CHINESE New Year traditions largely have to do with luck, prosperity and family.
“Every Chinese New Year, the entire Chinese community, whether you are Chinese-literate or not, is busy with all the traditions and rituals,” says Chiew Ruoh Peng, publisher, writer, racer and owner of a software company.
He believes that Malaysians still observe and practise a lot of the CNY traditions. Most interestingly is the fact that, no matter what Chinese dialect you speak, you would practise the same rituals and observe the same traditions every year.
According to Chiew, his friends from China and Taiwan are surprised that Malaysians of Chinese descent still carry on the traditions, sometimes with more vigour and enthusiasm than even the people in China!
“The Chinese in Malaysia tend to preserve customs pretty well as we are not the majority in the country. Fearing that we will lose our identity, the Chinese organisations try to preserve as much as possible of the language and education. As an observer, I don’t think any of the traditions will be lost, not in the short-term anyway,” says Chiew.
According to him, traditionally Chinese New Year is the time when new clothes are bought. Although it is preferable that the new clothes worn on the first day of Chinese New Year be red, it is not a must.
“Red is the symbolic colour, but you don’t have to wear it. Just remember not to wear black, and white isn’t a good idea either because these are colours associated with death.
“Anything to do with death must be avoided during Chinese New Year. You are not supposed to say anything that sounds like death. You must only say lucky and happy things,” he explains.
For Chinese New Year, families would decorate their homes with red paper cuts and couplets with Chinese calligraphy written on them.
“The words are related to prosperity. The words on the red paper couplets would match and complement each other. Unfortunately, these days a lot of people don’t fully appreciate what is written. Most people just get decorate their home and don’t appreciate if the writing is good or not,” says Chiew.
Another tradition still practised is the burning of firecrackers, even though there is still a ban on it in Malaysia.
“According to the myth, the firecrackers were used to scare away a monster called Nian and it became part of the rituals. It’s supposed to scare away the monster and bring good luck. These days it is just part of the celebrations and there is no specific time of the night to be burnt,” says Chiew.
He informs that there is no sweeping during the first few days of Chinese New Year because it is believed you will sweep away good luck and it’s also impolite to visitors.
Ang pow and gifts
The first day of CNY is when you visit friends and relatives and collect and give out ang pow (red packet filled with money).
According to Chiew there are two myths on the origin of the ang pow.
“According to one myth, there used to be a little imp that used to disturb the kids and the kids would cry late at night. For whatever reason, one couple decided to put some coins on their child’s beds. When the imp came, the coins sparkled and scared it away. The coins were said to represent the eight deities, who changed into those coins to protect the child.
“Although it’s no longer coins that are given, the ang pow was meant to be given to chase away evil.
“In another myth, they used to light up firecrackers to chase away monsters and that scared the kids, who would cry. So, back then the parents would use candy to console the kids. And, eventually, the candy became money,” says Chiew.
According to him, there is no standard rate on how much to give in the ang pow packet. As it is mostly to bring good luck, how much you give in entirely up to the person giving. It can range from RM2 to RM200.
Generally, those you know well, would get more and those who you might just know in passing, might receive the RM2 ang pow. However, Chiew cautions it has to be an even number, and the number “4” should be avoided because it sounds like death.
While it isn’t a must to have new notes, Chiew says it just looks nicer than crumpled old notes.
The exchanging of gifts is also quite common during Chinese New Year when visiting friends and family.
While the norm is mandarin oranges (which signifies gold), fruits and chocolates, there are certain items you should steer clear of.
According to Wikipedia:
Certain items cannot be given as they are considered taboo. These include clocks (symbolises escorting someone to the grave), green hats (means infidelity), shoes (sounds like a sigh), pears (sounds like separation), handkerchiefs (used in funerals) umbrellas (sounds like closing), and any sharp bladed objects such as scissors and knives (symbolises cutting ties).
Days of CNY
Chinese New Year begins with the Reunion Dinner on the eve. That’s one of the most important events of the entire 16 days of Chinese New Year.
“No matter where you are, you go back to your hometown, sit down with your family and have dinner together,” explains Chiew.
On the first day, you would visit family and friends.
On the second day, the wife is supposed to go back to her parents’ house to visit them.
On the third day you’re not supposed to visit anybody because it is believed to be the “red mouth day”. It is thought to be a day when people would quarrel, so you should avoid all contact with people on that day.
“We don’t follow it that strictly anymore but we do remember this is a day of quarrels, so we would try not to quarrel,” says Chiew, laughing.
Nothing much of significance on the fourth day and by the fifth day, now, most people are back to work.
The seventh day is for loh sang (tossing and mixing a dish of shredded vegetables, raw fish and sweet condiments known as yee sang).
“The seventh day is known as the birthday for the entire human race, and this is when we do loh sang. There is a big plate with sliced vegetables and raw fish and everybody would use chopsticks to mix it all up and toss it. They key thing here is the name ‘loh sang’ which sounds like ‘prosperity’. In Cantonese it would mean something like ‘making a lot of money’. As they are tossing the ingredients, they would in their most enthusiastic way say all kinds of good wishes, and then they would eat it.
“Yee sang also sounds like abundance of prosperity. The look of the dish is very colourful. It’s a happy experience – a group of friends and family circle around that dish and almost have a ‘food fight’. Then they sit down and eat,” says Chiew.
While doing his research on the Internet, Chiew found a Wikipedia post about the dish which listed its origin as 1960s in Malaysia and Singapore, when Singapore was still a part of Malaysia. (Malaysia and Singapore still have not resolved which country loh sang originated from. Both still claim ownership of its origin.)
According to Chiew, loh sang is a tradition that is very much local as it is not practised in China and Hong Kong.
That is the only tradition he knows which originates here.
One tradition that is upheld by the Hokkiens is to worship the Jade Emperor at midnight on the eighth day of Chinese New Year.
“The Hokkiens would thank the Jade Emperor for saving their lives when the Japanese pirates were rampaging Hokkien villages. In the process of their escape they came across a sugar cane plantation and hid in the bushes and the pirates missed them. Therefore, they are very thankful to the Jade Emperor.
“The word ‘sugar cane’ in hokkien sounds like ‘kam chia’ and this sounds similar to ‘kam siah’ which means thank you. So, sugar cane is traditionally used during the worship of the Jade Emperor,” explains Chiew.
Finally, the last day of Chinese New Year is when the Yuanxiao Festival (also known as the Lantern Festival or chap goh mei) is observed. It is said to be the Chinese Valentine’s Day.
According to Chiew, in ancient times, being the last day of Chinese New Year, people would come out to attend the lantern exhibitions.
“They used to have fun by having a riddle attached to each lantern and you were supposed to guess the answer to each riddle.
“In those days, girls did not get to go out that often either. So, that was also a good time to mingle and hopefully meet Mr Right.
“There is also the ritual of throwing mandarin oranges into the river on chap goh mei. It is supposed to bring not just good luck, but bring you luck to meet Mr Right. I’m not sure where this tradition originates,” explains Chiew, likening it to throwing coins into a wishing well.
One thing that should be kept in mind is the tradition with regard to eating fish during Chinese New Year.
Chiew explains that any fish dish on the table should not be finished.
“You must leave a bit on the plate otherwise you will eat up all your abundance. A little bit of leftover is to signify that abundance,” he says.
Chiew believes that while some traditions remain, some change over time for practicality.
“Some of the characteristics of the traditions remain but how we do it changes for practical reasons. I think importantly we need to remember why we’re still doing it, so we appreciate the meaning and significance,” he says.