Joanna Cooper on: Chinese New Year

To celebrate Chinese New Year, Sydney-based food writer and mother of three, Joanna Cooper talks about 2014: year of the Wood Horse, her family traditions and a charitable cause

  2. Photographed by Vanessa Rowe | Interview by Natasha Inchley
  4. Tell us about your plans for Chinese New Year: There are so many aspects to Chinese New Year that I love. As a child growing up in Hong Kong, my favourite tradition was receiving the Lai-See red packets. These little packets would contain money and my twin sister and I would get two packets from each auntie and uncle, any cousins that were married and from anyone else we happened to see during the New Year festival. Now, as a grown up living in Sydney, my favourite tradition is to organise a big banquet. Each year, my husband and I invite about 40 friends to indulge in a ten-course dinner. For each guest, I prepare their zodiac and elemental sign, plus a forecast for the year ahead. This year, we are raising funds for a charity called Hagar that I am deeply passionate about.
  6. What can we expect in 2014, Year of The Horse? The dates of Chinese New Year always vary according to the Chinese Lunar Calendar – the Horse is a special sign, it symbolises a prosperous year full of opportunities. Under the wood element, which is the horse’s natural element, people will be more forgiving and cooperative. This will also be a good year for travel, parties and community events.
  7. And your own Chinese Zodiac sign? Wood Tigers are said to be brave, unpredictable and resilient; born leaders. There are five elements that people are born under and you can describe the five elements as being part of the “yin and yang” philosophy. Generally, those born under the element of Wood seek chances for growth and renewal in all they do, branching out whenever possible.


  2. Main picture top and above, Joanna Cooper at home with her youngest son, Felix.
  4. Describe a favourite childhood memory: I was born in Hong Kong and one of my earliest memories is the excitement surrounding Chinese New Year and the festival that lasts 10 days. My father, who is Chinese, is one of nine children so we had a lot of aunties, uncles and cousins to celebrate with. The night before New Year’s Day, we would have a big family dinner with lots of delicious food and each dish had a symbolic meaning to bring in wealth, happiness and prosperity for the year ahead. My favourite food was niangao “New Year’s cake”– a glutinous reddish cake that I just loved. Another evocative tradition is one that took place on the first day of the New Year. Together with all the aunties, uncles and cousins, we would drive through the Hong Kong countryside to pay our respects to our dead ancestors. We would light incense sticks, kow tow and offer a steamed chicken and oranges to the Gods. After we had paid our respects, we would then have another family get-together, again eating lots of delicious “good luck” foods. A lion dance would then be performed to usher in the New Year and evict any bad spirits.
  6. What is your secret to balancing work with family life? Prior to having children, I worked as a corporate lawyer. I loved what I did but since having children I’ve given up the corporate life and, in addition to my family, my focus now is on writing a cook book which I am creating with my dear friend, Vanessa [Rowe]. I love food, I am actually obsessed with it, so writing a cookbook is fun. Also, the project management skills gained from my professional life have enabled me to work around my children’s schedules.
  8. And your guilty pleasure? Being by myself without my children. I feel guilty saying it but my favourite thing at the moment is getting up at 5am and going for a run. This may sound absurd but it’s my thing – it’s dark, there is no one around and the silence is wonderful. I love watching the sunrise above the sea and hearing the birds in the trees. I also love listening to my podcasts and just being on my own. Bliss! I always come home in such high spirits.
  10. Tell us about your charitable cause: Hagar is an international organisation that set up in Australia two years ago and was established in Cambodia 20 years ago. It is a specialist aftercare agency that works with women and children who have survived trafficking and the most severe human rights abuses in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Cambodia. There are roughly 5.6 million child slaves in the world, most of which are in our region. Not long ago, I had a morning tea at home to raise awareness of Hagar and this year we also decided to use our annual Chinese New Year event to raise funds. It will be a fun evening for a good cause and a great way to start the New Year.
  12. What is the greatest lesson you've learned from your children? Patience, patience, patience. I have never been a patient person and having little people forces you to slow down.
  14. And the message you hope to instill in them? There are a number of values we want to instill in our children [Scarlett, Casper and Felix] but one of the most important would be empathy. We want our children always to be mindful of others, even as they focus on achieving their own goals.