For those celebrating Chinese New Year in Singapore, here is a guide on the traditions and practices of the festive season.
In the oriental world, the year has only just begun. We’re currently in Singapore, ringing in the Year of the Rooster with my family and friends.
Chinese New Year is one of the most important festivals of the year here, celebrated in fervor for 15 whole days with a flurry of traditions and cultural practices – such as spring cleaning, reunion dinners and lion dances. Although celebrations may differ in various parts of the world, Lunar New Year is always a time for families to get together, honour deities and ancestors, and ring in the new lunar calendar.
With festive music playing and New Year snacks on sale everywhere, it’s hard not to get into the thick festive mood here in Singapore! It’s a great time to be here – with streets and shops splashed in red, Chinese words of wishes sprawled across hallways and an infectious festive spirit in the air.
Origins of the Chinese New Year
Lunar New Year is celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice, typically between late January and late February each year. The festival is tied to the ancient lunar-solar Chinese calendar, which is also used in places that have been influenced by or have significant Chinese populations, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Lunar New Year is closely tied to the Chinese zodiac, which assigns each year to a different animal on a 12-year cycle. The Chinese zodiac, together with the corresponding animal symbols, was first created between 206 BC to 220 AD. According to Chinese belief, each animal zodiac has its own lucky numbers, days and colours. 2017 is the year of the rooster, and is said to bring good luck to those born in the year of the rooster.
The origins of the Lunar New Year date back to the 14th Century, when a mythical creature, called a Nian, arrived to Peach Blossom village on the first day of the new year to eat livestock, crops and even children. A old wise man advised the villagers to hang red paper and set off firecrackers to scare the Nian away. From then on, the Nian never returned to the village and peace reigned.
Chinese New Year Traditions
Also known as ‘Chun Jie’ (Spring Festival), Chinese New Year is a festival marked by plenty of traditions and festivities. Before the holiday approaches, people commonly practice some form of spring cleaning to rid their homes of “huiqi”, or inauspicious breaths, collected over the previous year. Traditionally, a clean house is meant to appease the Kitchen God, who will descend from heaven for his annual inspection.
Many people also worship their ancestors in ancestral halls and temples, visit tombs of the deceased and place couplets and scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates. Most ethnic Chinese wear new clothes, cut their hair and clear all their debts. In fact, many of the Lunar New Year rituals are meant to welcome the new year with a clean slate, which brings good luck to the household and long life to the family.
Before the arrival of the new year, there are plenty of night markets all over Singapore where you’ll find festive decoration items and snacks like pineapple tarts, bak kwa (Barbequed meat) and love letters. Crowds gather as the mad rush for festive shopping make walking barely possible in these colorful night bazaars.
At the bazaars, it is also not difficult to spot the God of Wealth ‘Cai Shen Yeh’ – dressed in bright red royal robe, and a big black scholar hat, and a gold ingot in hand. Amongst all the immortals, he’s unmistakably the most popular one of all. Most ethnic Chinese pray to him during this festive season for more wealth in the new year.
Chinese New Year Foods
For ethnic Chinese, the reunion dinner on the eve of Lunar New Year is often the biggest and most elaborate meal of the year. The whole family gets together for this special meal, often involving members of various generations.
A reunion dinner usually features long noodles, symbolising long life. A type of black hair-like algae, fa cai, is also found in many dishes as its name sounds similar to “prosperity”. Fish is the last course of the meal, but it is intentionally not finished. The reason for this stems from a Chinese saying, “nian nian you yu” (meaning every year there is leftover), which is a homophone for “being blessed every year”.
On the seventh day of the Lunar New Year, also known as renri or “human day”, we practise the culinary tradition of lo hei, a Cantonese phrase meaning “tossing up good fortune”. Families and friends gather to toss up the ingredients of this raw fish salad, while chanting auspicious well wishes out loud for good luck.
It’s believed the higher the participants toss the ingredients, the greater their fortune will be. The salad is usually made up of white and green radish, carrots, pickled ginger, radish and slices of raw fish (commonly salmon), drenched with a fragrant dressing of plum sauce and five spice powder.
A popular fruit eaten during the festive season besides the Mandarin oranges, is the pomelo (a big green fruit that tastes a little like grapefruit). It symbolizes abundance and prosperity, in Chinese it rhymes with “to have”. The Chinese believe it is important to have at least one pomelo in the house for decoration, or better still, to have a pair, since good things always come in pairs. To use a pomelo to decorate one’s home during the New Year implies a wish that the home will have everything it needs in the coming year.
‘Nian Gao’ (Year cake made of glutinous rice) is an essential for children as it represents growth. In Chinese, ‘Nian’ means year, and ‘Gao’ means tall/high. It thus symbolizes progress and improvement at work.
Another festive food eaten during Chinese New Year is dried watermelon seeds, which are often eaten at the homes of relatives, chatting and catching up. In Chinese, they are called ‘Gua zi’, and signify having a large number of children. Especially for young couples, these are great New Year’s symbol.
On the final (15th) day of the New Year, families gather to make round dumplings shaped like the full moon to symbolise family reunion and perfection.
The Symbol of Red
Most Lunar New Year decorations and traditions centre around the colour red, which symbolises good luck and wards off evil spirits in Chinese and other Asian societies. Most people even dress in bright red. Black, on the other hand, represents bad luck.
During the festive season, married couples often give give hong bao, or “red packets”, to all children as monetary gifts. The red packs usually have a character ‘fu’ (Good Fortune) on them to give blessings to the recipients. Inside the red packs is money, and the amount of money is usually in even digits to signify good luck.
Most people would visit their relatives or friends during Chinese New Year, with a pair of Mandarin Oranges and children would receive red packs as a token of fortune. The Mandarin orange is an auspicious fruit for the Chinese due to their round shape, which represents full circle – like everything in life.
As a child growing up in Singapore, I would collect up to $1,000 Singapore dollars each year from all the red packets gifted by my extended family. It was my favorite time of the year as a child.
Many other New Year products are also representations of blessings, such as pouches with the word ‘man’ (Abundance) that will assure your pockets full and heavy in the coming New Year. Poetic word scrolls are also a hot favourite, used as to decorate the home and bring in good luck.
Typical proverbs like ‘Abundance every year’ or ‘May Prosperity roll in your way’ are written using calligraphy, adding an artistic touch to the scrolls. Fish is also a popular symbol, painted everywhere as the word fish in Chinese rhythms with ‘Abundance’.
During the Lunar New Year, lion dance troupes from Chinese martial art schools often perform the traditional custom of “cai qing“, literally meaning “plucking the greens”. The lion performs a dance like a curious cat, and plucks an auspicious green vegetable, usually lettuce, which is tied to a red packet and hung on a pole. In Mandarin, the word “cai” or vegetable is a homophone for “fortune”, and the dance is believed to bring businesses good fortune.
Do’s & Don’ts on New Year’s Day:
- Greet others with “Gong Xi Fa Cai” which means “Wishing You Prosperity and Wealth”.
- Give two Mandarin oranges to each child. Because happiness comes in two’s, do not just give one. This is your way of passing good luck to the next generation. Business owners also give lee see’s to employees and associates.
- Wear brand new clothes – preferably in red. Children should wear new clothes and new shoes.
- Don’t wash your hair. (I still don’t know why!)
- Don’t sweep the floor, so you won’t be sweeping all your luck away.
- Don’t greet people who are in mourning. Chinese believe that bad and good occasions collide.
- Don’t drop your chopsticks. It’s a bad sign…
- Don’t say the number ‘four’ (In Chinese, it rhythms with ‘death’) or mention death.
Tips for Celebrating Chinese New Year in Singapore
The biggest festive market in Singapore is in Chinatown, which sprawls across several blocks. It starts just outside of the Chinatown MRT station, near Smith Street. Besides festive food, lots of Chinese memorabilia and decoration items are also on sale, which makes it a good shopping spot for souvenirs. On Chinese New Year Eve, there’s also a big countdown party in Chinatown. Refer to this page for more info on celebrations in Chinatown.
River Hongbao, located on the Float at Marina Bay, is a popular spot to see some festive lights and fireworks. The display of lanterns is quite impressive and the music and dance show is just as entertaining. It only starts two days before the Chinese New Year and goes on for a week.
The Chingay parade is another uniquely Singaporean celebration that has grown from being a traditional Chinese New Year procession to being Asia’s largest street parade. The name “Chingay” is a Hokkien phrase that means “the art of costume and masquerade”. Since the first parade in 1973, Chingay has evolved into a diverse festival with global influences, involving 2,000 performers from Singapore and other countries such as Ghana, Brazil and Slovenia. The dates for every year is different, so be sure to check the official Chingay website before your visit.
Most hotels in Singapore are located in the Marina Bay area, but you’ll also find several well-priced hotels in Chinatown. They’re all connected to the rest of the city by MRT (local train) and still within a 5-minute drive from the Marina Bay and Esplanade area.
One of my favourite hotels in Chinatown is The Scarlet Hotel, a cool boutique hotel that’s stylish but affordable, featuring an all black-and-red sensual decor. Another great place to stay in Chinatown is Hotel 1929, a vintage hotel housed in a white heritage building, that gives guests a chance to travel back in time.