Oxen stumble, goes an old Chinese saying, and executives across Far East Asia are fearful that in the Chinese Year of the Ox, which begins January 26, the bears could overwhelm the bulls.
In Japan, for example, a tongue-in-cheek research report forecasts that this year will be at least as grim as last year, in line with the last three "Ox" years.
The Chinese Zodiac assigns an animal to each year over a 12-year cycle and postulates that it takes on the characteristics of that animal. Accordingly, this year, prosperity will come through persistence and hard work – the Chinese believe oxen have no truck with get-rich schemes.
But for diners, Chinese New Year is a time for hard work chomping through multi-course meals. And this year, as people seek to escape the doom and gloom of the meltdown, more restaurateurs than ever are digging deep to lay on something special. Even here in Dubai, where several Far Eastern eateries are offering special deals. "The Chinese are one of the fast-growing communities here and it's important to offer them something close to their heart and recreate the traditional arrangements you would find in China," says Ali Fatehnezhad, Director of Food and Beverage for the Radisson SAS Hotel, Dubai Deira Creek.
The China Club, one of the hotel's 16 eateries, and a well-rated destination for top-quality Chinese food in the city, is running a three-week promotion to bring diners in.
"When we have a special promotion such as the Chinese New Year, people from a wide mix of cultures like to come in and discover different traditions, to taste authentic food and generally live the celebrations as their own. It provides the exotic in their lives," adds Fatehnezhad.
But for the Chinese community, the festival, also known as the Lunar New Year, is a time to get together with the family and celebrate. Dubai-based Cindy Yoong, Starwood Hotels' Area Director of Public Relations, who is Malaysian Chinese, says the family dinner is a highlight of the event. "During Chinese New Year, what is important is to make time for a family reunion dinner with family and loved ones. People travel from afar to enjoy a lavish feast together, hosted by the eldest family member at their home or at a restaurant."
And the downturn has impacted celebrations, says UAE resident Jason Ong, who is of Chinese origin and is the Singapore Tourism Board's Area Director for the Middle East and Africa. "The credit crunch has dampened the mood a little, but people are still willing to spend money."
Bookings are up at Chinese restaurants across the city. The Shangri-La Dubai, which pulls out all stops with celebrations including a traditional lion dance and an onsite Feng Shui consultant, expects both its Chinese fine dining restaurant Shang Palace and its Vietnamese eatery Hoi An to be busy during the period. Nabiel El-Nakib, the hotel's Assistant Director of Food and Beverage, says expatriate families are a significant portion of this business, as are Asian companies hosting annual corporate dinners and networking events.
The Radisson SAS's Fatehnezhad says revenue at the restaurant increases 25 per cent over normal during Chinese New Year.
Raffles Dubai's Noble House restaurant Manager Zul Jamaat is more modest, pegging increases at between five and 15 per cent.
Among those also hoping for increased business is Nakheel's Dragon Mart, the largest commercial centre for Chinese products outside the Chinese mainland. The shopping centre will be decorated for the festival and will feature some celebrations.
Eat like a Chinaman
The ox symbolises patience, determination and hard work, so Raffles' Zul Jamaat suggests eating light to be ready for the work ahead.
And strangely, it isn't beef but fish that is the star of Lunar New Year dinners. "A food has special significance because of the way the Chinese word for it sounds," says expatriate Cindy Yoong. The word for fish, Yu, sounds like the words both for wish and abundance. Lettuce is also common (the word for it sounds like rising fortune) as are tangerines (luck).
Some Chinese also toss a salad of sliced raw fish, vegetables and spices, all together and chopsticks high in the air. Called Yee Sang or Yu Sheng, the dish is believed to bring good fortune and wealth in the year ahead.
The higher you toss, she says, the better your luck will be.
Top tables across Dubai
- Noble House @ Raffles Dubai: Four-course dinner includes crispy duck and lotus rice from Dh388++. From January 26-29, call 04 314 9888.
- Shang Palace @ Shangri-La Dubai: Prosperity lunch and dinner sets from January 26-31. Dh380++ inclusive of Chinese red envelopes and horoscope booklets. Call 04 405 2703.
- Peacock @ Sheraton Jumeirah: Four-course Chinese food journey includes seafood soup, crispy duck and chocolate fondant with five spices. Dh230, call 04 315 3955.
- The China Club @ Radisson SAS Dubai Deira Creek: Spring Festive dinner features siew mai with crab roe and scallop dumplings, wok-fried beef and gingko nuts with oyster sauce, chilled coconut cream with sago pearls and traditional gifts. From Dh188, January 25 to February 13. Call 04 205 7333.
- Zheng He's @ Madinat Jumeirah: Special Family set menu offers Salmon Yee Sang, braised caviar crab dumpling in chicken broth and BBQ platter. Dh400 each, minimum four persons, call 04 366 6730.
- Hukama, The Address Eight-course Prosperity dinner from January 25 to February 8 includes Yee Sang, stir-fried shark's fin and bamboo shoot. From Dh688, call 04 436 8888.