The most traditional, important, and longest of all Chinese holidays, the Chinese New Year is celebrated in all countries with a significant population of Chinese. With that being said, some amazing New Year celebrations are found outside of China from New York to Sydney. In fact, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam have even named this holiday as a public one and encourage all to celebrate, no matter what nationality. It is also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival.
Chinese New Year festivals traditionally begin on the first day of the first month according to the Chinese calendar and ends on the 15th day. In 2013, the Chinese New Year (10th of February for the Chinese New Year’s Eve, and the 11th of February for the Chinese New Year’s day itself) ushers in the Year of the Snake (Chinese: 蛇年). In Singapore, only 2 or 3 days are registered to be public holidays. In 2013, the holiday kicks off on Sunday, February 10th and ends on Tuesday, February 12th.
If your travel plans to Southeast Asia coincide with the Chinese New Year celebrations, you will get to enjoy watching parades, fireworks, lion dances, and the colorful decorations that adorn establishments in Chinese communities; however, there might be stores and commercial areas that will be closed for part, or most of the duration of the 15-day Chinese New Year celebration. On the other hand, this period can also be one of the busiest times for restaurants and hotels, so you can expect prices of airline tickets and accommodations to be more expensive during this period.
Chinese New Year Celebrations in Southeast Asia
In Southeast Asia, the biggest Chinese New Year celebrations are experienced in Singapore and in Malaysia (particularly in Penang and Klang), where it is also a public holiday. Chinese New Year celebrations in the other Southeast Asian countries may be in a smaller scale compared to the festivities in Malaysia and Singapore, but these events are just as traditional and colorful especially where the Chinese communities are located.
During this holiday, the streets of Singapore become alive with music, decor, and happiness. Obviously, the district of Chinatown offers the most excitement with dazzling lights and decorations, markets with tasty treats, and fixating entertainment with the holiday kickoff event being the most entertaining. During the Street Light Up (first day of the holiday), lion dancers, fire eaters, dance troops, and many more, astonish spectators with their talents at Kreta Ayer Square.
There are plenty of events and activities happening throughout the city such as, the Chingay Parade and the River Hong Boa. The Chingay Parade is a flamboyant parade with impressive floats, such as an 88 meter dragon, colors, dancers, drummers, etc. It really brings in the New Year spirit. 15 days prior to the Lunar Year, over a quarter of a million spectators head to Marina Bay for the delightful River Longboat. A favorite part of this festival is the spectacle of the bright illuminated lanterns in designs such as the God of Fortune and the Chinese Zodiac.
Chinese New Year is one of the most important festivals celebrated in Malaysia. Private residences, the streets, and commercial establishments are usually decorated with traditional red ornaments that are believed to chase bad spirits away; these decorations and ornaments more prominently seen in areas where Chinese communities have a bigger presence. The 15-day period of the Chinese New Year’s celebrations are filled with spectacular fireworks, dragon and lion dances, and family reunions filled with sumptuous Chinese food spreads that are meant to be shared with loved ones for this festive occasion. Open houses are done during the second or the third day of the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, to encourage even those outside of the Chinese families to partake of the bountiful feasts.
Thailand’s festivities might not be at par to those labeled by the country as ‘public holidays’, but there are several places and activities to experience the celebration. The main cities to head to are Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Puce, Nacho Ratchasima, Songkhla, Suphan Buri, Chon Buri, Ratchaburi, and Nakhon Sawan. In Bangkok, there are loads of cultural performances and fun festivities on and around Yaowarat Road.
Chinese New Year Traditions around Southeast Asia
The color red is used widely during the Chinese New Year celebrations, as it is synonymous to life, wealth, and energy. Red ornaments and decorations can be seen all throughout areas where Chinese communities are located; red clothes and accessories are also widely used during this period. Firecrackers, along with the color red, are used to ward off Nian – believed to be a man-eating beast that brought terror every New Year’s Eve, and is said to be scared of loud noises and the color red.
Lion dances are usually done during the first week of the Chinese New Year festivities in Southeast Asian countries (and other parts of the world as well). The lion is actually a costume worn by a few men, who will dance to the beat of big drums underneath the writhing lion costume; lion dance performances are common in shopping malls, on the streets, and in other commercial establishments partly to provide entertainment to customers, and in part to bring in good luck for the New Year.
Family reunions are a part of the Chinese tradition when it comes to celebrating the Chinese New Year. Get-togethers of relatives from huge clans are common during the festivities, with the first day of the New Year dedicated to honoring the family’s elders. Traditional food items are served during the family reunion meals; these food items include Mandarin oranges, Peking duck, yusheng (Teochew-style raw fish salad), bak kwa (barbecued meat), nian gao (sticky rice pudding), dried oysters, and hair seaweed. Family reunions are made even more exciting with the giving of gifts; the little red envelopes or packets known as ang-poh are filled with new currency notes, and are given to children, single adults, and to the elderly members of the family.
If you can’t make it to China for the Chinese New Year, the larger the Chinese population in your destination is, the closer you will be to the real event in China. No matter what country you are in, it is a great way to understand Chinese culture and traditions, while bringing you luck for the next year.