Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái! Happy Lunar New Year!


(simplified Chinese)

I hope I haven’t already insulted somebody.

San Francisco, my homeland for the last forty years, has one of the largest Chinatowns in the world, so the Chinese New Year festivals here have always been spectacular. The elaborate parade, which will be held on February 23, is deemed the largest celebration of its kind outside of Asia, even featuring a 288-foot-long dragon (“Gum Lung”).

SF Chinese New Year
SF Chinese New Year Parade, photo by sponsor Southwest Airlines staff

News stories talk about where to get the best traditional food (e.g. dumplings) and fanciest red envelopes. People do wish each other Gung Hay Fat Choy enthusiastically, which seems to be where some of the argument starts.

Fighting Words

Because it might really be Kung Hei Fat Choi! Or, Kiong hee huat chai… As I was looking around for the “correct” way to spell this traditional celebratory greeting, I waded right into a battle over language and dialects. It seemed as if each side was accusing the other of trying to “whitewash” over the truth of how exactly things ought to be spelled and pronounced.

And the fighting was fierce!

…it’s completely inappropriate to wish all Chinese people a “gung hay fat choi”. I really do appreciate the effort at trying to respect our culture by learning a greeting in one of our languages. But if you’re going to make the effort to greet people “properly,” then you really should try to learn the Mandarin greeting, not just the Cantonese.
  • Oppose. The Chinese term 恭喜發財 has its origins in southern China. It enters English as “kung hei fat choi”, not “gong xi fa cai”. — Instantnood 14:00, 11 December 2005 (UTC)
    • Do you have solid proof to demonstrate both claims?–Huaiwei 15:08, 11 December 2005 (UTC)
  • Oppose – In Sydney around CNY you will hear ‘kung hei fat choi’ around chinatown a lot. Recognition is for the Cantonese version not the pth version. You would *not* hear Gong Xi Fa Cai novacatz 14:06, 11 December 2005 (UTC)
    • Do you speak for the entire community in Sydney? Is the same phenomena repeated in the rest of the world?–Huaiwei 15:08, 11 December 2005 (UTC)
      • I was only stating the fact personal observation that around Sydney’s Chinatown, where the majority of Australian chinese people concentrate, you hear KHFC a lot more than GXFC (the latter occur… almost… never). Don’t know about the rest of the world novacatz 15:23, 11 December 2005 (UTC)
        • is this a “fact”, or merely a “personal observation”? Please clearly distinguish the two, for this is an encyclopedia, and not a personal blog. Cantonese-speaking communities are known to concentrate in the world’s Chinatowns, even right here in Hokkien-dominated Singapore, so why would it be surprising if you hear it often around Chinatown in particular?–Kung hei fat choi Wikipedia discussion
“Gung Hey Fat Choy” is Hong Kong Chinese, not Putonghua [Mandarin]. So, for the vast majority of Chinese who understand the message, this message could be seen as a brutal and nasty insult, not a positive message. It is a reminder of a former imperialist world where China was ruled from Hong Kong. In fact, to tell you the truth, most modern Chinese would not even know what “Gong Hey Fat Choy” means. They would just treat it as a series of meaningless symbols, insulting in its own way.–chinalawblog

Let me try to parse this and hope to avoid offending someone, though that may be impossible.  There are different versions of the Chinese language, with Mandarin and Cantonese being two of the most well-known. Cantonese has significant roots back to the area including Hong Kong, meaning it has some westernized roots. Many Chinese immigrants and their descendants in the U.S. speak Cantonese.  I say versions of the language because several sites point out that while Mandarin and Cantonese share some similarities, their sentence structure and pronunciations are so distinctly different  that they are not true dialects.

Alphabetic Point of View

Thus, how you pronounce and anglicize the characters for the greetings varies WILDLY depending on where you’re from. What’s proper for someone from mainland China appears to differ from those in the Philippines or Indonesia or San Francisco or New York City. (And if you don’t think we should think about those who celebrate in the Philippines or Indonesia, I will point out that their combined population of 369 million is near that of the U.S.A., and they also celebrate Chinese New Year with a joyous vengeance!) Even Google started correcting me with a dash of snark. No, Google, I meant, “What are the Cantonese characters for Gong Xi Fa Cai?”

Gong Hay Fat Choi search
Even Google tries to correct my search

Since one of the large debates seems to be about how to spell the greeting properly, it might also be worth pointing out that this is spelling it out in English. After all, the Chinese way of writing is with the characters, not the English alphabet. All English alphabet versions would be bastardized versions, wouldn’t they? Yet somehow we need to communicate. Since I am closest to San Francisco and can’t write or type with Chinese characters, I will have to defer to Gung Hay Fat Choy.

I wish you a lot of money.
–my former colleague, Elizabeth Huey

Happy Prosperity, Everyone!

If you’ve been skimming the cultural websites for Chinese New Year, you probably have also seen that Gung Hay Fat Choy doesn’t actually mean Happy New Year. It’s a sub-greeting that roughly means Congratulations and be prosperous. This I knew, because a friend from my financial accounting days at the bank spelled it out for us at a New Year’s celebration years ago.

Happy New Year would instead be Xin nian kuai le: simplified Chinese: 新年快乐 according to Wikipedia which then also gives the pinyin, Jyutping, Peh-oe-ji, Hakka, and Taishanese versions, in case you wanted another reminder of how complex and rich the branches of Chinese language can be. Linguistic complexity should really come as no surprise to us. Speakers of California English often need subtitles to understand someone from Alabama or  Jamaica. A recent Saturday Night Live episode centered around an American airline passenger unable to land a plane because the Scottish air traffic controller was unintelligible to a U.S. audience.

Several other Chinese New Year greeting variations hope that “you realize your ambitions,” “fill a hall with your wealth and gold,” or gain “happiness and longevity.” All of those seem pretty darn good to me, and I could wish our Gregorian calendar New Year celebrations had some of that bounty in variation.

Friends, Family, and Food

One of the key ways to celebrate is to enjoy a feast with family especially and/or friends.  I did work in downtown San Francisco, just a block from Chinatown, for decades. A New Year’s luncheon was traditional, and particularly outstanding at RG’s on Kearny or City View Restaurant, tucked into Commercial street.

The best way to experience dim sum, by far, is to accompany a group of Chinese women (especially accountants) to one of those restaurants, like City View, where they push around the carts that carry the little delights. Those friends know all the best things to order and also know how to read the bill, which will be in Chinese, so that they will argue with the waiter until it’s fair and correct. Then, the shares are exact: you owe $17.50, none of this rounding up to $20 nonsense.

Pork bao
I wish you a lot of pork bao, photo from simplelife.cl

Elizabeth did talk me to into trying chicken feet, which everyone should have once, although that was enough for me. But the first time I had shu mai and char siu bao (steamed pork buns) was nearly a religious experience!  I do remember those times fondly and wish Elizabeth, Anna, Vivien, Paula, Maria, Gail, John, Bob, and all the ones whose names have misted away… Happy New Year! Gung Hay Fat Choi, and all the rest!

Now I just need to find some lucky red underwear.

Eat, drink, and be merry!
2013 Chinese New Year, yours truly: bottom row, 2nd from left

2 Replies to “Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái! Happy Lunar New Year!”

  1. Fascinating.

    I’ve had chicken feet, once.
    Seems to me that should be enough.
    But if I’m ever somewhere supposedly the best…
    I could try again. Anyway, I like dumplings.

    I should’ve made my way to a Chinese New Year celebration in San Fran when I lived in the Sunnyvale area. Drats.

    1. Chicken feet only once is definitely enough. Come back up (down?) to SFO sometime and we can get some dim sum. Thanks for the comments!

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