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Chinese New Year: Gifts When You Come Calling

Red or yellow chrysanthemums, oranges or tangerines with leaves attached, red envelopes with crisp bills for children, are all part of visiting friends and family at New Year.

Growing up Chinese American, I learned the worst thing we could do was come empty-handed at New Year.

Whether it was a last-minute scooping up of oranges or tangerines we had in a bowl, or making a trip to the chrysanthemum farm down the road (in the days before this place was called Silicon Valley), we arrived at our friends' homes with a small gift to mark the new year. 

If you're visiting friends, a little something is always nice to have in hand. Here are a few tips, if you want mark the holiday with your Chinese friends who celebrate: 

  • The items are always in various hues of gold or red to symbolize prosperity (pink will do).
  • Items that are round, symbolizing abundance. That's why oranges and tangerines are popular. Among them must be some that have stems and leaves to represent spring's arrival and new life.
  • Flowers, in addition to hewing to the red or gold theme (yellow mums are popular), can also include budding tree twigs, such as the flowering quince, which grow in this valley. 
  • Red envelopes, called lai see in Cantonese, or hong bao in Mandarin, are a nice extra. It was always a special treat as a child to get one from an adult, containing a $1 bill or other small amount of money, crisp and new. Red envelopes can be easily and inexpensively purchased in packs at markets such as 99 Ranch and Marina Market.

For some humorous insight on how this practice has been done in its humblest way, rent director Wayne Wang's 1985 movie, "Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart." 

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