The Inside Scoop on Chinese New Year (CNY)

I’ve enjoyed eight wonderful Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore – a country where approximately 74 per cent of thepopulation is Chinese. It’s the only time in Singapore when everything goes quiet – I mean the shops actually close for a few days, and that is a big deal in a The Lion City where one of the favourite pastimes (and sports) is shopping. Singaporeans love CNY because it’s a wonderful family tradition, and they get four and a half days off, which everyone takes advantage of – I suggest avoiding Changi Airport and the border crossings into Malaysia during this time – its chaos…

Right now, Singapore is decorated red, it’s been dragon-ified, the painful Chinese music is blaring in the supermarkets (sorry it just hurts my ears but so does Christmas music!) and everywhere you go, behold the feast of orange trees and other colourful plants. CNY is a very family oriented time, so we’ve never been invited to celebrate, which has meant it’s really hard to grasp what it’s all about and what it means to the Chinese. Until I moved to Singapore, my main awareness of CNY was my animal sign. I’d spent my life thinking I was a Dog, only later realising that as I was born on the first of January I was, in fact, a Cock – so this dog became a cock later in life.

This year I thought I’d ask my Chinese pals, some of whom are married to Ang Mo’s, which literally means red hair according to Wikipedia (welcome back, I missed you), and Ang Mo is a term for Caucasians (aka us white folk) in Singapore. I thought it might be nice to get a perspective of CNY from those in the thick of things.

My great friend’s Davina (Singapore) and Jamey (US) have been married about as long as we have. A great couple, when I asked them, Davina said I think Jamey called it a time for family flagellation. Ouch.”

To which Jamey replied “Chinese New Year is a ritual where the older generation pick on the younger generation. For example, why don’t you have a boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, better job, baby, etc…” He suggested I add the wahs and lehs (aka Singlish) in where I see fit, but I’ve never been able to get to grips with the local language, so feel free to add it if you know how…

Jamey sent in the gambling picture: “This picture is my favourite from CNY!  Close knit family all around a table – GAMBLING 🙂  This, of course, happens after lots of good food.”

A more considered response from Davina: “CNY has changed so much. In our parents time it was really special – the only time in the year they got new clothes and not hand-me-downs. Now for the kids, I don’t think it makes a difference. Sure the money is nice (we’ll get to that – Andrea) but the traditions are gone and another dress doesn’t mean much these days. I miss the tradition of cooking together with Grandma, as well as the stories she used to tell when cooking. We weren’t very big on other traditions like massive spring-cleaning. However, even though my Mum was a committed Christian, we could never sweep the house on day one – even if you broke a glass. You could only pick up the pieces. That was by far the biggest taboo. I love the concept of the Reunion Dinner, which is held on Chinese New Year Eve, but they can be painful…really painful if you don’t get along with the extended family.”

So far we have gambling, eating, new clothes, and no sweeping… I will elaborate on the traditions shortly.

Eugene (Singapore), is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met and a very dear friend. He told me: “In what is typically a very reserved, conservative and insular society, the Chinese New Year festivities sees us toss it all out the window. It’s our annual ‘coming out’ celebration and we like it big. Twelve days of Christmas? Bah humbug. We have 15 days of over indulgence, loud (literally with fireworks) parties and the occasional family get together. Oh did I mention over-indulgence? I you are visiting people during this time, I suggest bringing a couple of oranges, and a hearty appetite.”

He’s right, the Chinese do like to feed you. My experience on that so far – even if you’re not planning on eating, have a plate of food in front of you at all times. The Aunties will not leave you alone. It’s even worse if you’re pregnant.

Moving on to my great friends Keith (English/Iraqi) and Cara (Singapore).

From Keith: “My parents love Chinese New Year – in fact, this is the third time they will come for it. It’s about making a fresh start, so the idea of buying new clothes is a great way to cement that. Getting together with relatives and friends is always welcome – and more importantly, so is gambling :-)”

I am noticing a trend here.

“I do like Chinese New Year and appreciate the traditions,” said Cara. “I don’t like them all but some make sense, especially now that we have children. I want my children to know that Chinese New Year is just as important as Christmas. In fact, they should think they are very lucky, as they have so many special occasions to celebrate throughout the year. For CNY, I like the idea of getting everything new, clothes (including underwear!), shoes and bags. We also shop to make sure we have plenty of supplies and food for the 15 days of CNY, and we steer away from dull colours, opting more for red, yellow, orange, and green.”

I can guarantee that if Cara is buying new underwear for CNY, it’s going to be gorgeous. Cara used to import French Lingerie into Singapore, and even though she’d look amazing in a pair of big beige panties up to her armpits, Keith is guaranteed to be a very lucky boy.

Continued Cara: “My family have never missed a Reunion dinner on CNY eve as far as I can remember. It is like Christmas dinner for Keith’s family. Reunion dinner varies across dialect groups and families, although for my family it’s all about steamboat. We celebrate CNY for 15 days, and while there are many traditions you can observe, I expect the modern generation enjoys the opportunity to gamble legally more than anything else!!” 

To explain the red packets and oranges, I asked Cara what it was all about. The little red packets are called ang bao – and if you’re single, you get lots of them over CNY.

“We start giving ang bao when we get married – there is an advantage for being single. Typically we are expected to give ang bao to any children or unmarried adults when we visit. We are also expected to give the mandarin oranges to the elderly. The mandarin orange is ‘ji’ in Mandarin which means ‘luck’.”

To conclude my “interviews,” I’m just having a chat with my friend Miin. It’s Friday and she hasn’t bought new clothes for the family – I can see the panic is starting to kick in, and considering the chaos on the roads this week, last minute shopping is not going to be relaxing.

Miin has a busy time ahead, with plans to visit relatives Monday and Tuesday next week, as it’s an opportunity to give respect to her elders and wish them good luck and good health.

“We’ll give red packets to the young and unmarried, and as a guide, you should put a minimum of $6 in a packet. No matter what, it must be an even number. You give two oranges to your elders for good luck and health.”

Which reminds me – avoid banks at this time of year as well. The lines are out the door as everyone wants new Notes for their ang bao envelopes.

Miin has already started her celebrations, with a reunion dinner last Sunday with her in-laws family, and this CNY Eve she’ll be with her extended family – about 50 people in a house for dinner.

Asking if it’s closed to outsiders Miin said: “Foreigners don’t tend to get invited as it’s a time to get together with close relatives. It’s ok to invite friends, but it’s not typical.”

“To elaborate on some of the customs we observe, from Monday there is no cleaning and you don’t sweep your floor – because you will sweep away your wealth.”

Technically you can use a vacuum.

“CNY is about newness – new year, new start, new clothes, and more. It’s about wealth, prosperity and community. It’s about visiting and spending time with family, but the elderly do not come to a junior family’s house. You visit them. My CNY schedule been fixed for years. I go to Mum’s house to greet her, give her money and oranges, then we do my husband’s side, and then everyone gathers together. In my family, we don’t gamble, so we’re a bit unusual for that.

“It’s a nice time – I enjoy it – as I only see my extended family once a year. Everyone is so busy these days.”

I’d better leave Miin in peace because she has a lot to do. In the meantime, she’s given me an auspicious calendar (see below), and based on my Chinese Horoscope, I am not to turn my computer on or do any work this coming Monday, but Wednesday is a very good day for me. Cool, got that locked, loaded and scheduled in Outlook.

Jamey, Davina, Eugene, Keith, Cara and Miin – thanks for sharing this with me, and I hope I’ve honoured your traditions in a good way here. As one in four people on the planet now celebrates this tradition – the longest chronologically celebrated festival in human history – I thought a little bit of insight might be nice to share.

With that I wish everyone Gong Xi FaCai and I’m certainly looking forward to a year of peace and prosperity.

Yours, without the bollocks


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