In The Art of Travel, 5. The Spirit of Place, Shanghai by William Denning1 Comment

On Chinese New Years Eve, families gather together and eat 年夜饭. In China, the new year is Thanksgiving and Christmas combined into one. It’s holiday where, even in a country so busy and fast-paced, everything shuts down. Streets are desolate with dark windows and clear walkways. The cities funnel out into the country side. A mass homecoming. An exodus.

I found myself eating 年夜饭 in a small village in Hong Kong. I was with my friend Lynn and her family behind her grandfathers bakery. The village was small, and was stacked on top itself in a way that was different than towns in America. Residences were connected by a patchwork of back alleys. Windows looked out upon the next house, with rooms and additions folding over the pathways like the overgrowth of trees on an old trail. Cloths hung next to doorways and 福 was pasted everywhere, a call for happiness in the new year.

Lynn’s grandmother worked tirelessly with her family’s servants. Her day consisted of decorating the house for the new year, cooking the traditional feast and attending to a constant ritual to her ancestors, memorialized in what looked like a display case in the corner of the room. The case was covered in red paper, with calligraphy and gold lining the wood. She laid food on its alter and was burning long sticks of incense. Every few minutes, she would return to the alter and bow, occasionally with large bundles of paper, which she would then place in a pot outside and set on fire.

Her movements were familiar, like she was talking to a friend through a small window in the room. They were alive—her parents and their parents, through this shrine. They existed there, and were not lonely. It was easy to imagine them because they were brought into the room through their conversation, they were included just like anyone else. Sometimes, Lynn’s grandmother was smiling when she spoke, sometimes she was tearing up.

Never had I before felt so truly in the presence of something so spectral. I didn’t know these people, but I felt them. It didn’t feel strange it felt—like family. With the house decorated and the traditions attended to, the space set the scene for an etherial reunion. On the following days of the spring festival, the incense was kept lit. Aunts and uncles stopped in, young kids ran through to the bakery and older friends stopped through to visit the family. Everyone was relaxed, as if on vacation from their own lives, for family.

For the first time in my life, I felt homesick. It’s an interesting feeling, almost not a feeling—a thought. A memory. A trigger. I thought back to the tens of family members back in Alabama, standing out on the porch and praying. We are all silent, and my grandmother brings up her bother and we all think of him. We wonder and we pray and we remember and for a moment, he is summoned. The specter pulls our hearts together for a moment and conjures an essence, a ghost. And for the remainder of the meal, he remains with us. Like Lynn’s ancestors, he would watch over us for the time we give to each other. He’s heard in the laughs of the children, in the speeches of adventure, plans for the future. In the hugs and goodbyes, in my grandmothers tears when it’s over.

My family is far from Hong Kong, but the specter brought about memory and essence. It brought about love and excitement, hushed gossip and graceful reunion. But most of all, it bought about home, so foreign yet so close.

For this post I’d like to thank Lynn and her family for inviting me into their homes this last week. Thank you.

(Image: Nian Ye Fan (New Years' Eve Dinner); Source: William Denning)


  1. Hi William!

    I loved reading about your experience with Lynn and her family celebrating the Chinese New Year. It seems so special and can be nice to have an experience that makes you feel a bit closer to home, albeit so far away. I’ve found something similar here in Paris at an English bookstore. It’s an odd phenomenon for me, at least, being in a city where I can’t speak too much of the language but suddenly, just through walking through a door, I feel at home. I’m glad you’ve found something similar and I hope you’re able to have more experiences like this one while you’re away!

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