Red and gold are the colours of choice for this celebration and are often associated with wealth, prosperity, good luck and joyous occasions based on the Chinese legend of Nian, a fearsome monster who came down from the mountains to terrorise and kill people at the end of the year.
Villagers discovered that the colour red, loud noises and bright lights would scare the creature off and the people could flourish without the threat of the monster. As such, red is featured prominently in Chinese New Year decorations and fireworks set off to frighten off Nian.
Chinese New Year celebrations last fifteen days, beginning on the night of a new moon and ending with a night of full moon.
Before the New Year
In the days preceding the Chinese New Year, a thorough cleaning is done to homes in the belief that to sweep away the dirt is to sweep away bad fortune, making room for better fortune in the coming New Year.
No cleaning is to be done during the first four days of the New Year as one might wash away the good luck for the year ahead. In the same vein, new clothes and shoes are bought and fresh haircuts received to symbolise new beginnings. A red cloth hung above the main entrances of homes and offices is a common sight around this period, believed to ward off evil spirits that might bring ill luck.
Nian gao, a cake made from glutinous rice is popular during this period. Its name is a homonym for “higher year” and eating the sticky sweet food symbolises raising oneself higher each year.
Families also offer nian gao to the Kitchen God, the Chinese deity who watches over a family household and reports to the Jade Emperor each year, in hopes he brings “sweet words” (a favorable account) of the household in his report.
CNY Eve - Should old acquaintance be forgot…
The eve of the New Year is typically the most important event for many. Families gather for a reunion dinner where each of the dishes has their own meaning such as abalone, “surety of abundance” because of its Chinese name bao (assurance) yu (surplus), a black algae-like moss called fat choy in Cantonese which sounds like prosperity, oysters or ho si in Cantonese which means “fortunate situation” and shitake mushrooms known as dong gu which goes with an old Chinese idiom, “dong cheng xi jiu” which means “wishes fulfilled from the east”.
Come nightfall, many maintain a vigil, usually by gambling into the New Year believed to extend parents’ lifespan and taking care to leave the lights on throughout the night to hail a bright future ahead.
Day 1 - New beginnings
The New Year day is the most festive with some families inviting lion dance troupes to usher in the New Year and expel bad spirits from their homes. Lion dancers perform martial art like moves in an intricately ornamented Chinese lion’s costume accompanied by a percussion of drums, cymbals and gongs.
Typically, youngsters receive scarlet envelopes known as ang pao/hong bao containing money (in even numbered amounts as odd amounts are made for offerings during funerals) from older married relatives while adults also do the same for their elderly parents as yasui qian (money to ward off evil spirits) believed to protect the old from sickness and death. Mandarin oranges are a common gift, a symbol of wealth because of its name, which means gold in Chinese.
Day 2 Every dog has his day
The second day is generally when married women visit their maiden homes as wives are considered to be members of the husband’s family, so most celebrations are typically observed in the patriarch’s household.
Chinese folklore regard this day as the birthday of dogs as it is said that on the second day after the creation of the world, dogs were created by Nuwa, a goddess of creation. Therefore, many take care to treat dogs extra well on this day.
Day 3 and 4 - Seeing red
The third day is also known as chi kou which directly translates to “red mouth” and the day of the God of Blazing Wrath bringing omens of bad luck. Visitations and socialising are usually avoided on this day and the following because of predispositions for tempers flaring.
Day 5 - Money talks
Regarded as the birthday of the God of Wealth, businesses take special care in observing customary traditions on this day, such as lighting up firecrackers to gain the favour and attention of the deity.
Cai Shen as he is popularly known here was a Chinese folk hero who was later venerated as a deity who oversaw the fortunes and wealth of mortals. He is often portrayed riding atop a black tiger, the creature he once rode into battle and wielding a golden rod.
Sweeping is no longer considered bad luck on this day, which is just as well if establishments wish for patronage.
Day 6 - Wishful thinking
Temple visits are made on this day to seek good fortune in the year ahead. Businesses pray for a healthy bottom line, parents pray for academic achievement for their children and a happy home while children pray for their parent’s longevity and their little heart’s desires.
Day 7 - For he’s a jolly good fellow
Traditionally known as the common man’s birthday, the story was that Nuwa, a creator deity who existed in the beginning of the world felt alone, so she began the creation of animal and man. On the seventh day after the creation of the world, she created men whom she sculpted out of yellow clay and brought to life.
Malaysians celebrate this day by eating yee sang, a salad dish with raw fish, crunchy shredded fresh and pickled vegetables and an assortment of flavourful condiments. Everyone partakes in mixing the dish by tossing the ingredients together; pulling upwards and shouting “lo hei” to symbolise one’s moving upwards and achieving greater things in life. To toss higher is to rise and achieve greater things.
Day 8 - By the Gods!
Preparations for prayers are made on this day for the giving of thanks to the Jade Emperor, the Chief deity in the Taoist pantheon. Homes prepare their own altars or join in on a communal one. According to Chinese folk culture, the benevolent figure is the monarch of all Chinese deities and the ruler of Heaven and the mortal realms. The Jade Emperor is also known by other names, most popular in Malaysia as Thee Kong (in Hokkien) or Tian Gong (in Mandarin).
Day 9 - Long live the King
The ninth day is the birthday of the Jade Emperor. The Hokkiens celebrate this occasion by giving offerings of tea, smoky incense, fresh fruits, succulent roast pork and poultry, sweet cakes and sugarcane, a particularly important item in this ritual is given in thanks to the Jade Emperor.
In Fujian, the region where the Hokkien community in Malaysia hails from, it is said that the Hokkien people there once survived surety of death from invading armies by hiding in fields of sugarcane, living off the bamboo-like plant.
As thanks for their salvation, the Jade Emperor is given worship on the ninth day of the Lunar New Year with a stick of sugarcane placed on each side of the offering table, symbolising unity and strength amongst the community.
Day 10 to Day 12 - Waste not, want not
Food from Jade Emperor ceremonies are enjoyed throughout these three days with friends and family. Savoury dishes such as crispy roast pork and poultry coupled with an assortment of fruit with sweet Chinese cakes like ang koo (red glutinous rice cakes), huat kuih (pink prosperity cakes) and bit chien (skewered sweets) are commonplace items on the menu.
Day 13 - The art of war
Corporate honchos and businesspeople take heed. This day is dedicated to the General Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War. Guan Yu was an important figure in Chinese history during the Three Kingdoms period.
He is widely regarded as a symbol of loyalty and righteousness and blesses those who honor the code of brotherhood.
Depicted as a formidable looking man in painted red face, a thick, black beard and garbed in green armor he is worshiped by people who seek to emulate his numerous victories on the battlefield in the business world and to wish for loyalty from business partners and connections.
Day 14 - The beginning of the end
Preparations for the last night of the New Year are underway for the Chingay parade a fixture of celebrations on the last night of the Lunar New Year.
The parade’s lineup typically includes colourful displays of daring feats of pole balancing on heads and chins, performances of litheness by stilt walkers and a show of acrobatics and martial artistry by lion and dragon dances.
Chingay, a term coined phonetically from Hokkien which means “the art of costume and masquerade”, began as a celebration to welcome the spring during the New Year season but has developed over the years into a Mardi Gras like event of South East Asia.
Day 15 - All good things must come to an end
Typically known by its Hokkien name Chap Goh Mei (fifteenth night), the festival that marks the end of the fifteen day long festivities is also known as the Chinese Valentine’s day in Malaysia. The Chinese women of Penang celebrate by throwing mandarin oranges into the sea in the hope that potential suitors will pick up one of the floating oranges.
The fate of the possible relationship will then be judged based on the taste of the orange. Sweet representing a good fate, sour representing a bad one. Some may also celebrate the last night as the Lantern Festival (not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival which also features lanterns prominently), a night when ornate lanterns illuminate the evening in a bath of warm glows.
After the fifteen days
While the New Year has officially ended, festivities continue for a few more weeks or so with open houses springing up across the country. Usually organised by ministers and other big names in the country, open invitations are extended to the public for a gathering of Malaysians from all walks of life to enjoy an array of local delicacies.