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Cover Story: Traditions of Chinese New Year

By Chris Teh

Gong Xi Fa Cai! It is the time of year again where festive songs can be heard on play, decorations rock the malls and sales, deals and bargains doing their best to attract the community!

Welcome back, loyal readers of Ipoh Echo. For the first issue of chapter 2020, let’s delve deeper into what makes Chinese New Year an auspicious and wonderful festive event!

Shooing Off the Bad, Shu (Count) in the Good

Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year in other parts of the world and Spring Festival in China, is a celebration of the new year on the traditional Chinese calendar.

Observed for a duration of 15 days, it is a major holiday in China and has spread its festive influence to neighbouring countries such as our own, Vietnam, Korea, Thailand and Singapore.

For Year of the Rat, according to Chinese zodiac astrology, the occasion will last from January 25 till February 8 which interestingly coincides with Thaipusam. 

Preparations

Before the first day of Chinese New Year, the festivity actually starts from the 23th or 24th day of the last Lunar month of the Chinese calendar. During this period, many activities have to be done to welcome the New Year in its entirety.

Firstly, honouring the Kitchen God and cleaning the house are usual activities that follow the beliefs of saying goodbye to the old year.

To some households, cleaning and wiping commonly worshipped statues, such as Guan Yin (Buddhist bodhisattva; Goddess of Mercy) is believed to be crucial for a blessed new year ahead. Metal and ceramic vessels used for the prayer tables are also cleaned and refilled with new ashes.

Also during this anticipation period, new year cookies will be prepared, such as all-time favourites like hup toh soh (Chinese walnut cookies) and peanut cookies. Some even deep-fry nga ku (arrowhead) into crisps that are very popular among many Ipohites–this scribe included–to the extent of finishing a jar of them even before the new year!

Towards chu xi (Chinese New Year’s Eve), reunion dinner is one of the necessary new year traditions, with its history dating back to at least 2,000 years ago, signifying the strengthening of familial relations and cohesiveness, thus the name tuan yuan fan.

Family members, near or far, are expected to gather and have dinner with parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. Pan Cai (literally meaning basin vegetables, also regarded as Basin of Treasure) is a usual dish during reunion dinner, which typically contains high-end food items such as abalone and dried scallops, not to mention various types of common vegetables, meats and seafood. 

For the Hokkiens, cuo tang yuan (rolling glutinous rice balls) is a common tradition during chu xi. After reunion dinner, family members gather around the table to help out with rolling tang yuan.

Rolling tang yuan in big and small rounds is another signification of the Chinese idiom ‘you da you xiao’ (literally meaning got big and small), widely understood to younger individuals as respecting elders. A similar tradition applies to the celebration of Winter Solstice too.

On another note, tang yuan now comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes to appeal to the modern generation.

It is also common to visit temples to pay respect to Chinese deities and obtain their blessings during chu xi. In town, Tow Boo Keong Temple and Old Paloh Chinese Temple will gain visits from many Ipohites in the wee hours of midnight during the first day of Chinese New Year.

Starting Celebration

For the first day of Chinese New Year, phrases wishing good fortune or health can be heard being exchanged from a family member to another or friends and acquaintances as well. “Gong xi fa cai”, “wan shi ru yi” (may all undertakings go smoothly), “shen ti jian kang” (good health) and “sheng yi xing long” (good business) among others are few common phrases. 

Depending on personal beliefs and preferences, certain families maintain a vegetarian diet to honour the Buddhist tradition that no living thing should be killed on the first day of the Chinese New Year. 

Also, lion dances accompanied with upbeat melodies from Chinese drums and instruments are some of the very unforgettable scenes during Chinese New Year. 

Next, bai nian (visiting relatives’ house) is also an important Chinese New Year custom. Members of the younger generation will receive angpow (red packets containing money) from elder family members as a wish of good luck.

Sweeping the floor on the first day of the new year is discouraged as it is akin to sweeping away good luck.

The second day of Chinese New Year is also known as kai nian (beginning of a year) in China. This is the day for welcoming sons-in-law, or visiting the wife’s side of the family. Married daughters visit their parents’ homes with their husbands.

Gifts such as cookies and mandarin oranges are usually brought as gifts, but in view of convenience, red envelopes are becoming more commonly given to the children in their family’s home today. Daughters and sons-in-law will have lunch in their parents’ home.

Most offices, eateries and schools will reopen during the fourth or fifth day of Chinese New Year. For Chinese New Year 2020, we will be having three days of holiday, due to the second day falling on a Sunday. 

Hokkien New Year

On the eighth and ninth day of Chinese New Year, families especially of Hokkien ancestry will pay respect to the Jade Emperor (Heaven God), also known as bai tin gong.

Legends stated that the Hokkiens in Ancient China survived oppression during Chinese New Year by seeking refuge in a sugar cane plantation for nine days. On the ninth day itself, when they emerged and found that their enemies were gone thanks to the protective cover of the sugar cane stalks, this date has been symbolised by the Hokkiens for their survival, thus the homage to the Emperor ever since.

During bai tin gong, several food items with their names rhyming with Hokkien dialects such as the sugar cane stalks (kam chia, sounding similar with kam xia, meaning conveying thanks) and pineapples (ong lai, similar pronunciation meaning prosperity has come), among others like huat kueh (steamed prosperity cupcake), ang ku (red tortoise pastry filled with sweet filling, i.e. green mung bean paste), mi ku (steamed tortoise bun) and bee koh (steamed glutinous rice with dried dates and longans on top) are decorated with red or gold stickers with Chinese wordings before being offered to the Emperor.

Apart from that, joss papers (kim cua) are folded into scythe-shaped ingots (physical form used as real currency in ancient China) to be burnt as an offering to the Emperor. Fireworks may also be lit to mark the beginning of the Hokkien Chinese New Year.

Prosperity Toss

Ipohites and Malaysians in general can never forget about yee sang! Also known as Prosperity Toss, the popular Cantonese-style raw fish salad is a must-have during Chinese New Year. 

With strips of raw fish (usually salmon), bits of sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, pomelo pulp, various sorts of sliced vegetables and topping of sauces, especially plum sauce, the irresistible dish adds auspiciousness to the celebration of Chinese New Year.

Yee sang literally means raw fish, but the word ‘yee’ in Mandarin is pronounced ‘yu’, a homophone of another Chinese word which means abundant, thus the idiom “nian nian you yu (abundance every year). Addition of pomelo or other types of citrus fruit pulp reflects the meaning of “da ji da li” (good luck and smooth sailing). 

Sesame seeds and crushed peanuts respectively allude to “jin yin man wu (meaning household filled with gold and silver) and “sheng yi xing long”. To top it off, plum sauce, which is commonly used for yee sang, signifies “tian tian mi mi” (meaning ‘may life always be sweet’).

How Ipohites of All Ages Celebrate the New Year

“My family stays at home during the first day of Chinese New Year, but my cousins and I prefer going out to malls,” said 23-year-old Ipohite Gisele Soo, a student from Quest International University Perak (QIU). “I visit my grandmother’s side of the family during the second day.”

“Chinese New Year isn’t that much of a major celebration for my family and I,” 71-year-old Ipohite Andrew Ong noted. “We usually go through the festive holiday with simple visits to my relatives’ houses. It’s mostly about food and more catching up with them.”

For 30-year-old Ipohite Alvin Lee, he travels back to his mother’s hometown in Malacca for Chinese New Year, who said, “My mom has a huge family. Since my maternal grandfather is the eldest of nine siblings, thus a large extended family. I usually stay there for a few days.”

Living overseas sure takes the fun out of Chinese New Year, especially if one has career priorities. 24-year-old Ipoh boy Darren Lee Yeu Jyn residing and working as a research scientist in the land Down Under is no exception.

“Given that Chinese New Year is not an official holiday here in Australia, I have to work. The festive mood here is undoubtedly lower than in Malaysia,” he remarked. “But I do, of course, have a makan-makan session with fellow Malaysian friends who also live here. Yee sang is always one of the must-have dishes.”

28-year-old Ipohite journalist Tan Mei Kuan opined that the core of Chinese New Year celebration should be about what truly matters–family and friends.

“One should respect and follow the taboos, rites and customs of the festivity but not to the extent of being tied down and ruining the festive vibe. For me, the absence of dishes deemed abundant or auspicious during Chinese New Year would not bother me much,” she expressed. “If the people who prepared or ate those dishes are stressed out by the strict superstitions, what is the point of having them?”

“Also, the vibrant colours that one is dictated to wear should be reflected upon his or her face too,” Tan further stated. 

To 27-year-old Ipohite Marcus Chong, his Chinese New Year activities are mostly spent with his maternal family.

“Apart from reunion dinner, my paternal family does not celebrate the festivity much due to recent passing of my grandmother,” he explained. “On Chinese New Year Eve, my brother and I will help my maternal grandmother to pack the angpows.”

“My family and I go to Kek Lok Seah Crematorium in Bercham every first day of the new year to pray for our ancestors. It is usually very crowded by 10 a.m.,” Marcus mentioned. “Lunch and dinner will be prepared at my grandmother’s house, after catching up with my relatives in between accompanied with nice Chinese New Year snacks and beverages.”

“My family and I always have a reunion dinner at Sam Poh Restaurant in Tambun during the eve,” said 17-year-old Ipoh girl Jo Lynn Chong. “While on the first day of Chinese New Year, we usually head to Tuck Kee Restaurant in Pasir Pinji.”

“My mother will bake butter cake, marble cake and carrot cheesecake, while my father makes egg sponge cake and capon chicken. Afterwards, they will chat with their siblings about people and vacation,” she elaborated. “My cousins, on the other hand, go for karaoke session or hang out at the malls, if not meeting up with their friends.”

“Some of my family members stay up until very late at night during Chinese New Year,” Jo Lynn added.

Without further ado, Ipoh Echo wishes our loyal readers a very prosperous, wealthy and healthy Chinese New Year! May the year ahead always be happy for you. 

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Chris Teh

Born and bred in Ipoh, Chris Teh is proficient in Chinese, English and Malay, with the Japanese language in the making. Joining Ipoh Echo has helped utilise his writing and translation skills. In his spare time, he catches Pokemon in Pokemon GO, discovering up and coming places on the side.

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