There are several versions regarding the origins of Chinese Lunar New Year. In my view the most reliable one is that it was first celebrated in the Zhou Dynasty (1050-221 BCE) to give thanks to the passing of a peaceful year and to welcome the beginning of a new one. It has, through the passage of time, become the most important festival in China and is still keenly observed by people of Chinese descent everywhere.
In this vast land of China, its new year customs would, inevitably, vary from region to region because of its geographic, demographic, linguistic and ethnic diversity. However, the common thread shared by all is the coming together of one’s family members in joy and harmony to celebrate this auspicious occasion.
My first vivid memories of it go back to the post WWII years of the 1940s in my native Singapore. I came from a traditional and close-knit four-generation family comprising my great grandmother, grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters and cousins, all living under the same roof in a large bungalow. Preparations for the Lunar New Year would begin early in those leisurely times, about one month before its arrival. Under the watchful eyes of my grandmother, the womenfolk would cheerfully go through the time consuming process of making a wide range of traditional new year goodies, including the ubiquitous nian gao and an assortment of other cakes and biscuits, with the help of the domestic maids.
Custom dictates that new clothes, of bright and auspicious colours, shoes and other finery’s would have to be bought and every one must have a new haircut or hair perm in preparation for the new year. As the big day draws near, a thorough house-cleaning would be carried out, and useless old things would be ferreted out and discarded and replaced by new items. These ritualistic practices were symbolic and underlined one’s wish that the dawn of a new year would bring with it renewed hopes and prosperity.
The doors, windows, living room and other prominent parts of the house would be adorned with suitable ornamental objects, including wall hangings, paper-cuts with the word fu (happiness) on it. A long red banner would be be hung above the main entrance to the house so that good fortunes would flow into the house. Relatives, friends and business associates would personally deliver new year gifts, such as live poultry, sausages, waxed ducks and new year tidbits and cakes. These gifts would of course be reciprocated by designated members of my household.
A week before the new year, there would be a ceremonious sending-off for the kitchen god, who was supposed to return to heaven each year to report to the supreme deity on the conduct and affairs of family members. We hoped, of course, that he would report favourably on us!
By new year’s eve, the spring couplets, on which were written auspicious words of felicitations, and decorative red lanterns would be in place throughout the prominent parts of the house. They helped to provide a festive air and we were then ready to usher in the new year, which is always named after one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, such as Year of the Rat, and these would rotate once in every dozen years.
The Reunion Dinner, eaten on new year’s eve, was de rigueur; with all members of the extended family gathering together for the most significant meal of the year. Even those away would make every effort to be home in time for it. The unconcealed grief and frustrations of millions of Chinese workers who were unable to go home for this mandatory dinner this year due to severe inclement weather in China is a poignant case in point. This meal underscores the supreme importance of the family in Chinese culture; it serves to strengthen the sense of family togetherness and cohesion.
At a time designated by the Chinese almanac, the wealth god would be reverently welcomed into our household in order to shower good fortunes upon us in the coming year. At the stroke of midnight, strings of firecrackers would be let off by the adults with ear-shattering noise to formally welcome in the new year. Sleep would definitely elude us children on this night of heightened excitement, as we were thrilled with the intermittent symphony of firecracker firing throughout the length and breadth of our neighbourhood and beyond.
On the morning of the big day, every one of us would be up especially early, including the children who invariably had to be roused from bed because of inadequate sleep the night before. Vegetarian meals would be served throughout the day in keeping with Buddhist and family traditions handed down from one generation to another. Only pleasant words and greetings would be uttered throughout the day, for fear that bad luck would otherwise befall the household. The sweeping of floors was absolutely prohibited, lest the family wealth be swept away! One should also not break household objects as part of the new year dos and don’ts.
Led by my grandfather, the family would burn joss sticks and pay respects to our ancestors at the family altar in the main hall. We would seek their blessings for the year ahead. A seemingly endless stream of visitors would call on us out of respect for my grandparents because of their age and standing within the Lam clan, and my grandfather’s good relationships with his business colleagues and friends. Visiting one’s elders was an obligatory part of the new year celebrations and strictly observed. It was also a time to renew ties with one’s relatives, friends and business associates. The children, of course, looked forward to their hong bao (red packet) from visitors, which contains money inside and the more the merrier. We children would sometimes forget our manners by opening it in front of our elders and embarrassed guests, and would later be punished for our lapses. A lion dance troupe would be in attendance, courtesy of a clan association as my grandfather had been its long-standing patron and had been giving financial support to its activities on a regular basis. Every one present enjoyed the skillful and entertaining performance put up by the lion dancers.
On the second day of the new year, some family members, with the children in tow, would make the expected reciprocal visits to some of those who had called on us on the preceding day, again in keeping with custom. Visiting on the third day was taboo, as it would bring bad luck to both parties. The celebrations would continue unabated until the 15th day, called yuan xiao jie (Lantern Festival), with more feasting and rejoicing. With this finale, the Lunar New Year would officially come to an end.
How is the New Year celebrated today? Not surprisingly, rapid economic growth and westernisation of Singapore have left their impact on this most Chinese of festivals. Also, with newly-acquired wealth, Singaporeans have taken to overseas travels like fish to water. More and more of them now choose to spend the lunar New Year holidays away from home, taking advantage of the longer holiday break.
Another phenomenon is the commercialisation of the Reunion Dinner. It is commonplace nowadays for families to have it in a posh restaurant at highly inflated cost. They find it more relaxing and convenient to eat out on this special occasion compared with the burden of having to prepare an elaborate meal at home.
Increasingly, the traditional new year visits to relatives and friends are regarded by many as an anachronistic ritual. They would rather go away on holiday or watch television at home. Some Singaporeans would even take the drastic step of booking into a local hotel, in order to avoid participating in what they consider an irksome annual farce.
Firing crackers has been banned in Singapore since the 1970s, after a series of fires caused by indiscriminate firings, which had resulted in the unnecessary loss of lives. While the absence of cracker firing has somewhat reduced the vibrant festival atmosphere, those of us, who have had direct experience of the havoc and tragedies caused by it, would readily applaud the government’s courageous and far-sighted action in banning it before more harm was done.
Another change is that most Singaporeans nowadays buy their new year goodies from the supermarkets or grocery stores, and, for those who can afford it, from upmarket restaurants and hotels out of expediency. Happily, some tradition-conscious people would still prefer to make them at home.
Conventional new year decorations and ornaments, such as the spring couplets and wall hangings, are now being mass produced in factories, instead of being fashioned individually by skilled craftsmen as in the past. They have lost much of their original charm and appeal.
In short, there has been a noticeable dilution or even disregard of the age-old Lunar New Year traditions and customs, especially by the younger generation, which are seen by them to be out of step with modern living. The Singapore Government and the Federation of Chinese Clan Associations have been making consistent efforts to revive the core new year traditions as part of Singaporean Chinese’s heritage through high profile publicity and activities such as the Hongbao Festival and Chinese Cultural Month. In addition, individual clan associations also help in organising group new year parties for clan members during the festive season in place of individual visits to each other’s homes to suit their convenience and preference.
The writer had discussed with several Singaporean Chinese of different ages and backgrounds on their perceptions of these changing trends. Their views may reflect the viewpoints of other Singaporean Chinese at large.
Is it un-Chinese to be away on holiday during the New Year?
All except one disapproved of this. They said that such an absence would undermine the essence of Chinese New Year, which is to reinforce family ties, and promote amity with one’s relatives and friends. Some considered the Reunion Dinner and visiting one’s elders as core values, without which the New Year would lose its tradition and significance.
Does it matter whether the Reunion Dinner is held in a restaurant instead of at home?
Most agreed that the venue is not all important as long as “the purpose and basic values of the occasion are retained.” There are also practical constraints, such as time, space and preparation needed for a sumptuous meal. Having it in a restaurant is therefore more enjoyable and less burdensome for some families. The dissenting view was that a restaurant could not create the right atmosphere and interaction for such an important occasion. It would introduce too much commercialism. “One way to overcome the problem is for family members to take turns to host the Reunion Dinner and for others to contribute their share of food in order to minimise the burden of preparation,” he suggested.
Are New Year visits to elders and friends a meaningless ritual not worthy of retention?
Opinion was divided on this. Some considered these visits as an integral component and a time to show one’s respect and concern to elders whom we might not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. The contrary view was that one could always pay one’s respects to relatives and friends anytime during the year and not necessarily only during the New Year. On the observance of New Year traditions, the consensus was that some, such as not sweeping the floor or avoiding visiting on the third day, no longer struck a chord with younger Singaporeans. These practices would eventually disappear when the older generation, mainly dialect-speaking, faded from the scene. The majority, however, were confident that Chinese New Year would continue to be important to Singaporean Chinese, albeit in a form that would reflect the changing circumstances in Singapore.
Will Chinese New Year, with its traditional values, survive modern living and competing influences in Singapore? If it does, would it be so tainted with commercialism that it loses its raison d‘etre? I share the majority views expressed above and I believe that as long as the majority of Singaporean Chinese accept it as a desirable part of their life, which I think they do, it will continue to flourish here, even though the modes of celebrating it may differ from the traditional way.
My optimism is supported by the fact that wherever there is a size-able Chinese community in any part of the globe, be it in San Francisco, Toronto, Yokohama, Seoul, London, Paris, Moscow, Peru, Mumbai and Manila, the new year traditions are very much alive despite the very different cultural and social environments there. What is heartening is that even the natives of these places would enthusiastically join in the celebrations and accept the Lunar New Year as a welcomed feature of their community life. In some of these cities, the mayor would officially launch the celebrations personally.
What I hope will be retained are family and kinship ties and attendant values such as respect for one’s parents and elders. Without these, the quintessence of Chinese New Year will be reduced to a soulless commercial festival. To make it more relevant to the younger generation, it must be experienced not only as a time of obligation, but also as a time of great rejoicing and celebration like Christmas has become to even non Christian Singaporeans.
The government and Chinese clan associations have done much in recent years to generate greater awareness of family bonding as an essential part of Singaporean Chinese’s cultural heritage. Their efforts are commendable and worthy of support. However, when the chips are down, it is the individual Singaporean Chinese family that will ultimately determine whether the core values, encapsulated in the Chinese New Year, are worth preserving.
If they are for their preservation, then it is imperative that they must by example and action strive to uphold these values against the corrosive influences constantly chipping away at their foundation.
Lam Pin Foo