chinese new year
Photo by Carl Ibale on Unsplash.
The Year of the Rat

How People Around Asia Celebrate the Lunar New Year

Envelopes filled with cash, soups that make you ‘age,’ and housekeeping rules for good luck!
22 January 2020, 11:11am

For most, the Lunar New Year represents a time of celebration, superstition, harmony, and guilt-free gluttony. To others, it’s a week of awkward family reunions, overly expensive meals, and nagging questions about when they plan to settle down. Pó po wants grandchildren, and your biological clock is running out of time.

Although we can all agree that holidays and ang pao’s (red envelopes filled with money) are always welcome, not everyone celebrates the Lunar New Year the way the Chinese do. Many countries in Asia have their own set of traditions and customs.

We spoke to people across the region and found out how their country celebrates and how they plan to welcome the Year of the Metal Rat.

Singapore

Chinese New Year (CNY) is a pretty big deal on an island where three-quarters of the population is Chinese.

The approach to celebrating CNY is similar to Christmas, just replace Winter and Jesus Christ with Spring, gold ingots, and the zodiac animal of the year.

First, the red and gold decorations start creeping up in the malls, then the elaborate street installation of lanterns and lights lands in Chinatown. You get bombarded with CNY promotions from every brand imaginable, and the supermarkets start playing the drum and cymbal-filled music that frustrates humans as much as it scares away ghosts.

People start lining up outside of banks to get newly-issued notes to fill their ang paos, and outside of Singapore Pools to buy their betting slips for the annual New Year and Hongbao Toto Draws (Singaporean lotto with million-dollar prize draws). They also buy cartons of mandarin oranges (a classic CNY symbol for luck and gold), which are essential gifts for house visits during the festive period.

More superstitious or traditional people will do a round of spring cleaning and decorate their homes with fortune-bearing plants like lucky bamboo, orchids, and pussy willow. They’ll also buy new clothes, get a haircut, and get themselves ready to receive all that money that the prospect of a new year brings.

The main focus though, as with every Singaporean festivity, is the food. People place orders far in advance, and many famous stores selling bak kwa (a salty-sweet meat treat) and roasted meats will have hour-long lines.

Photo by Choo Yut Shing via Flickr. CC2.0.

There’s also an obsession with CNY goodies and snacks. The options are endless, but some of the classics are pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit (coconut cream cookies), hae bee hiam roll (spicy dried shrimp rolls), and love letters (crispy wafer pastry). Some families stick with the same tried and tested suppliers, while others experiment with the latest food trends (a la salted egg yolk-flavoured everything).

We can’t play with fireworks here, so we have to settle for sparklers.

My immediate family is relatively small (and half of them are in Sabah), so it’s a relatively calm and muted affair for us. We usually do a steamboat (hot pot) dinner on the eve of CNY, and my mom who’s big on effort usually makes a lou hei (raw fish salad) from scratch, and stews some abalone for days.

I have less and less visiting to do as the years go by and older relatives pass on, but dinner on the first night is with my late maternal grandmother’s side of the family. Our family can’t seem to decide on a particular origin story, and this is reflective in the food, which is an eclectic combination of long-standing family favourites and whatever my grandaunts decided to turn into their signature dishes over time. It’s a mix of Nyonya, Hakka, Cantonese, and Malay cuisine, ranging from crab meatballs, ayam buah keluak (Peranakan chicken dish), ginger wine chicken, fried yam abacus, and beef rendang.

Other than that, I try to crash friends’ houses, pick up a few more ang paos, suss out new snacks (every family has different selections!), win some at friendly mahjong or poker games, then lose it all playing ban-luck (Chinese variation of blackjack).

Photo by benhosg_old via Flickr. CC2.0.

Something weird that we practice is Yu sheng and lo hei. People gather around to toss a $SG188 ($140) salad full of symbolism, half of it ends up on the floor, and nobody actually enjoys eating the rest of it. — Sharon Shum, Asia Content Manager

South Korea

People in both North and South Korea celebrate the Lunar New Year, which we call Seollal (Korean New Year). It is one of South Korea’s most important holidays, which provides a rare time and opportunity for us to go home and reunite with our family. Because of this, there’s usually a mass exodus out of the capital Seoul every year.

South Koreans eat one bowl of “tteokguk” (sliced rice cake soup) during the holidays; eating this means you grow one year older. When we were children, my brothers and I tried to eat more bowls to become adults as soon as possible. Now, we try not to eat it anymore to avoid becoming older.

"Tteokguk" by Xiaolongimnida via Flickr. CC2.0.

We also carry out memorial rites for our ancestors. Women usually cook food and men carry out the rites. Thus, after the holidays, the divorce rate skyrockets and the sales of luxury products soars, because many women feel stressed out.

Another tradition is performing the formal bow sebae to older family members. After sebae, younger family members receive white envelopes with some money.

However, today, more young South Koreans tend to spend Seollal alone. They travel, work, or study during the holiday to take advantage of the free time. Many are also tired of answering questions from older relatives like “What is your future plan?” “When are you going to get a job?” “You should marry/have a baby.” “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” — Junhyup Kwon, Korea Writer

Philippines

Although Filipinos of Chinese descent only make up about 5 percent of the population, CNY is still considered a national holiday. Most Filipinos partake in celebrations by eating Chinese food, consulting feng shui experts, and giving away ang paos. I’m half-Chinese and these are the traditions my family upholds too.

Ang Pao, Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash.

Some more traditional families make it a point to visit the Binondo district in Manila, the oldest Chinatown in the world. Accompanied by a loud banging of drums, they watch dragon and lion dancers move from one house or establishment to another to collect the ang paos hanging on gates and doors. There’s also a fireworks display, which is believed to ward off bad luck and evil spirits.

Like any celebration, there’s also food involved. The most popular delicacy in the Philippines this time of the year is tikoy (year cake), a sticky rice dish usually dipped in egg before frying. It symbolises unity in the family and is gifted to relatives and friends, including those who are not Chinese. Other popular dishes with symbolism include noodles (long life), fish (good fortune), and dumplings (currency/money).

Other traditions include cleaning houses before the New Year and decorating them with plants that symbolise life and renewal. Using a broom during New Year’s Day is like ‘sweeping away’ your wealth. People also pay off their debts for a fresh start and make sure that rice cookers are full, as an empty one is a bad sign for the year ahead. — Lia Savillo, Asia Writer

Indonesia

The public celebration of CNY is fairly new in Indonesia. It was only embraced during the Gus Dur era in the 2000s but has grown so fast and is now huge, especially in Jakarta.

The Indonesian population is 1.2 percent Chinese and back in the day, they were the only ones who celebrated CNY. Now, everyone seems to be celebrating some of the cultural practices, which I think is very cool. Malls are filled with installations, events, performances, and sales.

A lot of my schoolmates in middle school were Chinese so every CNY, there was a big celebration where we sang, danced, and performed in plays.

Mahjong, a traditional Chinese gambling game played during Chinese new Year. Photo by LuiGee999 via Flickr. CC2.0.

For Chinese-Indonesians, there is definitely a feast and a ton of praying to ancestors. One of my friends’ families would drink and gamble with each other using their ang pao money. The concept of ang pao has spread to the general public as well, though I get them during Ramadan. — Omar Prazhari, Digital Socials Producer