Chinese New Year, or the Lunar New Year, is the most significant festival celebrated by the ethnic Chinese all over the world. I started off writing about Chinese New Year this year by looking at the many press releases I received. Buffet deals here, New Year Menu there and Reunion Dinner Packages all around. These are great, but they didn’t feel authentic to me. I mean, we know about these and the information is a simple google search away.
So I decided to do a story on the various ways Chinese New Year is celebrated around the world! Mainly Vietnam, Penang and Taiwan. These cities and countries have a substantial ethnic Chinese population and each has their own way of celebrating the festival.
Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival and is based on the Chinese lunar calendar. It’s a 15-day long event, beginning on the first day of the first lunar month. The celebrations draw close during the Lantern Festival, celebrated on the 15th day of the first month.
On the eve of Chinese New Year, families all come together to dine under one roof! This is my favourite part, as it involves a large table groaning under the weight of delicious Chinese dishes. This is also when the popular “Are you attached?” question gets thrown at singles like knives. (A side note: the Chinese aren’t alone in this, Indians get this every Deepavali too.).
The next morning sees families dressed in red garb and visiting relatives and friends, particularly the elders in the family. Red Packets (ang paos) are exchanged.
This really is the basis of Chinese New Year or the extent of general knowledge. Here are how things go down in different parts of the world.
The Vietnamese celebrate a festival called ‘Tet’, which is their form of New Years, Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. They take this opportunity to show respect to the elderly and commemorate their ancestors as well. Similar to the Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia, they do a thorough spring-cleaning of their homes, even painting the house.
Symbolic decorations include the traditional Kumquat tree and Peach Blossoms. Although only some traditions remain in modern times, Tet represented another significance for the Vietnamese in the past. Back then, Tet was also provided the people with a much needed long break from the agricultural calendar. Tet was the period between harvesting the crops and sowing the next batch.
Like other ethnic Chinese, ancestral worship is a very big part of Tet. Special attention is paid to the ancestral altar, with ornaments and decorations to celebrate their lineage. Five different types of fruits, sacred papers and other rituals come into play here. Also, the Vietnamese make an effort to repay all debts and solve all misunderstandings with their family and friends. The concept behind this is for them to start a new year afresh, and not harbour negativity throughout the new year.
Penang celebrates an especially loud and happening Chinese New Year, thanks to the large population of ethnic Chinese. On the eve, the Malaysian Chinese go about the traditional reunion dinners where they eat, celebrate and gamble with their families. During the full season of the Lunar New Year, the streets of Penang are lit with parades, lion dancers, dragon dancers, and fireworks in the evenings.
Every year, the Kek Lok Si Temple has a huge display of lights – this is very much a large part of CNY in Penang. The 150 years old temple gets decked out with over 10,000 light bulbs and even more lanterns in all colours, shapes and sizes. This illuminating display can be seen from many vantage points across the island, and is spectacular at night!
Penang also has a special ‘Fire Watching’ Ceremony organized at the Snake Temple. This ceremony is believed to reflect the economy of Penang in the coming year. Celebrations start on the 5th day of the lunar new year and spill over onto the 6th day, in honour of patron deity Chor Soo Kong. The height, ferociousness and fury of the flames from this ceremony past midnight are highly celebratory for the ethnic Chinese in Penang.
Furthermore, on the 9th day of the Lunar New Year Festival, Penangites celebrate the Hokkien New Year. The Pai Ti Kong Festival is marked as the birthday of Emperor Thein Kong, a significant figure in Hokkien history. On the night of the 8th day, the Hokkien population come out with plenty of food to serve to the ‘Heaven God’, along Chew Jetty area of the island.
Many legends and beliefs colour tradition all around the world and Taiwan is no different. The Taiwanese also partake in the ritualistic cleansing and cleaning of the house during the lead up to Chinese New Year. This is due to the belief the cleaning (or breaking dishes) on the day of Chinese New Year is highly inauspicious.
The legend here tells the story of Nian, a dark and evil cannibal that attacks the people on the eve of Chinese New Year. The legend goes on to say how Nian is afraid of the colour red and loud noises, along with fire. To prevent this monster from attacking the villagers, the ancient Chinese lit sprawling fires, loud firecrackers and partook in merriment on the eve of the Lunar New Year, chasing the ferocious beast away.
In honour of the 15 days of celebrations, locals in a Pingxi light huge paper lanterns and release them to
toward the heavens. These traditional lanterns are inscribed with wishes of health, wealth and happiness. Raohe St. Night Market is another must-see during CNY in Taipei, Taiwan. The night market is aglow with colourful flower decorations and lanterns of all shapes and sizes. The area is also home to Songshan Ciyou Temple, where locals can be seen praying and paying respects to God.