Chinese-American baker Liang Xu is determined to bring the “magic” of Lunar New Year, or “Chinese Spring Festival,” to Pensacola residents through food.
The local population of Chinese, and for that matter Asians, is slim, according to 2021 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. About 1.5 percent of city residents and 3.3 percent of Escambia County residents s identify as “Asian only”.
As part of preserving her native traditions in the United States, Xu owns and operates a Chinese home bakery called The Pretty Bear’s Bakery, where she rolls out Chinese and Asian-style candy 24/7. But this week will be special, as Xu will prepare large and small variety boxes for sale during January’s Gallery Night from 5-9 p.m.
“I want to be part of it (Gallery Night) to share Chinese culture,” Xu said.
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She said not only is it hard to find other Asian Americans in Pensacola with the same interest in preserving traditions, but even China itself is struggling to pass traditions on to its younger generations.
“There are certain foods you have to eat, and young people don’t know how to prepare them,” Xu said. “Everything goes so fast these days.”
The massive celebrations she experienced as a child on the streets of China were only a fraction of what her parents and grandparents experienced, she said. People need the younger generation to carry on these traditions, which is part of what she hopes to accomplish through her business.
The variety boxes it sells will include a mix of traditional pastries and a tea bag to enjoy them, themed around the Lunar New Year celebration, which falls on February 1 this year. There are also some goodies in the box reflecting other special Chinese holidays, such as the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival on September 10.
Smaller sized boxes will sell for $15 and a larger sized box will cost $35.
The sweets are extremely symbolic of Chinese culture, such as its small almond butter cookies. Almond cookies are a Lunar New Year staple that symbolizes coins or good fortune.
Even with some of his more traditional treats, Xu has always put his own creative twist, like his Hong Kong-style mooncakes.
Mooncakes are usually shared around the time of China’s second most important festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival, which, like the Lunar New Year, is also a time for family reunions. The chocolate and strawberry flavor that Xu incorporated into the cake is a twist on the original recipe.
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Other special treats she creates that are used for the celebration are Taiwanese pineapple cakes, made with a Japanese green tea crust or Earl Gray tea crust and winter melon jam and stuffed pineapple.
“In Taiwanese, the word pineapple sounds like an expression meaning ‘prosperity comes,’ which makes pineapple cakes popular gifts for engagements or Lunar New Year,” she said.
Lunar New Year Years Past
Lunar New Year traditions in China aren’t as different from American traditions as one might expect, Xu said, but the patterns behind them are.
Firecrackers fill the streets at night like the 4th of July, but they have to scare a monster called “Nian” from attacking villagers and children. It’s a folk tale passed down from generation to generation, but never really mistaken for the truth, she said. Anyway, children are also encouraged to wear red, the color the monster is most afraid of.
The children travel from house to house at their neighbors, knocking on doors and wishing them a big “Happy New Year” in the hope of receiving a treat in return, much like the Halloween trick or treat, but without any of the rounds, Xu said.
Families gather around the table to eat foods that bring luck and prosperity. Much like a plate of pork and sauerkraut or a bowl of black-eyed peas would suffice on New Year’s Day in the United States, fish is considered to bring good luck for the coming year.
For her family, the week leading up to the Lunar New Year is all about getting everything ready for a marathon of family visits that will follow. Cleaning the house, getting a haircut and preparing meals for guests, as well as taking time to honor ancestors, were all regular practices.
On Lunar New Year Day itself, no one would be allowed to do any work of any kind, otherwise, that person would be sentenced to a year of hard labor to follow.
The largest human migration in the world
The Lunar New Year is unique in that it brings more people to their hometown in China than anything else in the world. The massive homecoming attracts 385 million travelers in an average year, according to a 2018 report by Forbes.
After moving to the United States in 2019 after the New Year, Xu’s first Spring Party away from home was in 2020. She quickly realized that she wouldn’t be able to make the trip back home. due to the pandemic. , but would instead spend it with the community she built in Pensacola.
“The New Year’s feast is an unmissable dinner with all family members together. Chinese people strive to organize this family event, often traveling long distances. This is the main reason for the enormous stress related to travels through China,” she said.
Even some of the traditions she grew up hating as a child she has since begun to yearn for without being able to make her own way home, and continue to replicate them in Pensacola.
“I miss home and all the traditions. When I was home, I thought it was all so ordinary, but I didn’t realize they were all in me, down to the smallest detail,” he said. she stated. “For example, I hated when my mother made me wear red socks at the Spring Festival, but now I’m going to make my husband wear red socks.”
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Chinese baker to sell traditional sweets at January Gallery Night