Chinese New Year is one of the most widely celebrated festivals in Malaysia. Come this time of the year, the streets explode in lively splashes of red and gold and cheerful proclamations of “Gong Xi Fa Cai!” abound. For expatriates, this season is an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in the local Chinese culture and traditions. Every decoration and gesture is rich in meaning and lends to the overall message of why this auspicious time is celebrated. To get started, here are 15 Chinese New Year essentials that will help to get you into the festive spirit in Malaysia.
1) Oranges and pineapples
Oranges and pineapples are a staple must-have for any Lunar New Year celebration. Their special status in Chinese culture stems from their pronunciation: the words for orange and pineapple both sound like wealth or prosperity in the Chinese dialect. Pineapple tarts and cookies are also highly in demand during this season.
2) Bamboo baskets
Bamboos are a common motif in traditional Chinese murals, paintings and décor due to their long durability and resilience. They can also be weaved into sturdy baskets that are not only handy for storing fruits and cookies, but make for eye-catching décor. In Malaysia, bamboo baskets are made by skilled weavers and come in different shapes and sizes. They are also sometimes painted in red, black and gold with dragon or calligraphy designs for a more festive look.
3) Red envelopes
In Malaysia, red envelopes are also commonly called ang paos. According to Chinese tradition, red is the colour of good luck and helps to protect a person from evil spirits. This is fortunate because red envelopes usually contain money to be given as a gift, and having an evil spirit take that away certainly wouldn’t do. While there is no minimum or maximum amount of money you can give, red envelopes serve as a token of goodwill and make for an eye-catching gift.
4) Cheongsam & Changshan
If you’re going to celebrate, you might as well dress the part too! Traditional Chinese attire is famous for being simple yet elegant. Mostly made from silk or cotton, cheongsams for women are notably associated with the colour red though other shades are also available. Delicately embroidered patterns like peonies, fish, dragons and phoenixes really make the cheongsam stand out. For the men, try on a changshan – it’ll make you feel like a regal Chinese warrior.
To commemorate the new year, lanterns represent a celebration of light and warmth to guide a person’s fresh start. Lanterns are a popular Chinese New Year decoration all along roadsides and at shopping malls. Many Malaysian towns also host a lantern festival where revellers carry a colourful assortment of lanterns in all shapes and sizes. To add to the festivities, purchase some Chinese lanterns and string them up in the house or around the garden. Lit up at night, they make for a truly beautiful sight.
Part of the fun during Chinese New Year celebrations is witnessing the glorious blaze of fireworks lighting up the night sky or the snap, crackle and pop of firecrackers skittering across the ground. Although the availability of fireworks to the Malaysian public is largely limited due to safety reasons, you can still buy boxes of small novelty bang snaps or ‘pop pop’ firecrackers at the local pasar malam or night market.
7) Money trees
In Chinese culture, money trees are seen as a symbol of affluence and nobility; having one in the house is said to invite fortune to its residents. Regardless of whether it’s true or not, it’s certainly a unique decoration to display. Elaborate money trees made from earthenware can be purchased, or you can make your own money tree at home and decorate the branches with paper cranes (symbolising long life), paper coins (symbolising wealth) and ang pao packets.
Across Asia, long noodles are traditionally perceived as a token of longevity and a staple daily food. There are plenty of noodle varieties to choose from at local markets; in Malaysia, wheat noodles and egg noodles are highly popular. For a delicious Chinese dish, try your hand at our recipe for Crispy Prawns with Chinese Noodle Stir-Fry.
9) Lion dance performances
Lion dances are often the highlight of Chinese New Year celebrations all over the world. Experiencing such a dance firsthand makes for a memorable impression due to the energy and agility of the performers amidst a backdrop of rousing drums and gongs. Check out our list of Chinese New Year events happening around Malaysia to experience the thrill of the lion dance up close and personal.
10) Calligraphy prints
The art of Chinese calligraphy is an ancient and revered practice. Thanks to its precise brush strokes and elegant wording, it’s no wonder that many choose to have Chinese calligraphy prints up on their walls to add a touch of culture and sophistication. Even if you don’t speak Chinese, there are prints for sale with simple yet positive words meaning ‘luck’, ‘prosperity’ and ‘knowledge’ among others.
11) Paper cutting
As Chinese New Year approaches, it’s common to see decorations made from paper adorning windows and doors. Paper cutting or Jian Zhi as a tradition harkens back to China’s Eastern Han Dynasty rule when paper was first invented. Paper cutting is relatively simple and affordable – it’s also a fun art project to do with your kids at home. Simply take a coloured sheet of paper and make symmetrical cut outs of flowers, Chinese letters or dragons to name a few ideas. Then, paste them onto the windows, doors or walls of your home as decorations.
12) Yee sang
Known alternatively as yuu sahng, yusheng or lo hei, this raw fish dish mixed with vegetables is considered one of the all-important highlights of a fulfilling Chinese New Year celebration in Malaysia. The custom is to toss the dish’s ingredients in the air as a group using chopsticks while chanting certain phrases or prosperous wishes. This is believed to add more luck going into the new year.
13) Kumquat or citrus lime trees
In terms of appearance, kumquats look and taste very much like oranges except for their smaller size. Many Chinese proudly display kumquat or citrus lime trees in their house during the Chinese New Year season as they believe that it will bring about good fortune and luck. These plants add a dash of brightness to the home, plus you can get your daily dose of Vitamin C just by plucking a lime and eating it.
14) Dumplings and spring rolls
Technically these are two different items, but we simply couldn’t include one without the other. Chinese foods have a wealth of underlying meanings: dumplings symbolise success, while spring rolls represent affluence due to their resemblance to gold ingot bars. When done right, both make for a truly delicious Chinese cuisine experience, so be sure to sink your teeth into some steaming dumplings and some crunchy spring rolls this season.
15) Chinese knots
Knotting as a form of Chinese folk art has been around for a very long time. Typically, red cords are woven together to create decorative knots representing different facets of traditional Chinese culture. Today though, this art has expanded to include other colours and more contemporary designs. As a decorative piece, Chinese knots are a great handicraft project and serve to brighten up the room.
For more information on Chinese New Year events happening in Malaysia this February, check out our complete Chinese New Year events guide.