Tahun Baru Cina from Pao! (Lunar New Year celebration, Day 1)

What is the Lunar New Year? Well, it’s just the New Year according to the lunar calendar!

The date for the Lunar New Year changes every year based on the cycle of the moon and it’s usually on the day we get the second new moon which is somewhere between mid-January and mid- February. As it happens, the date for this year is the 31st of January! As some of you may know, the East Asians and Vietnam have a 12 zodiac cycle (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig) and each zodiac is assigned to a year in that order. This year is the year of the Horse. So, if your age is a multiple of 12, this is your year!
The Lunar New Year is a celebration to usher in the New Year and is celebrated by people of Japanese (Ōmisoka), Korean (Seollal), Chinese (Nián Jié/ Guo Nian) or Vietnamese (Tết) cultural backgrounds.  Nián Jié/ Guo Nián (年节/ 过年) basically mean ‘festival of the year/ to pass the year’. While those are the regular Chinese words to name the festival, in Malaysia we just call it Chinese New Year (Sorry, Ana!) or Tahun Baru Cina in Malay. It is culturally insensitive but it is mainly called that because of the racial denominations in Malaysia. We do have Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean communities in the country but the Chinese are the largest of the East Asian communities; hence the term Chinese New Year. Today, I’ll share a bit of a Malaysian Chinese person’s perspective on celebrating the Lunar New Year. I would like to apologise beforehand for any misinformation – especially with the Chinese characters, pronunciation and explanations. I’m almost illiterate in that language!

By tradition, the Lunar New Year is fifteen days long but of course; jobs/ studies will not allow for a two week long festival so public holidays are usually three days long for those in the work force and about a week long for students.

Fifteen days! What do we do for fifteen days? Well, we eat and drink, and then eat more and oh, yes, drink more and gamble. The festival is broken up into three parts:

·       The preparation

·       The eve of the New Year

·       The rest of it

Alright, let’s start with the prep! I will try my best to not bore you J

The Preparation

Food preparation (including gathering ingredients) usually starts about a week or so before the New Year. We usually start by making festive treats like and my favourite sweet treat has to be my mom’s pineapple jam tarts. It’s just as its name describes it: pineapple jam wrapped with short crust pastry; tart, slightly sweet and somewhat addictive. I usually make these tarts with my mom – mum gets all the ingredients, I make the jam, make the pastry and bake them. This works for me because I get to eat the jam while I make them! These treats are usually left in the lounge for visiting guests to nibble on, given to guests or hosts as gifts and mailed to friends in other states (actually, I only have one friend with whom I trade food through snail mail).

We also take this time to stock up on a few cartons of mandarin oranges and some barbequed pork meat 肉干 (rou gan) to be distributed as gifts. Why specifically these things? The mandarin orange is actually a play on words and a form of symbolism because mandarin oranges in Chinese (Cantonese – because I just realised I don’t know what it is in Mandarin!) is 柑 (g­ām) which sounds similar to gold 金 (gām); so presenting someone with mandarin oranges is akin to wishing them prosperity. Now, because we’re Asian and we love symbolism, we never give gift items in fours because four, 四 (si) is a homophone to the Chinese word for death, 死 (). On the other hand, eight, 八 (bā) in a bag is wonderfully auspicious because it almost sounds like the Chinese word for prosper, (fā). The barbequed pork on the other hand is an agreed upon food item to be exchanged with the neighbours for their ground nuts, waxed duck, fresh fish and a number of other things I can’t recall. Treats aside, we usually clean the home prior to the New Year and decorate it with… garishly coloured things. It is almost like Christmas in the Western world, only instead of pine or fir trees, we get pussy willow branches from the market and hang ornaments on them. Ornaments and decorations around the house are usually red and yellow/ gold in colour because they are considered auspicious colours in our culture. We usually hang up a few lanterns in the lounge and out in the porch, which is enough for me, because it’s usually me who does the decorating. Finally, our prep is complete when we have bought at least one new piece of clothing that is mostly red or completely red (elder people will tell you to get red underwear to help in gambling).

The eve of the New Year

This is the night we have our Reunion Dinner 年夜飯 (nián yè fàn) where all members of the clan will try their best to get together for dinner – which can get quite chaotic depending on numbers. We usually have dinner at a family friend’s restaurant for Reunion. This is a matter of convenience because we aren’t allowed to clean the house once we cross over into the New Year as it is an inauspicious thing to do, and reunion dinners take a long time to get through! The typical reunion dinner dishes should include a whole steamed fish, uncut noodles and a Prosperity Toss 鱼生 (yúshēng) amongst other things. I must admit that I actually do not have the names of these foods in English and struggled to describe them!

Now, back to the fish – more homophones and symbolism! I love steamed fish. I can have a whole fish for a meal and I’ll be happy. The fish has to be whole and uncut because fish 鱼(yú) is a homophone to the Chinese word for ‘surplus’ 餘(yú) ; which is used in the New Year greeting  年年有餘 (niánnián yǒu yú) meaning “may there be surpluses every year”. This is similar with the noodles where the long strands represent longevity. So, as you can imagine – cutting up the fish and your noodles is akin to reducing your “surpluses” and shortening your life. Now, imagine a horrified old lady shaking her chopsticks while shooting death rays with her eyes at you from across the dinner table.

Now, the yúshēng is usually the first thing we have before any of the mains and it is a very fun dish to start a meal with. It’s basically a raw fish salad (usually salmon slices) with vegetables (usually shredded turnip, carrots, and radish), some fruits (pomelo or lemon) and lots of crackers. The shredded vegetables are usually arranged in a circle on a large plate with the crackers and salmon slices piled on top of everything, drizzled with a dressing made of vinegar and sugar. Our goal before eating this dish is to ‘toss’ it. By tossing we really mean: make a mess. Get your chopsticks dig in, bring whatever you’ve grabbed as high as you can and let it fall back onto the plate. Very fun, very messy and very yummy, too. The symbolism here is: the higher you carry the salad, the better your achievements. After you’ve made a big enough mess, you may consume it.

This night is also the night we get to watch the first “Lion Dance” performance of the festival held in the restaurant’s courtyard. There are a few types of “Lions” and if I’m not wrong, Korea and Japan have different Lions. The ones in Malaysia are of the Southern type. They hop onto a set of poles, perform acrobatic moves and end the performance by pretending to eat some lettuce/ pomelo (no one finishes a whole pomelo in a minute!), then presenting the organiser with a scroll.

Once dinner is done, we return home and rest/ play with firecrackers before prayer time; which is at some convenient time, like 3 or 4 AM. Malaysia technically has a ban on firecrackers, but, as customs at the border of Thailand and Malaysia is quite lax, my dear neighbour drives into Thailand every year to smuggle firecrackers back home. Bless him. In exchange we keep quiet when he sneakily tosses his garbage in our garbage bin throughout the year. My favourite firecracker is the string of squib (they look like mini dynamites) which we hang from the balcony and watch as it explodes. I quite like the smell of gunpowder lingering in the air after everything has exploded. Another favourite is the cherry bomb. We usually toss it into the large monsoon drain outside my home because the sound of it exploding is quite impressive. We’d also build ‘buildings’ with boxes and toss a firecracker in it for amusement. No, I don’t think we’re that destructive.

The rest of it
Finally! Now we get to celebrate the first 15 days of the New Year! If you are not married and you have married siblings/ married relatives you get to collect red envelopes 紅包 (hóngbāo) with money in it after wishing the envelope bearing person ‘恭喜發財,  新年快樂’ (Gōng xǐ fā cái, xīn nián kuài lè) which means: Congratulations and be prosperous, Happy New Year. When we were younger, the elders loved making us recite a list of phrases before giving us our red envelopes. This is where I learnt the art of blackmailing. I can’t remember most of them but here are some of the commonly said phrases :

迎春接福  (Yíngchúnjiēfú) – “Greet the New Year and encounter happiness”

萬事如意  (Wànshìrúyì) – “May all your wishes be fulfilled”

竹報平安  (Zhúbàopíng’ān) – “May you hear [in a letter] that all is well”

一本萬利  (Yīběnwànlì )- “May a small investment bring ten-thousand-fold profits”

招財進寶  (Zhāocáijìnbǎo) – “When wealth is acquired, precious objects follow”

年年有餘 (Niánnián yǒu yú) – “May there be surpluses every year”

歲歲平安 (Suìsuì-píng’ān) – “May there be everlasting peace every year”

Alternatively, you can be a brat and say 恭喜发财,红包拿来 (gōngxǐfācái, hóngbāo nálái) which translates to “Congratulations and be prosperous, now hand me a red envelope!”

As custom dictates, we do not eat any meat on the first day of the Lunar New Year to symbolise a clean start to the year. The first day is relatively quiet for us. Relatives usually come over to our home to visit us and the grandparents. But since grandpa has passed, we don’t see our relatives that often anymore. When grandpa was around he would leave the telly or his radio on the entire day just to play festive tunes or Lunar New Year themed shows.

The second day is a lot more exciting. My family has always spent the second day of the New Year visiting our neighbours’ homes. There are five families in this circle of neighbours and over the years, we have become quite organised in giving gifts and visiting each other. The parents usually start coordinating our day’s schedule the night before; planning whose home to grace with their presence first, whose home to get chased out of at the end of the day and what gifts each family should get to trade with each other. They usually choose to start with our home at about 10 a.m. We then start gambling from the second house through to the last, while our parents focus on getting drunk (in later years we drink with them). Games of choice are usually 鋤大D (cho dai di)/ Big Two, Blackjack or In Between depending on numbers. Once they’re drunk enough, our parents usually join us in gambling. Gambling neighbours can get quite competitive and scary during this season. For a lot of us (as kids), money collected during this festive season can grow into a huge sum and to lose it all to someone living across from your home… makes you want to do bad things. We usually keep this up till dinner time while the already drunk parents continue to drink till midnight.

The rest of the week is a lot more subdued as people start going back to work after the third or fourth day. There are a few more days later in the festival that people usually celebrate but I think I’ll leave that for next time. I hope you’ve enjoyed this and I hope I have not bored you with this awfully long post.

This post is brought to you by Pao, who WILL be making a mess at the dinner table tonight and possibly eating her first whole steamed fish for the 2013-2014 period.

14 thoughts on “Tahun Baru Cina from Pao! (Lunar New Year celebration, Day 1)

  1. Penelope says:

    Thank you for such a fascinating and entertaining post, Pao – the absolute opposite of boring! Such a personal account of the many customs and traditions of your home culture. I feel less ignorant now, and closer to you 🙂

    So many opportunities for brattiness… the box-building-firecracker game sounds like fun!

    Yíngchúnjiēfú, with eight swats for extra luck xoxo


    • pao says:

      😀 Thank you Penny, for taking the time to read it! I’m glad you enjoyed it. And yup, much opportunity for brattiness… once I decided it was a very good idea to burn the box-buildings with cleaning alcohol and my dad got REALLY angry. Aha.

      Eight swats! 😦 I’ll wear padded shorts!


  2. catrouble says:

    Wow Pao…thank you so much! I love reading how other people and cultures celebrate different holidays. Also love learning the meaning behind different beliefs.

    Following in Penny’s footsteps…Wànshìrúyì, but with 88 swats for much luck! 😀

    Hugs and Blessings…


    • pao says:

      Yeah, we’re a superstitious lot! Well, at least the older folks are. I had a lot of fun reading up on how other cultures celebrate the Lunar New Year, too 🙂

      Whoa! 88 swats? It’s alright… you don’t have to be so generous, Cat! Or are you passing your swats to me?

      Hugs to you, too! Thank you for reading 🙂


  3. Julie says:

    Such a wonderful post, Pao. Thank you for taking the time to write it. And it was so interesting. I wasn’t bored at all, and I even feel smarter! 🙂

    Now if only I could find a way to collect all of those red envelopes I’ve missed out on!


    • pao says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Julie 🙂 I hope it wasn’t too long a read…

      I could send you all those red envelopes! Just without the money in it 😛


  4. Roz says:

    This was wonderful and so interesting Pao. Fascinating to learn about your customs. The envelopes sound like a lot of fun 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.

    Thank you Ana for hosting 🙂



    • pao says:

      Thank you for reading it, I’m glad you enjoyed reading it! 🙂 Mm hmm, the envelopes were the best things ever during childhood – money in your pocket without having to work for it!


  5. Anastasia Vitsky says:

    Moving sassytwatter’s post here because she commented on the wrong one by mistake. 🙂

    Fantastic post!!! Learned a lot. About 10 years ago we started celebrating it seems like every holiday just as a fun way to invite people over go to a different market & cook together. Every year at some point we do our own little Chinese New Year party and make the noodles fish dumplings and a few other thibgs I can’t wait to share me new knowledge.


    • pao says:

      Ooh, that’s so cool! I met a girl from Canada when I was hiking and she mentioned that they celebrated the Lunar New Year as well! I thought that was pretty cool that she knew about it 🙂 If you’re feeling adventurous you should try making ‘Poon Choy’. There are many recipes for it on the internet 😀


  6. minellesbreath says:

    Pao this was so much fun to read. It really points out how similar we all are no matter where we come from. Love, family and friends is the most wonderful way to celebrate Holidays and life!
    I enjoy reading about other cultures and how celebrations and traditions are kept!


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