Usher in the Year of the Tiger with these traditions hailing from Vietnam to Malaysia.
Chinese New Year is possibly considered the most significant and important festival on the Lunar Calendar. This year, the Year of the Tiger, officially begins on February 1 and so marks many traditions and cultural activities Asian families must adhere to in the lead-up to the big day. Lucky foods must be cooked and eaten, a visit to the temple to honor those no longer with us is mandatory, and cleaning the house is imperative to remove any evil spirits and bad energy for a fresh start to a new year.
With millions of Chinese migrants around the world, the Lunar New Year is not restricted to just the walls of China but has expanded all across Asia. Each country, region, and even sub-regional communities have their own traditions, showing the diversity of the Asian diaspora. My childhood involved a visit to the temple with my aunty and uncle, as well as going shopping with my mom for new clothes, but my friends in Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia have other family traditions I didn’t even know existed, which I love hearing about. Here are a few of my favorite Lunar New Year traditions that you too can incorporate into your new year celebrations.
新年快樂! Happy New Year!
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Eating Pickled Onions
Food plays an important role in the celebrations of the Lunar New Year. In Vietnam, you will find families of multiple generations gathered around a table making chung cake, a traditional cake made with sticky rice, green beans, and pork which is then wrapped up in a bamboo leaf and steamed. A similar dish can be found in other Asian countries, but pickled onions are a surprising addition to the Vietnamese Lunar Year for me. Apparently, in Vietnam, no New Year is complete without house-made pickled onions to help cut the fatty, calorie-rich meals during the celebrations. Since it is also bad luck to cook in the first three days of the new year, pickled vegetables are a favorite pantry item to get families through the first week without having to enter the kitchen.
Sweets and Love Letters
I was lucky enough to have spent one of my New Year celebrations in Singapore a few years ago. Having my friends guide me through a country that loves to eat, I found nothing marks the festival more than cookies and snacks. In Singapore, you can find a whole host of cookies, sweets, and little cakes which are kept in the house for surprise drop-ins from friends. One of the best are “love letters” kueh kapi, flakey and crispy sheets layered like a Chinese egg roll. Children give love letters (like little Valentine’s Day cards) but of the edible variety to friends in the schoolyard.
Tray of Togetherness
WHERE: Hong Kong
Sharing joy and cheer during the Lunar New Year comes in the form of sweets. Given the name “Tray of Togetherness,” friends exchange trays of sweets over the holiday period, with the snacks each having their own auspicious meaning. Candied oranges, sweetened longan fruit, and dried dates are placed on a round tray and shared among loved ones as they say goodbye to the previous year in the lead-up to New Year’s Eve. There are usually eight different varieties of fruit found in a tray with the number 8 being a very lucky number.
Playing Games and Mochi
The Lunar New Year is not just a serious affair with kids cleaning their rooms and visiting temples, but also a time for fun. In Korea, families and friends play games to stay awake on New Year’s Eve with Yut Nori, a board dice game with wooden sticks being the most traditional, meant to encourage a year of socializing with friends and family. Apparently, Yut Nori follows the same old-school technique of fortune-telling. Very appropriate for the new year, indeed! Mochi is also eaten in both Korea and Japan, with the sticky cake loosely resembling that friends and family will stick together in the New Year.
Firecrackers and the Lion Dance
If you have a Chinatown in your home city, be sure to pop through the red gates and witness a noisy but exciting spectacle with firecrackers and masterful dancers disguised as a New Year Lion. Firecrackers are meant to ward off evil spirits with a bang, whereas the lion dance symbolizes happiness, with beating drums also scaring off and banishing the nasty ghost: Nian. Rumor has it Penang, Malaysia, is one of the best places to see fireworks, firecrackers, and lion dances.
One of the dreaded tasks for Chinese kids around the world is spring cleaning. In the literal sense, spring is welcomed with a fresh start and that means no dust on shelves, spotlessly clean bathrooms, and neatly organized rooms to ensure a happy and clean start to the new year. Traditionally, the spring cleaning starts on the 24th day of the last lunar month.
Night Market Reveling
For families who finish their Chinese New Year’s feast early and cannot muster sitting in a small room making small talk with distant relatives, a visit to a night market is a must. In Malaysia, a night market is called Pasar Malam and that’s where you find stalls selling Chinese New Year foods and souvenirs to draw in the new year ahead. For travelers in Southeast Asia, Jonker Street is the place to be, but prepare to rub shoulders with many other locals and travelers too.
Almonds for Longevity
WHERE: Hong Kong
Another snack enjoyed during the Lunar New Year can also be found year-round in Macau, with almond cookies being the unofficial national symbol and ultimate foodie souvenir of Macau. The biscuits/cookies are sweet and crisp but most importantly, auspicious with nuts representing longevity, happiness, and good health. Almonds, in particular, bring on a strong and bright future for all those who eat them so forget your calorie-counting for one day of the year.
Taiwan is notoriously known for its thriving night markets selling the stinkiest tofu you can ever imagine. Not for the fainthearted, New Year celebrations do not call for consuming stinky tofu (thankfully!) but another popular snack is a must-eat item: pineapple cakes. In Taiwan, families and friends share pineapple cakes because in the Taiwanese dialect, the word for pineapple roughly translates to “good fortune is coming.”
Ancestor Worship and a Visit to the Temple
The most important tradition for the Lunar New Year is to visit a temple or prepare an ancestor worship ceremony at home to honor past family members who are not around to celebrate anymore. Families prepare elaborate dishes like fish, chicken, and traditional sticky rice cakes which are brought to the temple to honor ancestors. Families then go home and feast on all these elaborately prepared dishes at home as they count down to midnight.
Bak Wah (Beef Jerky)
WHERE: Singapore and Malaysia
A century-old snack is one of the most popular snacks in both Singapore and Malaysia. Bak Wah, which almost looks and tastes like a sweetened version of your favorite beef jerky, is given to friends and family with the red color of the snack symbolizing prosperity and good fortune.
Red envelopes are the unofficial symbol of the Lunar New Year with parents giving children red envelopes with money inside. The color red symbolizes energy, happiness, and good luck in Chinese cultures, so kids are encouraged to keep the envelopes as well as the money. Envelopes are decorated with beautiful Chinese calligraphy and symbols to bring in extra luck.
No matter where you are around the world, steamboat, or hot pot, is a common cuisine found and eaten in Chinese households. Unfortunately for Southern hemisphere dwellers (Aussies, I hear you!), eating hot pot in 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures is hard to digest, but it is an important tradition that I and many Aussie-Chinese endure! Ingredients cooked in the steamboat are auspicious in meaning and delicious in taste: round fish balls for good fortune and cabbage for growth–how can you not love it?