Persona

The Chinese New Year
I met Premier Zhou Enlai

The well-loved leader was premier of the People’s Republic from its liberation in 1949 until his death in 1976

1979 Chinese New Year, Mario with Laotian, Brazilian and Italian experts
1979 Chinese New Year in Beijing, Mario Miclat with Laotian, Brazilian and Italian experts

My husband and I come from native Filipino families with no recorded foreign origins and are proud of it. Between us, 12 siblings are college graduates who led successful professional lives. I met him at UP Diliman five decades ago, and the encounter defined the rest of our lives in a most special way. We have come to celebrate Chinese New Year annually.

How’s that?

Well, we were student activists in those turbulent days of our country’s history and found ourselves building a family in China before Martial Law was declared, or even before the earlier Marcos suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in 1971. The so-called movement sent us there for a reason. But that’s another story. This time, I want to talk about our Chinese New Year experience.

Our first experience of the festival was on our sixth month in Beijing—Feb. 15, 1972 to be exact. For 49 years ever since, i.e., 14 years in China and the last 35 years here in our country, my family has been celebrating the Chinese New Year, also referred to as Spring Festival.

You know, of course, that Chinese calendar days do not correspond with our Gregorian calendar and vary from year to year, just like our Easter which follows the Roman lunar calculations. Chinese New Year may fall anywhere from the third week of January to the third week of February. This year, it falls on February 12.

I had many “firsts” in my life on our first year in China. A trip to the Fragrant Hills enveloped me in autumn leaves of maple, like a forest on fire. Beijing’s cold, dark and drab winter suddenly enveloped in white by thick, thick snow. And yes, the Great Wall.

The most exciting first for me, however, was attending our first New Year state banquet for foreign “comrades” hosted by no less than the charismatic Premier Zhou Enlai and his wife Deng Yingchao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The well-loved leader was premier of the People’s Republic from its liberation in 1949 until his death in 1976.

Chairman Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, was surprised that the premier could communicate with me without an interpreter

Speaking in English, Zhou asked after my health. I was in my seventh month of pregnancy, and my condition elicited concern and kind words from him. Chairman Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, was surprised that the premier could communicate with me without an interpreter. It was our second encounter with Zhou, the first was in the old Peking Hotel when he hosted a banquet for foreign experts that included Mario and I. My husband and I had two roles to play in China: as “experts” in Radio Peking and as members of the official delegation of the Communist Party of the Philippines led by Ibarra Tubianosa.

Our interpreter from the International Liaison Department (ILD) said it was the first such high-level Communist Party banquet since the Cultural Revolution in 1966 that threw the country into chaos. Chairman Mao did not attend the banquet due to, as we would learn later, a bloody power struggle between him and his anointed successor, Lin Piao. According to official version made public years later, but read to us foreign comrades much earlier, the latter died in a plane crash in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, while fleeing after his failed putsch.

Our Chinese New Year had not always been against such dramatic backgrounds of coups and counter-coups. We were in China during three important periods of its recent history—the second half of the chaotic Cultural Revolution led by the so-called Gang of Four with Mao’s wife Jiang Qing as orchestrator, the short-lived autocratic rule of Hua Guofeng who was said to have been personally chosen by Mao and took over the premiership upon Zhou Enlai’s death, and the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping that ushered China into an ultra-modern power. Our Chinese hosts made sure, though, that we were shielded from all these social convolutions.

As distraction, making our Filipino rebel origins escape our memories, we were made to watch repetitive Peking operas of the cultural revolution type, stage shows and movies from Albania, Rumania, Stalin-era (not Khrushchev’s) Soviet Union, North Korean and Yugoslav cultural shows, and Afro-Asian table tennis competitions. We visited Beijing’s oil refinery and the Evergreen people’s commune, and listened to anti-Soviet social-imperialist lectures. And yes, we repeatedly watched films on guerilla and mine warfare.

Little by little, we transitioned from our tropical roots to semi-frigid existence. We were becoming like the other communists from Burma, Indonesia, Khmer Rouge, Malaya, Honduras and Thailand, and rebels from Bolivia, Brazil, Ceylon, Laos, Peru and Turkey.

There was another kind of “rebel” exile in Beijing at that time. We saw him walking at the Summer Palace gardens once, and I wanted to go greet him when our interpreter said, “Why, he’s a big feudal lord!” A political ally was not necessarily a proletarian friend.

On our first Chinese New Year, we watched a cultural presentation by the People’s Liberation Army, while the Chinese masses were enjoined to spend the three-day holiday with a simple celebration at home. We were given a three-day holiday by our Radio Peking office, having our programs pre-taped as they were beamed to the Philippines. Ah, yes, Mario and I were so-called foreign experts of the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television, as our semi-secret front. We worked with a dozen of Chinese colleagues, some of whom were Huaqiao, or former overseas Chinese in the Philippines, while others learned Filipino at either the Radio Language Institute or the Beijing Foreign Language College. Secretly, we were also guests of the Chinese Communist Party as part of the delegation of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

I enjoyed the three-day holiday, which for me had another significance. It was the first Valentine’s celebration for me and my husband. We never had such a date in our revolutionary life back home. The temperature remained at subzero. The lunar festival, also called Chunjie or Spring Festival, was supposedly to celebrate the arrival of spring. But it was at the height of winter.

Spring Festival is one of the “Three for the Living” festivals in the lunar calendar, the other two being the Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwu) and the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhongqiu). The last one is also known as the Mooncake Festival, when families prepare their heirloom versions of hopia.

This is the Year of the Ox. People born under this sign are said to be strong, reliable, fair, conscientious, and inspiring confidence in others

After the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the system of using the animal zodiac signs was revived. The Chinese Zodiac is based on a 12-year cycle, each year relating to an animal sign. These animal signs are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

As legend goes, Buddha called on all the animals to meet him in the New Year. But only 12 came, and they had the good fortune to have their names refer to each of the years. Buddha was also supposed to have declared that people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s traits.

Our first Chinese New Year in Beijing was the Year of the Rat, the year when our eldest daughter, Maningning, was born. I believe Buddha was right in that our late daughter indeed was imaginative, charming and generous to the one she loved—traits of those born in the Year of the Rat.

Her sister, Banaue, has a special sensitivity to art, beauty and faith in a certain religion. She is wise and compassionate, and can cope with business cautiously and circumspectly, traits of one born in the Year of the Sheep.

This is the Year of the Ox. People born under this zodiac sign are said to be strong, reliable, fair, conscientious, and inspiring confidence in others. They are also said to be calm, patient, methodical and can be trusted. It is my husband’s year.

Long queues were seen in front of post offices in the freezing early morning temperature to get the stamps, later sold for a tremendous amount

After the cultural revolution, the Chinese Post Office issued special stamps on New Year’s Eve representing the particular animal of the year. Long queues were seen in front of post offices in the freezing early morning temperature to get the stamps, later sold for a tremendous amount or exchanged for expensive items.

Spring Festival is also the time to display nianhua, or New Year pictures. Originally, the custom was to paint the likeness of legendary heroes or deities, particularly the Kitchen God and the Door Gods. Nianhua developed into folk art, featuring auspicious symbols like cracked pomegranates, peaches, fish and well-nourished and chubby young children. All these express the wish for a better life, happiness, wealth, many children, long life, fame and success. The pictures were mass-produced with the use of woodblock printing, becoming very popular during the middle of the Ming Dynasty around the 15th century, and reaching its zenith in the 18th century.

During our first few years in China, the Cultural Revolutionists changed the content of this folk art and showed proletarian images of peasants, workers and soldiers. Now that the old woodblock prints have made a comeback, some proletarian prints have become collectors’ items and fetch a hefty amount.

The southern Chinese greeting popular in our country during Chinese New Year, “Kung Hei Fat Choy,” means “May you become rich!” In Mandarin, it is “Gong Xi Fa Cai.” This kind of greeting was previously frowned upon by the Northerners who traditionally emphasized spiritual or intellectual accomplishments. Times have really changed, however, and getting rich has become the vogue in today’s China.

One popular tale is that of the Kitchen God. It is said that he goes to heaven on New Year’s Eve to make his annual report about the family. What do mortals do? In some areas, people smear the god’s lips with honey so that he would report only the good things. During the Ching dynasty, some even used opium to make the god “high” and forget all unpleasant incidents. Even the gods could be bribed!

Nian gao, or what we know as tikoy, is also served the Kitchen God, the stickier, the better. It is to practically seal the mouth of the Kitchen God to prevent him to report on the seamy side of family affairs.

Another tradition that goes with Chunjie is the hongbao (ang pao). These are gifts of money placed inside red packets or envelopes and given by the matriarch to the children, very much like our pamasko during Christmas.

Fostering unity

Dumplings, or jiaozi, is a popular holiday treat in Beijing. Preparing them is a collective undertaking. One person kneads the dough, another minces the meat and yet another mixes the ingredients together. The adults then enclose the mixture of meat and vegetable in a covering of dough shaped like silver ingots. They are either steamed or boiled in broth. Dumplings preparation is believed to foster family unity.

For our celebration this year, we chose the day between the Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day, to launch my daughter Banaue’s son Raja’s 1st book, #RAJISMS

During our first years back home in the Philippines, my family used to invite some Chinese expats and Filipino balikbayan from China to make dumplings at home. These days, we just eat out. Filipinos don’t usually think of dumplings as a New Year’s treat. For a long time, a place in Quezon City has become the favorite Chinese New Year haunt of our nuclear family—the Shangri-La Finest Chinese Cuisine Restaurant. Not to order dumplings, but its most delectable Peking duck. This piece is not an advertisement for the place. The pandemic has forced it to close down after 37 years of operation.

For our celebration this year, we chose the day between the Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day, to launch by Zoom my daughter Banaue’s son Raja’s 1st book, #RAJISMS. Funny quips and witticisms with added bonus of two short stories as well as paintings by the precocious eight-year-old boy, Maharadya Miclat-Janssen, make up the bilingual book in full color. There will be Livestreaming of the launch at Facebook’s Maningning Miclat, Artist page on Feb. 13 at 3 pm. What a better way to celebrate the festival this time of pandemic.

About author

Articles

She is the author of two deluxe books, “Soul Searchers and Dreamers: Artists’ Profiles” and “Soul Searchers and Dreamers, Volume II”, published by the Maningning Miclat Art Foundation, Inc. and Erehwon Center for the Arts. (Email [email protected] or call/text +639189057311 to purchase the books.)
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