Eight-year-old Lillian Tsai of Bridgewater studies Chinese speaking and writing to understand her heritage and relatives.

Ten-year-old Diane Li of Bridgewater is learning Chinese writing to help promote Chinese culture.

And 14-year-old Alicia Lai of Holmdel is studying the Chinese language because of its connection to her past and the possibilities for her future

Sign Up for E-News

When the three wrote formal essays in Chinese, their efforts paid off in a big way on a sunny late Saturday morning (Nov. 13). The girls were each awarded $1,000 in gift certificates from the Asian Food Markets during a reception for the winners of its Autumn Festival Writing Contest.

“You never expect to win something like this,” Alicia said, holding an oversized cardboard reproduction of a $1,000 check. “I was kind of surprised and pretty excited.”

She wasn’t the only one. Admiring parents and siblings snapped photos of the presentations and listened intently as the three grand prize winners read their essays.

“I’m very happy we did this,” said W. K. Chan, chairman of the supermarket chain he founded. “Meeting only about two hours a week, I think the Chinese schools are doing a very good job. The quality of the essays was very good.

“I feel strongly that we need to encourage Chinese students in the United States to know our language and culture and be proud to be Chinese.”

The Asian Food Markets supermarket chain (with branches in Piscataway, North Plainfield, Staten Island, Cherry Hill, Plainsboro and Middletown) sponsored the contest along with Sino Monthly; Asian food distributors Well Luck, Walong and Wei Chuan; Asian food manufacturers AGV Foods, Cha-Cha Foods and Lee Kum Kee, and paper products distributor Clover Paper Trading.

The Asian Food Markets’ Autumn Festival Writing Contest honored students in Chinese schools, in three divisions (8 and under, 9-13 and 14-18), for the best Chinese language essays. Topics ranged from “My Favorite Chinese Festival” to “Why It Is Important to Preserve the Chinese Culture.” Top winners in each division received $1,000 in Asian Food Markets gift certificates. Second place winners received $400 and third place winners received $100 in gift certificates.

The contest was created “to promote Chinese culture and tradition and to enhance and encourage the love of Chinese among our young people and spread awareness of our Chinese heritage,” Jonathan Chan, president of the supermarket chain, told the crowd assembled for the program outside the Piscataway store. “Chinese-American students inherit the responsibility of preserving the language for the next generation.”

The contest was judged by W.K. Chan, Joanne Chiang, senior lecturer in Chinese language at Princeton University, and Ivy Lee, editor-in-chief of the Edison-based Sino Monthly New Jersey magazine.

Chiang said she was impressed with 47 winning essays submitted by the 13 participating Chinese schools.

“The characters were written beautifully and the language was fluent and precise,” she said. “I liked those with personal views and true feelings, instead of those that just repeated what they learned from their Chinese school.”

And those are the kinds of essays that won prizes. Lee, the editor, was overflowing with praise for the essays of the nine top winners.

Lillian Tsai said her favorite holiday was the Chinese New Year. Lee said the essay’s “wording is vivid. When you read it, your mind will follow her words from the dinner table to the banquet. You will feel like you tasted the good food and saw the wonderful performance.”

Lee complimented Diane Li for her “very beautiful handwriting, almost like it was printed out from a computer. When you read the article, you will feel the mood is very quiet, very peaceful. I like the ending of the story, when there is a connection between the moon festival, herself and her mother.”

Diane said the mid-autumn Moon Festival is her favorite holiday because “it is peaceful and not as noisy as the others. I just like sitting in my backyard eating moon cakes.”

Lee said Alicia Li’s essay presented “the whole scene of the Chinese New Year, as if you are looking at a painting with every detail.”

“I enjoy writing and have been participating in Chinese history and culture competitions,” Alicia said. “This was another chance for me to challenge myself.”

Chin-Yin “Austin” Huang, vice president of the 20-member Association of New Jersey Chinese Schools, was impressed with the essay contest results because they showed the supplementary schools are making a difference.

“This contest is important because it causes children to think in Chinese,” he said. “It gives them practice in writing Chinese so they don’t forget. They need to know their roots.”

The students’ reasons for learning about Chinese language and culture and entering the contest were practical.

“Learning Chinese is important, so we can communicate with our families,” said Clement Fu, 17, of East Brunswick.

“China is becoming economically more powerful, said David Tsai, 13, of Bridgewater. “So it is important for businesses to have Chinese speakers. You will need to know Chinese culture to conduct business in China.”

Rachel Ying, 15 of East Brunswick, won second place in the senior division, and received $400 in gift certificates. “The language is so beautiful,” she said. “Understanding one’s heritage and background will help one understand oneself.”

Added Tiffany Fu, 15, of Edison: “Chinese students in the U.S. learning Chinese can have so many more opportunities. Knowing Chinese culture is important because China has an extremely long history and its future is very bright.”

The schools participating in the essay contest were the Jersey Shore Chinese School in Holmdel, the Huaxia Chinese School in East Brunswick, the New Oriental Education Center in Metuchen, the CACA-Edison Chinese School, the Huaxia Chinese School in Bridgewater, the Princeton Chinese Language School, Tzu Chi Academy of Central New Jersey in Edison, Ever Bright Chinese School in Edison, Mid-Jersey Chinese School in East Brunswick, Fidelity Chinese School in Marlboro, Murray Hill Chinese School in Warren, East Education School in Piscataway and Ming Shuo Composite School in Edison. Some students could not attend the essay contest reception because classes were being held at the time of the awards ceremony.

The Asian Food Markets (AsianFoodMarkets.com) makes special efforts to educate the public about Asian foods and cultures. This year, the Piscataway store offered Asian Food Fairs and a Chinese New Year’s Education Campaign. Nine posters explained culinary traditions and rituals of the New Year and Spring Festival, the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar. From long noodles, dumplings and red envelopes to fish, oranges and sticky cake, shoppers had the opportunity to learn about the celebration of the holiday. Other food festivals have been held recently in North Plainfield, Cherry Hill, Plainsboro and Staten Island.

The Asian Food Markets, founded in 1992, has full service supermarkets in Piscataway, North Plainfield, Middletown, Plainsboro, Cherry Hill and Staten Island. The chain is known for its wide selection of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, live and fresh fish, fresh meat, fresh poultry, fresh baked goods and Asian specialty products from many regions of China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and India. The stores also offer authentic fresh, hot Chinese dishes, ready for takeout. The supermarket plans to open a store in Marlboro in the summer of 2011.

One of the biggest questions after the reception is what the big winners, holding tight to the enlarged cardboard reproductions of checks, would do with their winnings.

“I want to buy snacks,” eight-year-old Lillian Tsai said with a smile. “But I’ll probably help mom with groceries.”

“We’ll be getting lots of food,” said Alicia Lai, who added that the timing of the win was perfect. “Thanksgiving is coming up and so are the holidays.”

And for the rest, there is next year.

“This is a meaningful event,” said Lee, editor of Sino Monthly. “I believe this competition will become a very important event in the Chinese community.”