No sooner is Christmas over in Kuala Lumpur than preparations start for Chinese New Year (CNY), arguably the city’s most important festival. Also known as Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, it marks the start of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. Rotating cycles are used to name the year after an element and an animal — the next one, which starts on January 23, 2012, being the Year of the Water Dragon.
The festival officially lasts for 15 days, with different traditions ascribed to each day, although only the first two days are public holidays in Malaysia. Signs appear everywhere with new year greetings in a variety of languages (and spellings), including gong hei fat choy in Cantonese; gong xi fa cai in Mandarin; and selamat tahun baru Cina in Malay.
According to Chinese legend, villagers who were terrorised by a mythical creature called Nian the first day of every year found they could scare off the beast with the colour red and loud sounds. This is why everything, from greeting cards to home decorations, is red at this time of year, and why firecrackers play such a big part in the celebrations.
Many of the most important customs associated with the festival are carried out at home, such as a thorough spring clean (to brush away bad luck); the traditional New Year’s Eve family dinner; making offerings to ancestors; and giving ang pows (red envelopes with cash inside, also known as lai see), to kids and younger unmarried relatives.
Some events are more public though, such as the frenzy of clothes shopping in the run-up to the festival (part of making a fresh start to the year); lighting incense candles at Chinese temples; firework displays; lion and dragon dances; and “open house” parties for relatives, friends and workmates.
Although the festival is celebrated in much the same way around the world, certain aspects are peculiar to Malaysia and Singapore. The eating of yusheng/yee sang (raw fish salad) is one such custom. The word for fish, yu, sounds like “surplus”, one of the many play-on-words that are a feature of the festival. Other foods are eaten because they symbolise something auspicious, like noodles and long life.
In terms of numbers, KL’s ethnic Chinese community is only slightly smaller than its Malay counterpart. Many of these people do not come from KL originally though, meaning they have to go back to their home towns at new year, to be with their families.
This process, known as balik kampung (return to village), is not restricted to Chinese Malaysians. Many Malays and Indians take advantage of the holidays to visit their home towns too. All this means travelling in Malaysia around CNY is highly inadvisable, particularly on the traffic-clogged roads. Public transport needs to be booked as far in advance as possible.
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 26th February, 2015.