A Taste of Chinese New Year
As the Chinese calendar is a lunar one, Chinese New Year (CNY) day occurs near the end of January until mid February in the solar calendar. The months of January till February are usually hot and dry months in the western part of Peninsular Malaysia, but 2022 found these two months to be unusually wet. Due to climate change, probably.
CNY is celebrated over the first 15 days of the new lunar year, and is also known as the Spring Festival. In recognition of the Chinese as one of the major races making up multiracial Malaysia, the Government grants the first two days of CNY as public holidays. CNY fell on February 1 this year.
On February 9, members of the Malaysian Culture Group (MCG) were privileged to listen to a talk by Ms Janet Tee Siew Mooi about the legends and practices of CNY in Malaysia. Janet had served in various positions with Muzium Negara before retiring as Director of the National History Museum in Putrajaya in 2015. She is now the Secretary of ICOM Malaysia.
Origin of Chinese New Year and the Legend of Nian
Legend has it that some Chinese villages used to be terrorised by a ferocious beast called Nian (which also means ‘year’ in Chinese) at the end of every year. It destroyed the crops and villagers lost their livelihood. Villagers were unsuccessful in driving it away. After many attempts, the villagers discovered that the Nian was frightened by loud noises, light and the colour red. Hence, CNY is celebrated with fire crackers, noise and widespread use of the colour red in dress, decorations, money gift packets and almost every thing one can think of.
The Winter Solstice Festival or Dong Zhi
The run up to CNY begins with the Winter Solstice Festival which falls on December 22 each year. This is the shortest day in the year and marks the end of the year. It is one of the few festivals celebrated according to the solar calendar. It used to be considered as important as CNY itself. Besides performing the normal ancestral worship, the Chinese would also make little multi-coloured balls of rice flour boiled in palm sugar for the family to eat. Children would be considered as being one year older after this date.
Days prior to CNY, the house would receive a thorough cleaning. Bamboo leaves were tied to long poles to sweep away cobwebs. New curtains and cushion covers would make an appearance, and old receptacles on the ancestral altar would be replaced. In modern times, the vacuum cleaner has replaced the bamboo leaves and broom.
New Year Decorations
Red is considered an auspicious colour. It is the colour that dominates all the decorations. Red lanterns would be hung up at the front of the house. Poetic couplets conveying good wishes written on red paper would be plastered at the doorway to the house. Other intricate red paper cut outs would be pasted over walls and windows.
Before the arrival of the digital age, well wishers would buy beautifully printed CNY cards to send to their Chinese friends and relatives. This practice has mostly been replaced by digital cards now.
New Year Shopping
Weeks before the big day, families would stock up on traditional goodies like Chinese sausages, waxed duck, barbecued pork (bak kwa) for themselves or as gifts to friends and relatives. Families would also buy new clothes and shoes and would also get a new haircut or hairdo. All these new things signify a new beginning for the individual.
The Reunion Dinner
The reunion dinner on CNY eve is a very important occasion for Chinese families to get together. Traditionally, family members would cook the meal together, but in modern times some would prefer to have the reunion dinner in a restaurant instead for convenience. The meal would usually consist of items like fish, prawns, abalone, lotus root and hair moss because their names when spoken sound like words with auspicious meanings.
The First Day of CNY
Traditionally, children were required to serve tea to their elders as a show of respect, and they would be given little red packets of cash or ang pow in return. Adults were eligible to receive ang pow as long as they were single. In modern times, however, the tea ceremony is seldom practised. Relatives also visit each other on this day. The common greeting would be Gong Xi Fa Cai (prosperous new year) or Xin Nian Kwai Le (happy new year).
As part of the merriment, some families would invite lion dance troupes to perform, and let off fire crackers too (which is illegal to do so in Malaysia).
Taoist families would also pray to deities and departed relatives at temples and ancestral halls on this day.
Other Significant Days of CNY
The CNY season is spread over the first fifteen days of the year. On the second day, married daughters normally visit their own parents because the reunion dinner and the first day of CNY are spent with their husbands’ family. This day also marks the beginning of the new year.
For Taoists, the fourth day is the day when the Kitchen God descends back to earth after having ascended to the heavens a week before CNY to report to the Jade Emperor about the doings of the family he resided with throughout the last year. His return is celebrated as it is hoped that he brings back prosperity to the household. The fourth day also marks the day for return to work for most Chinese businesses after the celebrations.
The seventh day is known as ‘humanity’s birthday’, or everyone’s birthday. For this celebration, there’s a special salad dish eaten only in Malaysia. It was created by a local Chinese using a mix of finely cut salad vegetables, crackers, pieces of raw fish (usually salmon), ground peanuts and a sweet sauce. Guests at the table would mix the concoction with chopsticks and toss it as high as possible whilst shouting lo hei, or lo sang, symbolically wishing for prosperity and good fortune. Nowadays, this special dish, known as yee sang (literally raw fish), is available throughout the fifteen days of CNY, and not just from the seventh day.
Observed mainly by the Hokkiens, the ninth day of CNY, known as Bai Ti Kong (praying to the emperor of heaven) day is a great occasion, considered even more important than CNY day. According to legend, the Hokkiens were once attacked by marauding bandits and ran to hide in sugar cane plantations. It was already the ninth day of CNY when they came out of hiding. They were grateful to the emperor of heaven and to the sugar canes that protected them. Thus, the Hokkiens celebrate this day with prayers of thanksgiving and offerings of food and incense . In addition, a pair of sugar cane would be placed on either side of the altar to mark their gratitude to the plant for providing them shelter. The prayers are usually offered on the eve of the ninth day of CNY.
The fifteenth day marks the end of the CNY celebrations. The Hokkiens call it Chap Goh Mei (Hokkien words meaning the fifteenth day). It is also known as Lantern Festival and Chinese Valentine’s Day. On this day, unmarried men and ladies were allowed to mingle in their attempt to find a life partner. In Penang, the day is also celebrated with a parade known as chingay on the streets, where performers dress up in costumes and walk on stilts. In the night, young people would gather by the beach for an event where young ladies would toss Mandarin oranges written with their names and telephone numbers into the sea, with the hope that some brave young men would pick them up, and contact the ladies for a date which might later lead to wedding bells.
Some Other Traditions
Red lanterns - to signify the embracement of fortune and reunion in its endless cycle, lighting the path for the gods and goddesses to one’s household
Fire crackers - explosive sounds to scare away the Nian, symbolic of getting rid of the old and welcoming the new
Open house - common in Malaysia to foster goodwill among different segments of people. Visitors and well-wishers do not need an invitation to attend; often organised by VIPs, political organisations and companies. Also practised for festivals of different races.
Food and fruits - seasonal fruits like mandarin oranges valued for its gold colour, certain sweet cakes like nian gao (kuih bakul in Malay), steamed rice cakes (fa gao) and pineapple tarts, whose names in Chinese sound auspicious.
Plants and flowers such as bamboo, pussy willow, chrysanthemums, etc which have symbolic attributes attached to them.
Taboos and superstitions - not sweeping the house for one or two days, which is symbolic of sweeping away one’s good luck; not buying books because the word for books sound the same as the word for losing; not wearing colours of mourning.
During the Q & A session, webinar participants also exchanged views with Janet about some different practices in celebrating CNY among their families. The session ended with a big thank you to Janet for a very interesting talk.
|Review by Lam Lai Meng|