An outsider's guide in Singapore: What is Chinese New Year all about?
Chinese New Year is about gathering with family, dressing up, eating up a storm and generally a lot of fun. If you are not familiar with this tradition, this article answers all you wish you knew about Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year, marked by the coming of spring according to the Chinese lunar calendar, celebrates the end of one Chinese zodiac year and the beginning of the next. The Chinese Zodiac circulates around 12 animals – Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig respectively. This Chinese New Year ushers in the year of the Pig, or Boar.
If you are a non-Chinese, like me and have always been curious about the Spring Festival, join me to find out more about the tradition, myths, customs and tales of this fascinating culture.
The Bare Facts of Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is an essential cultural festival celebrated by the Chinese all over the world, regardless of religion or dialect. While the fundamentals of the celebration remain the same, some have added their own customs to differentiate themselves from the other ethnic groups.
If you have been invited over to soak in the festivities, it is best to find out about the practices of your host before you head over. The best bet is to keep your gifts and greetings simple. Bringing a door gift is a gesture of politeness and a form of social etiquette. A foolproof option would be gifting fruits; oranges, tangerines and kumquats, with their warm and rich colours, are considered very auspicious. For the younger generation, chocolates or wine are also welcomed options.
What is “ang bao”? How much should I give?
If you are married, it is customary to hand out ang bao or hongbao (red packets) to children, up to 18 years old. You may wish to give to the children of your host, but not necessarily to the children of their guests. You do not need to observe this custom if you are single. However, if you are offered an angbao by the elderly, it is polite to accept graciously and wish them “Gong Xi Fa Cai”.
The denominations are usually in even numbers, with 8 considered the most auspicious figure. The number 4 is seen to be extremely bad luck as it sounds like the word “death” in Chinese. Alternatively, you can fill the packets with gold coin chocolates.
What should I say?
The standard greetings during this festivity is “Gong Xi Fa Cai”, literally meaning “wishing you increase in wealth”, or “Xin Nian Kuai Le”, which translates to “Happy New Year!”
What do Chinese generally wear during the New Year? What should I wear to visit?
Any colours except black, grey and white clothes. During the Chinese New Year, brand new qipaos or cheongsams. They are one-piece traditional Chinese dress that is feminine, body-hugging and coated with distinctive Chinese features.
Although they are still the norm during the festivities, it is no longer a must and you can wear anything as long as the clothes are new and preferably, red!
“When I was young, I never used to have traditional wear during the New Year. Now I always buy my kids new cheongsams for the celebrations. They love it, and I think it’s a good way to familiarise them with their culture,” declared Mrs Joyce Ng, 33, a mother of 2.
What do people eat during the Chinese New Year celebrations?
Reunion dinners for the family are typically held on the eve of the New Year with immediate family members. Oranges, pineapple tarts, love letters, and steamboat dishes are the most common food motifs related to the celebration of CNY.
And of course, we cannot forget one of the most classic highlights of CNY – the tossing of yusheng (also known as lo-hei) that is consumed on the 7th day of the New Year. Its name, yusheng, literally means “raw fish”, but sounds like “increasing abundance”, signifying prosperity and a good start for the New Year.
What is “yusheng” and the significance of this dish?
Yusheng is a type of fish salad served as the appetiser of the meal, during which everyone stands and tosses the salad together, exclaiming prosperous wishes. It is believed that the higher the salad is tossed, the more “abundance” it brings, so roll up your sleeves, join in and don’t be afraid of getting the table messy!
Why can’t the Chinese clean out their house on Chinese New Year?
Traditional Chinese custom dictates that sweeping or cleaning out the house on the day of the New Year is forbidden as it chases away the household’s good luck. Likewise, washing the hair and such are advised against on the day itself.
Why are “lion dance” and “dragon dance” performed?
Lion and Dragon dances are traditionally performed during this period. According to Chinese mythology, the lion, with its wisdom, bravery, and majestic character was to be the saviour from the evils which plagued the lands.
Today, lion dances are performed in order to bring good luck, and are enthusiastically welcomed into homes, stores and businesses. The lion dancers, mimicking the characteristics of a real lion, perform a myriad of tricks and spectacular stunts and bring well-wishes in exchange for auspicious red packets.
Similarly, the dragon dance is performed as a symbol of the historical legends celebrating its favourable traits, including power, fertility, wisdom and auspiciousness.
Among the Chinese folklore, this one most significantly depicts the origins of CNY:
Once upon a time, there used to live a terrifying legendary Beast of the Sea. As the cold winter began to bloom into spring every year, the ferocious Nian would raid the village and devour the villagers. One day, the villagers found out that the beast was afraid of bright lights, loud sounds and the colour red. The villagers thus sat prepared, awaiting the monster’s return. Upon his arrival, they set off hundreds of fireworks, waved scarlet banners and played loud drums. The Nian, petrified, fled from the village and never returned again.
The colours red and gold are very interlinked with the tradition of the celebrations. Gold symbolises money, prosperity and abundant wealth, while red is the colour that breeds joy, virtue, warmth and vitality. “Hong” (the colour red) is also believed to be able to chase away evil and welcome good luck.