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Exploring chinese customs and traditions

Updated on April 2, 2010

Chinese New Year or commonly called Lunar New Year is the single most important festival in Singapore’s majority Chinese community, in China and around the world.

As a local Chinese Singaporean, I have seen the evolutions of the CNY (Chinese New Year) celebrations over the last three decades unfold before my eyes.

The CNY festival, traditionally, lasts for 15 days, begins on the first day of first moon of the lunar calendar rather than the solar calendar. This is because of the beginning of spring season in China, where long winters has ended and the air has becomes warmer, flowers blossom, plants bear fruits and animal came out to feed. This ‘spring season’ is also known as Spring Festival.

My dad told me another reason why a 15 days celebration is needed, in ancient china, to visit one’s relatives are required to travel long distances by foot or on horses, hence the 15 days are required to complete the journey, just to visit one set of relatives.

God of Fortune
God of Fortune

Chinese New Year Customs

My Chinese heritage has many customs and believes, it’s also has to do with ‘Feng Shiu’, Food, Clothes, Gods, Spirits and Ghosts and many things related to human being, seen or unseen.

I followed most of the customs taught to me as a child. I do believe it has many benefits.

China, where my father migrated from in the 1930’s has many traditions and customs because of the diversity of the ethnic Chinese living in different towns and provinces, different dialect groups, so there bound to have variations to the rules, customs and rituals.

Some are common customs and traditions that have survived till today, remember China has 5000 years of cultural history behind it.

Since I came from a Teochew family, one of a dialect groups in Singapore. I will emphasis more on my Teochew customs and rituals that I follow.

1. The preparations for Chinese New Year’s begin two weeks before; ample time is needed to give ones house a thorough scrub down and a fresh coat of paint. ‘Out with the Old, In with New’ is the tagline. Think ‘NEW’ as in New Year. Getting rid of unwanted old items and rubbish clears the house of bad ‘Qi’ or negative energy thus with a clean house promotes good ‘Qi’ or positive energy and good luck feng shui.

2. DO NOT wash ones hair on the first day of CNY, this will wash away your year of good luck.

3. DO NOT sweep the floor during the first three days; good fortune will be swept away. It’s believed the god of fortune usually pays a visit to your home on the first and second day lest you just sweep him of his feet and offended him.

4. Get a hair cut or hair do before the New Year, think ‘NEW’ as in a ‘New’ you.

5. Luck or been lucky is the most cherished word, e.g Kong Xi Fa Chai, the greeting been used where we meet and greet friends and relatives on the first day of CNY. It literally means ‘congratulation on being lucky’ on the first day of the year. Say it often.

6. Go to pray for Good Luck at a temple if you’re Taoist or a Monastery if you’re Buddhist. The first day of CNY is also the day of welcoming the heavenly gods, a strict vegetarian diet is observed on this day for the respect of heavenly gods and for good karma/luck.

7. DO NOT break anything during the New Year or it will break your luck cycle.

8. Freeing of birds and tortoise is a deed that will cleanse away your sins and your soul becomes ‘NEW’ again.

9. Sharp objects like knives are to put away, lest they slice through your luck cycle.

10. Repay whatever debts you own, resolve grudges if needs to, nobody wants to hear any mentions of ‘OLD’ debts or grudges, very unlucky.

11. Put on new clothes and shoes on the first and second day. Think ‘NEW’ again as in a ‘New’ you. Do not wear black or Dark Navy Blue color, these color are symbols of death and bad luck. Bright color clothes especially red are auspicious known to bring good fortune to the wearer.

12. Mandarin oranges and tangerines are a must to bring when visiting friends and relatives. It’s believed to bring good fortune for the people we are visiting. They are welcome gift offerings for the gods in the temples and ancestor’s altar.

13. Do not say anything inauspicious nor curse and swear to gods or persons, lest bad luck will comes to you.

14. Staying up late to welcome the New Year ensures good blessings and longevity to the young and old. Creating lots of joyous dins with all-night mahjong session will bring good fortune and an excuse to win some red packet money.


Celebrating Chinese New Year
Celebrating Chinese New Year

This story is about Ryan, a young Chinese-American boy from San Francisco. As the chinese new year approches, his family and him gets ready for this all important event is captured on colored pictures and a runnning commentary brought to life the events like shopping for food and flowers, preparing meals and gathering of clan.

This text refers to the Hardcover edition by Hoyt-Goldsmith and Migdale.


The sending away of Kitchen God

The kitchen God is placed near the cooking stove, his duty is to protect the family kitchen from misfortune like fire, remember do not place cooking stove and the kitchen sink beside each other. Because water and fire do not mix, bad for the feng sui also.

A week before CNY, the kitchen god is been offer sweets, preserved sweet winter melon slice, lotus sweet seed and sticky brown cakes wrapped in dried leaves known as “nian gao” during prayer for the send off to heaven. These sweets items are to bribe him into giving a good report about that household being well behaved to the heavenly Jade Emperor.

The sticky “Nian Gao” is to zip up his mouth so that he can’t bad month or report any misdeeds done by the sending household.

Who's naughty and who's nice ?

Decorating the home

Not only is the house given a scrub down and a new coat of paints, decorations are put up to enhance the mood of the festivities. Pussy willows are a must that are placed in the living room. Red packets, gold plastic ingots, symbol of fish are hung on the branches to bring in good luck and abundance.

Pineapples, whose name sound ‘Prosperous’ in Chinese are used as festive ornaments. Like plastic pineapple lanterns. Banners of red and gold, wishing for good fortune, wealth and prosperity deck the halls and doors. Couplets or square paper cutting bearing words like ‘Man-满’ meaning ‘Full’ or ‘Fill to the brink’ are pasted onto the rice bins ensuring continuous supply of gain harvest.

Another must have familiar ornament is the kumquat (Tangerines) plant. The fruits represent wealth and prosperity. They are also seen as gold ingots because of their color resembling bright orange-gold, symbolize “gold in abundance” in the house.

All lights in the house are left on during the eve leading to the first day of CNY and the second day; this is to ensure a bright future for the household and to ward off evil spirits hiding in the nook and crannies of the house.


Food for thought

Food plays an important part of my Chinese heritage, throughout the history of China; there occurred many wars, droughts and famines. So food is scares and harvests are poor. So, many Chinese having plentiful of best food is a must during this festive season to entertain visiting guests and for self consumptions.

On the eve of CNY, foods consist of fruits, tea and chrysthemum flowers are being laid before the ancestral tablets, their spirits which reside in the tablets are invited to part take the food by lighting incenses.

A sumptuous meal for the reunion dinner known as Tuan Yuan is been prepared after the ancestral prayer. This dinner symbolizes the important of kinship; celebrate the ever extending of family members. Sons of the family are expected to return to parental homes, with his wife and children if he is married. Delicacies include roasted duck, steam chicken, flower mushrooms, roast pork, vegetables and stew soup or steamboat.

Longevity noodles boiled in water, rock sugar and hard boil eggs are added. This noodle meal is taken on the seventh day of CNY for a long and sweet life. The noodles are not cut as a symbol of long lives.


Giving out Red Packets

The giving out of red packets privileges are only entitled to any persons who are married.

The red packet known as “Ang Pao” in Teochew otherwise know as (Ya-押) (Sui-岁) (Chueng-钱). Literally means “Forcing your advancing age to slow down, kind of money”. Children and unmarried persons are the receivers.

There are wide varieties of red packets on sales, range from Hello Kitty to Mickey Mouse compared to the past, where only the pink envelop types are used.

The sum of money to put in the red packet must be in 'Even' amount, never use 'Odd' numbers.

Setting off fire crackers

In ancient China, there’s folklore of a monster named “Nian”. The beast used to terrorize villages. However, the villages discovered it was afraid of red color and loud noises.

So, red firecrackers were set off to scare it away. Now it has became a tradition to let off red firecrackers during the Chinese new year celebration.

I got to set off fire crackers back in the 70s before the ban. They came in various designs like tanks, cannons, spyrial. You still can get some fire crackers but only in Malaysia, off course you need to source for it.

Let's get cracking!
Let's get cracking!


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