Chinese New Year is also called “Spring Festival” and “Lunar New Year” because it comes in the springtime and is dated based on the Chinese lunar calendar. The date fluctuates, from a Western perspective, but comes in either January or February.
Each Chinese New Year is designated as “the year of“ one of the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac, which animal is supposed to characterise that year and all those born in it.
Chinese New Year is the most important annually recurring festival for people of Chinese ancestry all over the world. It has been celebrated for over 1,000 years – possibly much longer, and the traditions involved are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. For many, it is also a religious holiday, full of prayers, offerings, and other acts of devotion.
In Malaysia, as elsewhere, people prepare for Chinese New Year well in advance. Houses are cleaned out thoroughly before it arrives to “sweep out any bad luck,” but brooms are hidden away on New Year’s Day for fear of “sweeping away the good luck” that the arrival of a new year brings.
New clothes, to be worn on New Year’s Day, and a large stash of food for New Year’s Eve dinner, are also purchased in advance, making the shopping centres very busy this time of year. Greeting cards are also commonly exchanged.
Chinese New Year is actually celebrated for 15 consecutive days, but the first three days are most important. The 15th and final day, Chap Goh Mei is also a big event, where houses are decorated with an abundance of brightly coloured lights. It is a way of ending with a grand finale rather than the festivities just fading away gradually.
On the eve before the first day of the new year, family-only dinners and reunions are held. On the subsequent days, however, many will invite friends and outright strangers to come dine with them. This “open house” policy is also practiced during other Malaysian holidays and at large public Chinese New Year gatherings put on at Malaysian community halls. It should not be hard to get invited to a party.
Other Chinese New Year traditions include: “Yee Sang,” a vegetable medley dish eaten by throwing its pieces high in the air with chopsticks to bring good luck; hanging up “duilian,” scrolls bearing famous lines form Chinese poetry; attending lion and dragon dances; betting on card games, so long as the bets are modest; giving out gifts of money in small red ang-pao packages; and attending fireworks displays, the biggest of which are in Chinese districts of Kuala Lumpur and in cities with large Chinese populations.
Chinese New Year Food
The Chinese Reunion dinner is one of the most important elements during Chinese New Year. The reunion dinner which is held on the eve of New Year is a time where families gather over an extravagant meal with lots of noise and laughter.
Food plays an integral role for the Chinese as well as most Malaysians. Hence, during the reunion dinner, one will be able to see all sorts of dishes on the table including the famous Yee Sang, stir-fry leeks, stick cakes and others.
A traditional dish, Yee Sang comprises of thinly sliced pickled vegetables, strips of raw fish (usually salmon), other sauces and condiments like ground peanuts. This dish is also known as the Teochew-style raw fish salad. The popular practice is that everyone gathers around the dining table to toss the ingredients high in the air while exclaiming well wishes and joyful exclamations of what they hope for in the coming year. The significance of the toss symbolizes an increase in abundance, prosperity and all good things. Some people believe that the higher you toss the salad; the more good things will come your way.
Vegetable in Cantonese is “choy” which rhymes with ‘wealth’. Hence, fresh vegetables are importance to the Chinese especially during festive celebrations. Leek, or “suan” in Cantonese rhymes with “counting and planning”. It is one of the most popular and must-have vegetable for Chinese New Year because the ability to count and plan is important to the Chinese who are known for good business skills and judgments.
“The Tray of Togetherness”
Preserved kumquats, coconut, longans, red melon seeds, lotus seeds and peanuts are some of the candies that make up “The Tray of Togetherness”. There are usually 8 compartments to the tray as 8 is a symbolic number representing prosperity. Hence, 8 different types of candies are served or given as gifts. These candies represent all good things: kumquats for prosperity, red melon seeds for happiness, coconut for togetherness and sweets for a sweet and rich life for the coming year. The Tray of Togetherness is something you’ll see in most of the houses if not every house you visit.
Sticky Cake is also known as “nian gao” which means ‘year cake’ when translated. As the name suggests, the cake is sticky as it is made of glutinous rice flour, brown sugar and oil. “Gao”, which sounds similar to the word ‘tall or high’, symbolizes that one will achieve new heights and move forward whether in business or life in general in the coming year. Some people steam these sticky cakes with white sesame seeds or red dates as dates are known to bring early prosperity. The sweetness in this cake symbolizes life of richness and sweetness and the round shape signifies reunion which is the essence of Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year Decorations
Decorations play a huge role as part of welcoming and celebrating Chinese New Year. A few weeks prior to the celebration each year, streets will be beautifully decorated with lanterns of all sizes, Chinese homes spruced up with vases of pretty cherry blossoms, pussy willows and happy hand-written couplets. This is a time filled with much joy and excitement as the Chinese prepare to welcome the New Year. These decorations are put up each year and most families keep them in the house even after the celebration to usher in good luck and prosperity throughout the year.
The lantern is one of the most prominent symbols of Chinese New Year. The idea of lanterns is to create a lively and cheerful environment as the full moon appears in the bright sky. That is why on the 15th day of Chinese New Year, also known as the Lantern Festival, the Chinese gather to hold up colourful lanterns at night. The lantern was once used as a source of light, but today, people have these lanterns as lamp shades or decorative items for their interiors. They come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and colours; however, the most common would still be the red round lantern which you can now see almost everywhere during Chinese New Year.
Cherry Blossoms/ Pussy Willows
The Chinese believe that there will be no fruits without flowers; hence, it is very important to have flowers and plants as decorations during Chinese New Year. Plants signify growth and flowers symbolize wealth. Cherry Blossoms signify reliability and perseverance while Pussy Willows signify new beginnings and wealth and is known as the harbinger of spring. Pussy Willows, “yin liu” in Chinese which sounds like “money flowing in” is a plant that can be seen in most Chinese households decorated with gold ingots and red packets to attract wealth and prosperity. Some families also send them as gifts when they visit friends during Chinese New Year.
Couplets are very much traditionally significant to the Chinese. They are pairs of lines of poetry usually hand-written and seen pasted on the sides of doors of Chinese homes or sometimes in the interior. These couplets are generally written with gold or black ink on red paper and put up a few days before Chinese New Year. Traditionally, it was a way to help children learn how to write Mandarin. However, these days, couplets are put up as decorations to express hopeful thoughts, aspirations and good fortune for the New Year.
Orange and Tangerines
It is almost customary to have oranges and tangerines during Chinese New Year; else it will not feel complete. Oranges, which sounds like ‘gold’ in Cantonese, symbolize wealth while tangerines symbolize good tidings as it sounds like ‘good luck’ in Chinese. Thus, they are symbols of abundant wealth and happiness. Etiquette says that one must bring a bag of oranges or tangerines when visiting family or friends during Chinese New Year. Often times, these tangerines are given with their leaves intact to signify a secure relationship between the giver and the receiver. On a different note, for newlyweds, the leaves represent the branching of the couple into starting a family with many children.
Dragons in the Western world are known as gigantic, fire-breathing animals that steal princesses, eat people and ruin their homes. This however is not true for the Chinese people. To them, dragons are legendary animals that are helpful and friendly. They are known to scare away evil spirits, bring wisdom, good luck, wealth and prosperity.
Dragons are known to have special features and powers that enable them to fly in the air, swim in the sea and walk on land. It is the tradition of the Han people to have dragon dances and that is why every year during Chinese New Year one will see dragon dances being performed in homes, condominiums and even shop fronts in shopping malls.
The dragons used in Dragon dances are made from cloth, held and raised by a pole and this dragon measures from a few metres long up to a hundred metres. It is said that the longer the dragon, the luckier one will be if touched by the dragon. Usually there will be one man who acts as the head; and as the head, he entices the Dragon by using a pole and the Dragon will follow him seemingly searching for wisdom.
Sometimes the dragon may contain animated features like the blinking of the eye or the belching of smoke made by pyrotechnic devices. Together with the artistic dance team and the accompaniment of rhythmic music, the lifeless fabric-made dragon comes to life.
Dragon dances are performed during Chinese New Year to scare away evil spirits and bring good luck and fortune for the coming year and this can be done either in the daytime or at night. The patterns of the Dragon dance and colours of dragons vary according to the creativity of the team.
However, each dance pattern carry a meaning and some example of dance patterns are “Threading Money”, “Looking For Pearl”, and “Whirlpool”. These patterns are combined formation that involves running to spiralling in order to make the dragon’s body turn in a wave-like motion, similar to a real dragon.
Ang Pau Packets
Ang Paus, which are little red packets containing new money, play an important part in the Chinese culture.
The origin of Ang Paus dates back to the Sung Dynasty in Chang-Chieu, a village in China. A young orphan boy fought and defeated the evil dragon that was terrorizing the village at that time. All the villagers were delighted and hence, they presented the young boy with an Ang Pau. Since then, Ang Pau became a part of the Chinese tradition.
However being in such a multi-cultured country like Malaysia, cultures have been assimilated. Both the Malays and Indians have accepted the Ang Pau giving practice as part of their cultural practice. The Malays usually give green packets of the same size of an Ang Pau but adorned with Islamic motifs during Hari Raya. The Indians, on the other hand, give purple coloured packets to children during Deepavali.
Ang Paus, directly translated are called red packets. Now, why red and not black or gray? Red, to the Chinese, is a colour that represents prosperity and good luck. The Chinese also believe that it is a colour to scare away evil spirits. Hence, most Ang Paus are red adorned with Chinese elements and well wishes like Chinese tangerines, gold pineapples, willows and dragons.
These Ang Paus are usually given by the married adults to young children as a sign of continued prosperity. The amount given is not such a big deal as receiving Ang Pau, whether small or big sums, has always been fun and exciting, especially for young children. However, it is important to note that when giving an Ang Pau, it should be a red envelope and not white as money put in white envelopes are meant for funerals.
It is often expected if not customary that Ang Paus given out are brand new, both the packet and the money inside. Hence, used Ang Pau packets are usually recycled for decorations or some even throw them away. This is also because these packets are widely available and cheap. Most banks, departmental stores and major shopping joints give out free Ang Pau packets a few weeks before Chinese New Year. Sometimes, their designs are much nicer and more colourful than the ones we purchase from bookstores or stationary shops.
Ang Pau giving is not only practiced during Chinese New Year; its convenience and practicality has gotten most people to practice the same when giving a gift during auspicious occasions like birthdays, weddings and anniversaries.
Travel and Events
You can expect traffic jams when traveling during the days just before Chinese New Year’s Day. Many are heading from the big cities to the villages to celebrate New Year’s with family, and many others are on their way to upcoming celebrations. On New Year’s Day itself, however, the streets are eerily silent. Businesses largely close down, and all of the noisy celebrating is going on inside private homes where it can’t be heard.
If touring Malaysia during Chinese New Year festivities, you will certainly find many activities to take part in. Three that you may wish to consider are as follows:
- Visit the island of Penang, the number one place to be for a Malaysian Chinese New Year. In the island’s main city, Georgetown, you can view numerous gorgeously decorated temples, including the famous tourist magnet known as “Kek Lok Si Temple”. Also make sure you stay up late into the night this time of year, as do many of the locals, to see Georgetown set ablaze by millions of coloured lights that are turned on every night.
- See Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur. On Petaling Street, there are many temples where the devout come to pray for New Year’s blessings. There are also lion dances in the streets and fireworks going off overhead. More lion dances can be seen inside the shopping malls nearby during the first three days of Chinese New Year, and the elaborate decorations in the mall are also well worth seeing. Many of the smaller shops will close down so the owners can visit their relatives for a few days, but after that, they will be open as well.
- Get a taste of adventure by going on the Kinabatangan River Cruise in the East Malaysian province of Sabah. This will certainly give you a change of pace and some memories that will last a lifetime. The river winds through Sabah for 335 miles, and all along the way, you can view the exotic wildlife on its shores. During the daytime, look for pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, and saltwater crocs. At night, with the help of a light, you may catch a glimpse of leopard cats, wild jungle pigs, and tropical birds asleep in the tree branches.
Visiting Malaysia is always a fun and interesting experience, but visiting during Chinese New Year makes it even more memorable. Most states of Malaysia provide two official public holidays for the first two days of Chinese New Year, however Kelantan and Terengganu only provide a holiday for the first day.