Chinese New Year celebrates family, friends, food

Published on January 24, 2014
Calvin Yu at work in the kitchen at Ming’s Restaurant. Rosalie MacEachern photo


 Dragons, lanterns, music and parades may be part of the Chinese New Year’s in larger centres but as it is celebrated in Pictou County, it is all about family, friends and food.

The Chinese New Year, which falls this year on Jan. 31, is fraught with centuries-old tradition and superstition but it is essentially about marking a new beginning and sharing wishes for health, happiness and prosperity.

As a child, Calvin Yu remembers the excitement of receiving traditional red envelopes stuffed with candy or money but these days it is more about reuniting with family and friends. His family has been running Ming’s Restaurant for more than 30 years so cooking is second nature but there will be some special dishes at the after-hours party to mark the occasion.

“Our party is always at the restaurant. It is convenient here. We’ve got all the space and dishes. We can do some of the work in the days before the celebration.”  

Yu’s parents, Simon and Virginia, tell him his first language, which they both grew up speaking in Hong King, was Cantonese but he lost it all in pre-school.

“They always talked to me in Cantonese but I always answered them in English as far back as I can remember. I went to town schools and I also went to Chinese school so I understood the language but it wasn’t until I was much older and working in other restaurants that I really learned to speak it. I still need to practise.”

He has more opportunity than ever these days because there are three Cantonese-speaking cooks in the restaurant kitchen, besides his parents who are there frequently.

Yu met his wife Suzana Kajic while they were both enrolled in a hospitality program.

“We were partners for a project and it worked out so well that we consistently made a point of being partners. We understood each other’s approach and we worked really well together.”

When they moved to New Glasgow it was to lighten his parents’ load at the restaurant.

“Restaurant work was a natural for me and I thought it would give my parents the opportunity to retire. Since then we’ve figured out that as first generation immigrants they don’t really want to retire. They are happy to give up some duties and have more time off but they don’t want to walk away entirely. I understand that for them their work is their life,” he said.

Yu’s wife spent about a year working at Ming’s but it was a year in which the young couple plotted and planned a new venture. About three and a half years ago they opened BaKED food café in the same building as Ming’s.

“With Ming’s we were tied to an ethnic menu but we knew there was room in the market for something else, something other than Chinese or pizza. We wanted to provide some new options for a morning or afternoon meal. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to do it. By the end of our first year we had consistent regulars coming and it has been working out well.”

Once the café was up and running Yu’s wife took over operations and menu planning while Yu concentrated on Ming’s.

“We’re always ready to help each other out. There are advantages to being in the same building and having the same days off.”

While Yu and his wife met in Toronto, she was born in Croatia and grew up in a number of small European communities, some of which had Asian influences, so he believes settling in New Glasgow was not difficult.

“We’re both very work-oriented and family-oriented so we have that in common. We keep busy. We enjoy our down time, we snowboard, we hike, we enjoy the nature around us and we travel a few times a year.”

Yu admits he came home with lots of ideas but he decided to master his parents’ systems before making any dramatic changes.

“As a kid I worked in the restaurant from the time I was 10 years old. I peeled vegetables and did dishes and gradually got more responsibility. Sometimes I compared myself to other kids and thought my chores were a nuisance but today I’m grateful for the work ethic my parents taught me,” he said.

Yu’s father, who worked in Montreal and Fort McMurray before coming to New Glasgow and meeting his wife, established the standards and menu for Ming’s while his mother handled the accounting, front-end and did prep work in the kitchen.

“I don’t remember it but when I was a kid Dad hired someone from Halifax to do a dragon dance outside the restaurant. I don’t think it ever happened again and we don’t generally decorate or get too festive for Chinese New Year’s. We have certain dishes that are part of the celebration but we don’t get too crazy.”

Many of the dishes associated with the season are traditional and symbolic with their names relating to the aspirations of health, wealth and happiness.

“It is a lot like Christmas dinner, a big sit-down meal dinner with all the special dishes and the fun of being together with family and friends. And, of course, we wish everyone well for the New Year.’’