By Kee Foong
Feb 5, 2021
HAVING SPENT MY EARLY CHILDHOOD in Malaysia, I—like many of you readers, I’m sure—recall the excitement of the Lunar New Year. Also known as Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, it was like Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Gregorian new year rolled into one. We had big family gatherings, and mountains of the most delicious food. I was given new clothes and red packets filled with money. Haircuts and frenzied cleaning preceded the celebrations, while housework was prohibited when the big day arrived.
In large swathes of Southeast Asia—as in China, which in normal years sees the world’s largest human migration during this period, with the entire country heading to their hometowns to celebrate—this remains the most important holiday of the year, with some nations shutting down for days.
Covid-19 has sucked much joy from the occasion, but pandemic or not, the promise of a fresh start and health, wealth and more wealth(!), which the Lunar New Year represents, is too special to sacrifice. So as the Year of the Rat scurries away and the Year of the Ox lumbers into view, here is a roundup of celebrations in four cities in our region. Note that the situation remains volatile, and social-distancing restrictions may be tightened without notice.
Until recently, Hong Kong put on the most spectacular pyrotechnic displays. Not last year, or this year sadly, with the fireworks and night parade canceled, and official events moved online. Instead, we have a somewhat glum Fortunes at Home campaign, which features an online mart selling traditional and gourmet items, including herbal candies, fu gui ji, or beggar’s chicken from the Rosewood and themed afternoon tea sets from the Four Seasons.
Hong Kong has closed its borders to non-residents, while returning residents must undergo 21 days of hotel quarantine. Masks are mandatory in public, all bars have been forced to shut, and restaurants can only serve dine-in guests until 6 p.m., with a maximum of two patrons per table and alcohol only served with food.
On the plus side, there are no limits on private gatherings, so celebrations will occur, but almost entirely in homes.
WHERE TO FEAST
This doyenne of Cantonese restaurants emerged from renovations just days before Chinese New Year, more beautiful than ever, with royal-blue and gold-trim paneling, hand-woven carpet, and knockout city and harbor views. Executive Chinese chef Wing-Keung Wong has introduced new dishes, including a seriously good deep-fried matsutake mushroom pudding that is a vegetarian take on a delicacy often made with chicken testicles. Baked lobster in superior fish broth is topped with shaved dried caviar, and braised pork belly with taro pays tribute to Hakka village cuisine.
Poon choi is an ancient Hong Kong feast dish invented by villagers in the New Territories. Michelin-starred Yat Tung Heen’s version of this extravagantly layered casserole includes abalone, sea cucumber, fish maw, roast goose, pork belly, taro, chestnut, and much more. Special Chinese New Year menus are also available for dine-in and takeaway.
A favorite of tycoons and tourists, Yung Kee is synonymous with roasted goose and other siu mei (barbecued meats), staples of Cantonese banquets. With large groups prohibited, the nearly 80-year-old institution is focusing its efforts on takeaway, including claypot rice with assorted cured meats, and roasted goose in casserole—though dine-in is also an option.
Tet, as Lunar New Year is known in Vietnam, is the one time of the year you can cross Saigon’s roads without being mowed down by a swarm of motorists. Most shops, restaurants and bars close, and cities empty out.
The pedestrianized Nguyen Hue Street positively blooms with color for its annual flower festival, which runs from February 9 through 15, and is themed around this year’s zodiac animal, the buffalo. A fireworks show is scheduled for New Year’s Eve, February 11.
Travel into Vietnam is effectively banned for foreigners. Saigon’s residents however, can meet and move around freely, though facemasks are required.
There are no dining restrictions, but you are effectively limited to hotel restaurants over the holiday period, as most standalone operations close for several days so the owners and staff can celebrate with their own families.
WHERE TO FEAST
Saigon’s glitziest hotel is offering Tet menus at two of its venues. The Royal Pavilion serves up premium Cantonese dishes, while Café Cardinal offers a set menu that’s a fusion of Vietnamese, Chinese and French, including foie gras terrine and double-boiled chicken soup. A one-off dinner buffet on February 11 includes Tet essentials such as bánh chưng (sticky rice cakes) and thịt kho nước dừa (braised pork in coconut juice).
Square One is the Park Hyatt’s venue of choice during Tet, in particular its lavish Sunday brunch of French and Vietnamese fare. Highlights include stuffed flower snail with pork mousse, lemongrass, ginger and fish sauce; Ha Noi West Lake cake, a fritter with prawn and scallop; and tiger prawn curry.
Peter Cuong Franklin is a champion of new Vietnamese cuisine. His restaurant, Anan, is located in the middle of a wet market, and Cuong elevates street food using ingredients sourced from local vendors. Tet menu highlights include Angus beef carpaccio, foie gras spring roll, bánh tét (pan-fried sticky-rice cake), and bò kho trứng, a twist on the traditional pork stew using beef short rib. Anan is closed February 9 through 15, but the menu is available before and after on request.
The idea of 2,000 performers in spangly costumes putting on Singapore’s biggest shindig may seem like madness, but fret not, it will be a socially distanced digital program. The event is the Chingay Parade, an annual extravaganza that celebrates multiculturalism, and will be held on February 20.
Not to be outdone, the Chinatown Festival Committee commissioned 888 lantern pieces, including 88 ox designs, to light up 800 meters of roadway. The centerpiece is a 10-meter-tall sculpture of a golden ox standing atop gold coins and ingots. To avoid hordes of people stampeding through the streets, the event can be viewed online, including a 360 virtual tour of the lighting displays.
Travelers from a handful of approved countries can visit Singapore, but you’ll have to jump through hoops to get there. Restaurants are open, though some restrictions remain, including a maximum of eight people to a table and the need to wear masks in public. Singing and dancing is banned, as are emphatic toasts.
WHERE TO FEAST
Take your pick of two smart venues. Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant Summer Pavilion has a New Year menu that includes traditional yu sheng, or raw fish salad, using Australian greenlip abalone and salmon roe. Meanwhile, Colony offers Singaporean, Indian and Western dishes, and a selection of takeaway pastries and cakes.
Singapore has its own amazing hybrid Chinese-Malay (Nyonya, or Peranakan) cuisine, and Violet Oon is one of its leading proponents. Be sure to order classics such as buah keluak ayam, a fragrant chicken stew, and her take on yu sheng, using kaffir lime leaves and pink ginger flowers. Festive cakes are available to order from her ION Orchard branch.
Prices have risen somewhat since my parents first took me to Hua Yu Wee nearly 30 years ago, but their chili and pepper crab remains among the best in town. The popular seafood restaurant offers a range of New Year set menus for dine in, and pen cai (an auspicious one-pot dish of mixed veggies, seafood and meat similar to Hong Kong’s poon choi) for takeaway. Sit outside for the best atmosphere.
Taiwan effectively shuts down during the Lunar New Year holidays, which means if you’re not eating with family, you’re turning to hotels for a festive meal. Although it has managed the pandemic well, Taipei is treading cautiously and canceled or postponed a number of events, including the New Year market and lantern festival.
Like much of Asia, Taiwan’s borders are closed to international travelers. Masks must be worn in nearly all indoor venues, but that aside, businesses are operating as normal, though this could change at any moment.
WHERE TO FEAST
The Mandarin Oriental is the swishest hotel in town, and its flagship Cantonese restaurant Ya Ge offers suitably high-end menus that include whole steamed fish, abalone and suckling pig. Those not wanting to go the whole hog can try the dainty Chinese afternoon tea specially created for the Year of the Ox at Jade Lounge.
Demand for tables at the Shangri-La has been so great that the hotel has converted guest rooms into VIP dining rooms on its busiest days. Takeaway meals and luxury hampers are available however, as are tables outside of the peak dining days at its excellent Chinese restaurants, Shang Palace and Shanghai Pavilion.
The Shanghainese may have invented xiaolongbao, but Din Tai Fung turned it into an art form. It has branches all over the world, but if you’re in Taipei, a pilgrimage to the original Xinyi Road branch is a must. In addition to its famed dumplings, the spicy pickled cucumber, dan dan noodles and pork chop fried rice are worth ordering.