss, cabbage and tofu. Every item is connected to symbolism for longevity, blessings, prosperity, and health. You can order Jai at most Chinese, Buddhist, Vietnamese or Thai restaurants or make at home with this recipe.

The traditional new year cake, called niangao or just Gao, are disks of steamed glutinous rice flour kneaded with Chinese slab brown sugar and a bit of peanut oil. Some people like to add coconut, as well. You will probably buy it when it’s soft and floppy; let it harden for a couple of days so you can cut it. After a few more days, if it gets too hard, slice pieces of it, dredge it in an egg batter, and fry it up for a snack. These are available at many Chinatown establishments and event at CVS here in Hawaii! If you’d like to make your own, there’s a great recipe here.

Good Luck Charms

For extra luck, good luck charms made of jade stone can be found in Chinatown shops or CVS here in Honolulu and given on New Years or throughout the year. You can attach to your purse, phone, keychain, car mirror or hung on bamboo or jade plants as gifts. You can find a charm for everything, like prosperity, longevity, safety, love, power, or abundance. Many people change their charms each year to match the ruling zodiac sign to help them throughout the year. If you give a gift to someone for their birthday, anniversary or special occasion, place a charm of the animal year or the persons birth year animal, for personal good luck. Dog is a popular year; you may see a lot of dog charms this year!

During Chinese New Year, people hang small messages or wishes on red scrolls called Fai Chun in their homes and offices, hoping for good fortune during the year. There are many different Fai Chun, depending upon the occasion or need: some asking for sufficient food, harmonious homes, good grades, or good health. Of course, the popular ones ask for prosperity or general good luck. The handwritten ones are available at booths in Chinatown during the New Year festivities; after that, you can buy pre-printed ones at retailers around Chinatown.

Candied Fruit and Vegetables

In old times, Chinese people filled a red lacquer box with six or eight candied items. These were served with tea in symbolic ceremony for the New Year. A few pieces of candied fruits and vegetables are placed at the bottom of the teacups before filling with tea to offer. Each item carries specific meaning, and if you really wanted to get into it, this is the symbolism for some popular items:

  • Lotus root is the symbol for marriage
  • Lotus seeds symbolize fertility
  • Winter melon is the symbol for abundance
  • Kumquats, due to their round shape and gold color, symbolize gold coins for prosperity.
  • Red melon seeds are for happiness, while watermelon seeds are for fertility. So be careful on which one you choose!
  • Ginger is for longevity
  • Water chestnuts provide unity
  • Carrots, due to their high sugar content, symbolize a sweet time, meaning good times ahead
  • Most love the candied coconut shavings which are the icon for resilience in life too! This symbolizes strength, survival, and the ability to give life

During Chinese New Year, greet one another with an enthusiastic “Kung Hee Fat Choy!” or “Happy New Year” in Chinese, and you’ll be welcoming in the Year of the Dog with spirit and Aloha!

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John Ambrose

March 1, 2018

Aloha and Kung Hee Fat Choi,
I loved your article, very interesting and brought back find memories…I was born in the islands, Oahu in 1959 and did celebrate the Chinese New Year with my little friends ..I was roughly 5 maybe 7
Mahalo Miss Lee, I will share ?

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