The Spring Festival – an insight into the festivities of Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

The Chinese community observes many festivals, some religious and some secular. One of the most important celebrations is the Spring Festival, more commonly known in Penang as Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year.

The Chinese lunar calendar, dating back thousands of years, follows the cycles of the moon. A complete cycle takes 60 years, made up of five cycles of 12 years each (12 Chinese zodiac animals taking turns to govern each year). Unlike the Gregorian calendar, the start of the Chinese lunar calendar can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. Thus, the first day of the new lunar year that marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year celebrations changes each year.

Why is the Chinese New Year also known as the Spring Festival?

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Astrologers describe springtime as a season of renewal, when new life springs forth after the cold and passiveness of winter. Similarly, the Chinese New Year marks a time of fresh beginnings.

Preparations for the festivities

The 20th day of the 12th moon is set aside for the annual house cleaning. Every corner of the house must be swept and cleaned in preparation for the new year. A small bunch of bamboo leaves is tied to a long pole to clear cobwebs at high places. Debts must be paid, hair, cut and coiffed as well as new clothes and shoes, bought.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

An auspicious "chai" or red banner bearing well wishes of wealth and prosperity is hung over the front door. Red paper bearing propitious sounding couplets are hung at entrances, ushering blessings for a brighter year ahead.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

On the 23rd of the last month of the year, the Kitchen God, regarded as the inventor of fire, leaves the house to report to heaven about the family.

Although the household would have done all they could to ensure a favourable report, no chances are taken and the Kitchen God's mouth and lips are sweetened and if need be, sealed with a sweet meat called ti kuih (a homophonic word which means both "auspicious year" and "sticky cake" in Hokkien). With lips sufficiently sugar-coated and safely sealed, he is given a grand send-off, only to return once more on the first day of Chinese New Year.

In many Chinese homes and temples, incense and joss sticks are burned as an offering to the gods as well as a mark of respect to their departed ancestors.

A time for reunion dinners and celebrations

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

It is important that all immediate members of the family be present on the eve of the new year. For those living far away, the journey home would have begun much earlier. The significance of the reunion dinner and excitement of seeing everyone again make such trips back home an event in itself. No matter how tired one may be after the journey, all family members must be present for the annual feast.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Dishes served, needless to say, are not common items served daily! These dishes have auspicious-sounding names, many using grand and expensive ingredients as well. These include abalone, black sea moss (fatt choy), fish, prawns, dried oysters, lettuce, long noodles, lotus seeds, ginkgo nuts, dried bean curd and bamboo shoots. The scrumptious spread is often a luxurious feast. Some families might opt for a steamboat affair.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Must-have snacks include mandarin oranges, roasted pumpkin or melon seeds and peanuts. Feasting on such "auspicious" cuisine is believed to bestow prosperity and plenty of good luck to the family.

To usher in the new year, family members young and old would stay awake, spending time playing card games, mahjong, binge watching their favourite movies, playing fireworks or just while away time indulging in juicy gossip and latest happenings.

Celebrating the first 15 days the new year

On the 1st day of Chinese New Year, celebrants wear new festive attire complete with jewellery and for the aunties, elaborate hair dos. Homage is first paid at the altar to the departed family members. Then prayers of thanks are offered to the gods.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Younger family members will greet their elders with a hearty "Gong Xi Fa Cai" (in Mandarin) or "Keong Hee Huat Cai" (in Hokkien), meaning "congratulations on great prosperity". In return, kids and unmarried members will receive red packets (ang pow) filled with cash from parents, married family members and friends. Feasting continues with a lavish lunch and dinner; in my household, it is an entire day and an unending eating marathon! For those who enjoy dining out, reservations would have been made at their favourite restaurants. Visiting relatives and friends will ensue the next few days, always accompanied with a gift of mandarin oranges.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

The 7th day of Chinese New Year is known as "everybody's birthday". On this day, the Chinese community especially businessmen will feast on "yee sang", a prosperity tossed salad of pickled ginger, finely shredded vegetables, raw fish or seafood, crackers, crushed peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, seasoning and sauces.

This dish is believed to ensure prosperity and good fortune to those who relish it. Diners will mix and toss the ingredients as high as they possibly can with chopsticks, exclaiming good wishes. The higher they can toss these ingredients, the greater the prosperity they will enjoy throughout the year. I love the merriment of the rambunctious excitement and no one at the next table will ever ask you to tone it down.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

The 9th day is an especially significant one for the Hokkien community. Some traditionalists venture as far as to say that for the Hokkiens, the 9th day is even more important than the New Year itself, for it is on this day that the entire Hokkien clan were spared from being massacred.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Preparation begins on the morning of the 8th day for the Hokkiens. They will rush to the market to buy all the essential items needed for the celebration including entire sugar cane stalks, roasted pigs, cooked meats and fruits. At the stroke of midnight, they will give thanks to the Jade Emperor, also known as the God of Heaven. Firecrackers are let off and the night sky is ablaze with sky rockets and fireworks. Businessmen of the Hokkien community take the festival quite seriously – their bountiful offerings are both thanksgiving and votive in nature, all in anticipation of a prosperous year ahead!

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Numerous offerings are set out in the forecourt or central courtyard of homes and temples to celebrate the birthday of the Jade Emperor. If you are in Penang on the eve of the celebrations, head down to the clan jetties in the heart of George Town to join in the festivities and witness a mammoth offering table laden with scrumptious treats for the God of Heaven.

For the Hakkas, eating nine kinds of vegetables on the ninth day is a must.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

The 15th day marks the end of the New Year. For the Hokkiens, the 15th night is also known as Chap Goh Meh. In Penang, the Hokkien community commemorates this day with lion and dragon dances, Chingay and in the past, even a parade where stilt walkers and acrobats move slowly along the busy streets of George Town to the beat of gongs, drums and cymbals. Sometimes, the state would host a live concert at the Esplanade.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

During the golden era of the Babas and Nyonyas, Chap Goh Meh in Penang was celebrated with grand festivities. It is said that in those days, maidens, dressed to the nines in their resplendent Kebayas complete with fine jewellery, would ride along the coastal roads to throw mandarin oranges into the sea, expressing their desire for a good husband. It was held that wishes made on this night were more willingly granted by the heavenly powers. Chap Goh Meh has often been viewed as Valentine's Day by the Babas and Nyonyas as well, an occasion filled with romance.

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Although Dondang Sayang groups still ply the streets of George Town to serenade the Chap Goh Meh revellers, singing their pantuns from illuminated buses or floats; this form of entertainment is rather rare nowadays. Sadly, those who truly appreciate the pantuns and songs are from the older generation and the younger ones are unable to "berbalas pantun" (spontaneously poetry jousting). It is an art form that is fast disappearing.

Beliefs and taboos

During the new year, the Chinese community closely observes certain strong taboos and beliefs, some of which are spiritual in nature. For example, a break is observed on the third day of the fifteen-day long celebration of the New Year. Businesses remain closed and visiting is discouraged on this day, for it is believed that misfortune may befall the family otherwise.

Also, no one is allowed to sweep the floor on the first day of the new year as all the luck and fortune would be swept away! Anyone caught sweeping during this auspicious period would be given a severe tongue lashing.

The rice urn should be cleaned and filled to the brim with a new batch of rice. Alternatively, a packet of uncooked rice sporting a red paper cutting can be displayed. A fresh new ang pow containing money must also be placed underneath the rice. One is also obliged to have a minimum of two or more helpings of food at every meal over the 15 days as it symbolises abundance! There goes my waistline.

Saying nice things to other people first thing in the morning effectively brings goodwill to those you meet. I believe this is a good habit to practise everyday. Wearing new clothes on the 1st day of Chinese New Year brings goodness into your life. Wearing an article of clothing that is red is considered most auspicious. Gamblers often wear red undergarments to boost their winning streak.

As a taboo, all vulgarity and harsh words are prohibited, so as to avoid scandals over the course of the year. Losing one's temper is also a no-no, as it indicates a year full of conflict and continuing bad temper. Remember all of these taboos by heart and enjoy a year of abundance, wealth and prosperity.

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
© All rights reserved
Updated 29 January 2022

PS: In 2021, lockdowns and social distancing were the new normal

Chinese New Year © Adrian Cheah

Although Chinese New Year in 2021 had been very different due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it did not stop many from spending quality time with loved ones, both near and far. Aided by technology, this was made possible with Zoom Meeting and WhatsApp. It was wonderful to be able to see familiar faces and join in an active conversation with love ones, some continents apart. My niece in Australia was even able to partake in a card game hosted in Penang.