Interview: Jen Sookfong Lee on her new book Chinese New Year

The Vancouver writer tells Doretta Lau about childhood memories and her preparations for the year of the dog

Happy new year! Gung hey fat choy! The prolific writer Jen Sookfong Lee (whom we had the pleasure of interviewing before about her nonfiction title Gentlemen of the Shade) has published a new book for children on the subject of Chinese New Year. Last Sunday I watched her feed a lion some lettuce at her launch. (During a lion dance of course! She’s not taming wild animals in her spare time, though she’s the kind of person who could do it if she decided that is what she wanted for her life.) She took time out to answer a few questions for us because she’s generous and fabulous like that.

What’s your best memory of celebrating the Chinese new year?

Jen Sookfong Lee: My most vivid memory is watching my mother make red bean paste, something she used to do before you could buy ready-made Chinese ingredients. She would simmer the red beans in water and cane sugar, then mash it with a potato masher, then press it through a fine mesh sieve. It was a time consuming process, but a fascinating one for me as a child.

How do you prepare for the festivities?

Honestly, I don’t do much! I clean my house before New Year’s Day, prepare the red envelopes for the children in my family, and wear red. My mother has been the keeper of all the traditions, so she will set out dishes of candy and decorate the house and set up offerings to the kitchen gods.

What’s your favourite auspicious dish?
I really love the soup my mom makes, which is a chicken and pork broth with bean curd, shiitake mushrooms, and fat choy, a black moss that grows in the Gobi desert. It warms my heart!

Which flower or plant do you bring into your space to usher in the lunar new year?
Anything red or yellow will do, although my mother always said never to buy cut flowers because they’re already dead. So something with roots in a pot, works well.

During your research, did you come across any good Chinese astrology resources or websites? (Yes, we’re really into woo and wonder here on The Unpublishables.)
One of my favourite topics! My favourite is Primal Astrology, which combines your Western sign with your Chinese sign and gives you a combined animal. It’s so accurate! And if anyone is interested, my primal sign is the Orca, because I am apparently at the top of the food chain.

What are your wishes for the year of the dog?
I would most like a quiet year. After all the turmoil of the last three, a nice, drama-free year in which to read and write sounds pretty good right now.


Check out Read Local BC and CBC to discover more about Lee and her book Chinese New Year.

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