Sunday, January 27, 2002

The the Star-Bulletin's continuing series
profiling Hawaii's families.

Passing on  family traditions

Chinese New Year festivities help
the Chongs keep family ties strong

By Gary C.W. Chun

For Douglas Chong and his family, Chinese New Year is a reminder of the traditions and customs they already keep close at heart year-round.

The ancestral altar at the front door of the Chongs' Kailua home is next to a large red banner depicting Chinese gods honored during New Year festivities.

Chong is a cultural historian for the local Chinese community and, specifically, for wife Valerie, son Ken and daughter Lorrie.

Valerie and Douglas Chong and their daughter, Lorrie, center, showed some of the flowers they arranged Jan. 19. They were preparing for the Chinese New Year, on Feb. 11.

"In the old days, New Year's was a very family-oriented time, a time to celebrate at home," he said.

His small kid-time memories include "these big lion dances in Chinatown and the festivity that surrounded an elaborate fireworks display that was held over the river downtown."

In keeping with custom, he'll begin celebrating the Year of the Horse on Feb. 11, the eve of the new lunar year. Special attention is given to paying respect to great-grandparents, grandparents and parents in the form of a simple tea ceremony.

"Serving tea to your family elders on eve's night and New Year's morning is a sign of filial piety," Chong said. "This Chinese idea of respect can be equated with expressions of love and affection found in Western culture. Tea is served to each in turn in small cups with both hands, expressing your wish for auspicious tidings.

"The elder, in turn, responds with wishes that their younger relation do well in school or business, and then that younger person pours more 'tim cha' to fill out the serving, saying, 'May this add to your blessings.'"

The elders then give out "li see," monetary gifts enclosed in red envelopes. The li see goes under the recipients' pillows at bedtime -- it's considered rude to open it then and there! Each li see received is a good wish and valued for protection from bad tidings through the new year, and the more accumulated, the better.

Ian Chong, 2, poured tea Friday for his great-grandmother, Kam Yuen Chong, in a traditional Chinese gesture of respect shown to elders. Ian's grandfather, Douglas Chong, helped him hold the teapot. In back, Ian's dad, Michael Chong, left, and Douglas' brother Cedric Chong watched.

They are usually opened on the third day of the New Year celebration, the day that honors the God of Wealth, or the eighth day, the God of Man.

Another custom the Chong family has practiced over the years is the preparation of "nin gow," a sweet, glutinous brown pudding.

"The weekend before Chinese New Year, it's always been a family affair, very work-intensive," Chong said. "We all knead the mochi flour dough, tend a fire outside -- now we use the kitchen gas burner -- and steam 14 of them at one time for four to five hours.

"The Chinese New Year season offers the best opportunity to teach about our heritage and continue it with family practices," he said. "It celebrates the familial line. It's like Christmas; it's a time of renewal, of both relationships and of life.

"What has changed over the years with most of the Chinese in Hawaii has been the varying degrees to how families practice these customs," Chong said. "Nowadays, you feel lucky if you're able to get the entire family to go to a restaurant in Chinatown!

"Unfortunately, many lost the tradition of these customs. After their grandparents passed away, the parents didn't continue these practices. What has to be remembered is that the Chinese cultural values are not built into these customs themselves; it's up to the older generations to make sure that their meanings are perpetuated."

CHONG'S WIFE, Valerie, has learned much about her heritage from him as well.

"When I told my mother that I was marrying Doug, she said, 'You're so nontraditional, and you're marrying such a traditional man!'" she said. "She thought it wouldn't last, but we've been together for 30 years.

"He understands the language a lot more than I do, plus the culture's significance. He's become a mainstay and resource person in the local Chinese community, and is looked upon with respect because his knowledge is grounded in philosophical and historical research."

Chong's mother, Kam Yuen Chong, who turned 91 in September, still lives in the Palolo home she shared with Douglas, his brother Cedric and her late husband Kenneth since 1947, when the area was mostly pasture.

Mrs. Chong was one of the few women of her time to attend high school (McKinley) and the University of Hawaii. After helping her husband run the Beachwalk restaurant in Waikiki until his death, she became an English teacher at Central Intermediate, and became the head administrator at Booth Memorial until her retirement at 65. Not one to remain home, she travels extensively, a passion she and Douglas share.

Some of Douglas Chong's trips have been fueled by the need to travel to the ancestral home in mainland China to research the family's roots. The first trip took place when son Ken, now 24, was 5.

"We spent one week living in Doug's family home," Valerie Chong said. "It was a two-story house with a dirt floor, chickens in the courtyard and pigs in the kitchen. We would draw water from the well for washing dishes, heat our bath water. We even helped plow their rice field while riding on the back of a water buffalo.

"When we went back, this time Ken was 12 and Lorrie, now 17, was about 5. China had changed so much! There were modern highways, a shopping center, and the house now had a refrigerator, TV, running water and a shower."

DOUGLAS CHONG said: "When our son was away in college, I remember him saying that he missed the smell of incense that burned at the altar. He also asked me if he should put his li see under his pillow, and which way he should bow and pay homage to his grandparents and great-grandparents."

Ken has since graduated from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and is now a news cameraman at KITV. He said leaving home led him to appreciate his ethnic heritage.

"Growing up in Hawaii, there's a lot to cherish in our melting-pot culture, but you don't realize that our own unique traditions get left behind or forgotten," he said.

"When I was on the mainland in places like Colorado, Vegas and San Francisco, I found that the Chinese there were more traditional than those here, always living in small pockets of the community.

"I appreciate how my father kept the tradition alive because without it we'd lose part of our identity.

"Over here, it's too easy to be comfortable and happy," Ken Chong said. "On the mainland, I saw how much they appreciated their culture, one that I'm descended from.

"An important thing that helped me is that my parents always explained why a custom was done. For instance, most kids don't understand why a certain plate of food is set aside at an ancestor's grave site. Instead of being told, 'Just put it there,' it was explained that ghosts have to be appeased as well as ancestors."

Both Ken and Lorrie live at home, and they wouldn't have it any other way.

"I remember when we used to live at Grandma's house in Palolo," Lorrie said, "and me and my brother would play at being a baby lion during New Year's, and I'd hold the head. We'd go around the neighborhood and get li see.

"When I was younger, it was always exciting to get the house ready for the family parties. But now I understand the deeper meaning of the tradition and how it applies. At Punahou, I notice some of my friends aren't as close to their family as I am, and want to leave for the mainland and college as soon as possible. I think I get better support from my own family, to the point where I don't have this yearning to leave. I do want to be independent, but I also hope to pass down the customs I've learned from my family," Lorrie said.

"I've learned that filial piety is not just for family, but respect for anyone older, those who have accumulated knowledge," she said. "Ever since I was little, I liked to hang around with older people because they had so much to share."

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin