Isabella Fang is showing off a range of festive red and gold envelopes adorned with the character fu – or “wealth” – in her Chinese curio shop on Cape Town’s Atlantic coast. It is the day before Chinese New Year’s eve, or Spring Festival, when red envelopes (hong bao) filled with money are traditionally given as gifts to children and older relatives.
An estimated 385 million people are returning to their hometowns in China this year from wherever in the world they are working or studying, making it the largest human migration in the world.
Travelling home to spend the most important holiday of the year with family is something of a filial duty and, although this specific time of year isn’t written into law, Chinese children have been legally obligated to visit their parents “often” since 2013.
But Isabella won’t be travelling back to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen where her extended family lives. Nor will she be spending it with family and friends in Cape Town. Now in her fifties, it is both Isabella’s seventeenth year in Cape Town and her seventeenth Chinese New Year away from home, and she is spending it alone.
“Of course I miss home during Spring Festival,” she tells me in sing-song Chinese.
She returns to China once a year during the winter months, and lives a relatively lonely life in Cape Town for the rest of the year. Despite her limited English, she enjoys chatting with her customers, and her mobile phone – never out of reach – seems to provide her with a constant source of entertainment.
We talk about Spring Festival customs, and Isabella steers the conversation towards Chinese food.
“I suppose you’ve never experienced a traditional Spring Festival in southern China,” she says.
“Well, as far south as Shanghai,” I reply. “Oh, and I stayed with a friend’s family in Jiangxi Province one year.”
“Jiangxi’s not the ‘real south’,” she replies. “In Guangdong and Guangxi Province, we eat zongzi during Spring Festival – not dumplings like in the north.”
Zongzi (粽子) are a kind of large dumpling made of glutinous rice with a sweet or savoury filling inside. The contents are wrapped up in bamboo leaves, folded into a triangular shape, and then secured with string before the parcel is boiled or steamed. They are traditionally eaten during Dragon Boat Festival – but only the sweet variety, Isabella quickly reminds me.
In southern China, she says, it is customary to eat savoury meat-filled zongzi on Chinese New Year’s eve. Before I can say anything else, she is showing me a video of zongzi being prepared on CCTV 2’s YouTube channel. She must have had the video saved or open already, she’s so quick to start playing it.
We watch a chef lay out sheets of bamboo leaves on a table as a ubiquitous male Chinese broadcaster’s voice commentates in velvety Mandarin.
Isabella is enraptured. She echoes the broadcaster’s commentary – “first, spread the glutinous rice onto the bamboo leaf…” – and when the chef places a whole chicken onto the pile of rice, she squeals with childish delight: “Look, a whole chicken!” CCTV has added animated exclamation marks and chicken emojis to the frame for comic effect.
Sadly, this will be another Spring Festival without zongzi for Isabella. “You can’t get the bamboo leaves anywhere in Cape Town,” she complains. “You can use other leaves, but it’s not the same.”
For all her nostalgia, the holiday has become just another day in Isabella’s working life. Her only friends live in China, so she eats dinner alone before going to bed. Even the Spring Festival gala – the state-broadcast entertainment extravaganza that finds its way into every Chinese family’s living room on Chinese New Year’s Eve – belongs in Isabella’s China, where she watches it on DVD during her annual visit home.
She stays up until midnight to send greeting and videos to her friends and family via WeChat. Then it’s back to her Chinese curio shop the next day, to sell red envelopes, and reminisce.
“I have to run my shop. The quiet season isn’t here yet.”