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The Flowers and Fruits of Chinese New Year

by Ernest Ng

Chinese New Year, which falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice, is observed with a sense of celebrating the earth coming back to life after winter. It is a time for starting a new year with hope and promise as symbolized with the opening of flower buds. As we approach Chinese New Year of 4702, which falls on February 9th this year, shops in the Chinese community start to display red azaleas and red gladiolas as well as the large pomelo, oranges, tangerines, and bright mandarin oranges with the leaves attached.

In Southern China, peach or plum blossoms are brought into the house with the hope that the buds on the bare branch will open on New Year’s Day. Opening flowers are thought to bring prosperity and represent new beginnings. The peach is a symbol of longevity, so its blossoms are prized. Since peach blossoms do not bloom in California during Chinese New Year, the local Chinese have substituted the flowering quince with its pink or red blossoms to display in a prominent place in the home during New Year. Narcissus is grown in the house at this time of year, not only for its lovely sweet fragrance, but also because this yellow and white flower is thought to bring good luck and prosperity.

Besides oranges and tangerines, Chinese markets – and now even the large supermarket chain stores that serve a large Asian community – are sure to have mandarin oranges with green leaves left on. The round golden fruit represents the sun or a lump of gold and the green leaves represent currency. Pairs of tangerines or mandarin oranges with leaves are often displayed or given as return gifts as a gesture offering double good fortune.

If you see a very large round grapefruit during this time of year, often two to three times larger than an ordinary grapefruit, it is undoubtedly a pomelo. This delicious citrus does not have the bitterness associated with the grapefruit, while its rind is used in Chinese cooking. The Chinese name for the pomelo is a homonym for “to have,” making it a visual pun that implies that the house or person with a pomelo will have everything it needs in the New Year. So that you won’t be disappointed, be warned that the fruit has a very thick rind and the meat of the fruit is smaller than you would expect.

Because of their large size, kumquat trees in five gallon containers are often sold from the sidewalk by many merchants during Chinese New Year. The Chinese love these little citrus trees because they are decorative and their two syllable name is a homonym for gold and good fortune. The small fruit is often candied and offered as a treat during Chinese New Year.

The Chinese New Year Flower Market in San Francisco, in this year of the rooster, takes place Saturday, February 5th, from 10 am to 8 pm on Grant Avenue and Sunday, Feb 6th, from 9 am to 6 pm on Pacific Street between Kearny and Stockton Streets. Also, the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park will be holding their annual Lunar New Year Flower Market on Saturday, February 5th, from 10 am to 2 pm. Along with the plants and flowers associated with the Lunar New Year, orchids and rare Asian plants will also be available for sale. Entertainment includes acrobats, craft demonstrations, a lion dance, Vietnamese folk dancing, music, and activities for children.

Chinese New Year, or more correctly, the Lunar New Year, is a colorful time of year in San Francisco. Might this be a year when you want to buy some colorful mandarin oranges, a pomelo, or a vibrant blossoming plant for display to usher in the Lunar New Year 4702? Perhaps we can start the New Year with hope and promise as symbolized by the opening of a flower bud.

This article was based on a brochure by Terese Tse Bartholomew for the Asian Art Museum.

Photo reproduced with permission, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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Shopping for New Year azaleas in Chinatown, 1956.

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