KUNG HEI FAT CHOI - 2023: Year of the RABBIT
Here is the take home message to keep you safe and orchestrate a lucky and prosperous new lunar year: do not take a shower or wash your hair (don’t think about cutting it for 7 days), sweep only before CNY, then keep even the trash inside for 5 days, think RED (clothing and décor), and try to get bitten by a lion.
With ears still ringing after seeing the spectacular lion dances, our boys (believe they) have become real experts - rhythmically percussing the bath tub and sending all the water flying. Definitely in the CNY spirit! Well, post CNY. Otherwise, it would be considered bad luck to bath at all :)
It all seems to revolve around good luck and money - inviting good Feng Shui. Although it is considered a secular holiday, many of the traditions are based on ancient Chinese Taoist superstitions and a play on words, however with Singapore's very mixed population, the traditional celebration sometimes has to cater for a different crowd.
"So on that day every year, people ate early, locked the livestock gate tightly and then fled into the distant mountains to avoid being eaten."
That said, the CNY vibe is out in full force and the lion dances have been spectacular. Our beloved Chinatown is once again buzzing with people who come to see the annual decorations and queue for the best Dim Sum. Stores are decked with Chinese dragons and lions, under which ardent shoppers carefully select the finest nectarines to bring as gifts to their treasured family celebrations. Businesses come to a halt, and supermarkets even run out of fresh ingredients during the days of celebration. The colour red dominates wherever you look, and people hand out red envelopes to one another. The sound of smashing cymbals and drums gather crowds who rush to see the acrobatic lion dance performances... suddenly I have a million questions!
As always, I love to find the meaning and origins behind the traditions and customs. This year’s festivities have been by far the most extravagant after two very muted years, and with the majority of the Singaporean population Chinese, this festival is BIG.
11 Pointers for CNY - what is TABOO?
1. Clean your windows. The windows reflect your eyes and represent how you see things. With clean windows, you will have clear vision and set the intention to see all the opportunities that come your way during the year.
2. Sweep your floors and throw out all things broken. Sweeping from the inside out signifies getting rid of the old to make room for the new. After sweeping, hide all the brooms in order not to sweep away the good luck. Sweeping and throwing out the garbage is not allowed before the 5th day of the New Year.
3. Introduce a power colour. Once you are done cleaning, introduce the colour red (which is a lucky colour in Chinese culture). Red will invite in lucky and prosperous energy for the new year.
4. Do not shower or wash your hair on Chinese New Year. Showering or washing your hair on New Year’s Day washes away good luck, so be sure to plan for it. Haircutting is forbidden for the first 7 days!
5. Taking medicine should be avoided in order to avoid being sick all year.
6. It is forbidden to use sharp objects like scissors or knives, as this will cut your stream to wealth and success.
7. Do not swear or break things. Use only words with a good connotation. Be a good person and do a good deed a day. This will ensure a smooth year.
8. The menu for the CNY celebration makes for a lot of thought, as every dish represents something. One dish that is particularly important is the fish, and comes with a whole lot of etiquette. Usually carp or catfish are served, representing good luck, good fortune and surplus for the next year. It should be the last dish left on the dinner table with some leftovers – it is considered a good omen for having more money the next year. It is for this reason, that special attention needs to be paid to its position on the dinner table: 1. the head should be placed toward distinguished guests or elders. 2. Other diners can only eat once the one to whom the head faces eat first. 3. The fish may not be moved.
9. In Chinese tradition, white is an unlucky colour because it symbolizes death, so all white foods are out for the celebration. Cauliflower, eggs, rice, white cheeses—say goodbye to them for the night.
10. Pineapples are called “Wong lai” in Cantonese; in various Chinese dialects the vowel of "ong" or "wong" sounds close to the Chinese word that translates to 'Prosperity'. They are thus considered very lucky during the Lunar celebrations, and giving pineapple tarts as gifts symbolizes good fortune.
11. Abalone (or “perlemoen” as many of us Saffas know it) is almost only eaten during CNY - it is expensive. The superstition of it stems from another play on Cantonese words, translating into “definite good fortune” or “guaranteed surplus”.
What is up with all the mandarins?
Supermarkets are stocked with perfect mandarins, wrapped and displayed in elaborate boxes to give as gifts. Clients open the cases, and carefully examine the individual mandarins before deciding on the finest ones.
The Chinese word for mandarin – kam – sounds similar to the word for “gold”. They are therefore considered lucky and symbolize fortune.
Their vivid hues like orange and red are also considered an auspicious colour, and the shape of mandarin oranges alone symbolize good luck – it is an honour to receive one as a gift.
It is said to be good luck to keep a bowl of 9 mandarins or oranges (or lemons) in your home.
Wow. SO Loud!! But beautiful. It is commonly performed during the Lunar New Year and symbolizes good luck, abundance and prosperity. The loud and boisterous clanging noise and rhythmic drums are believed to drive away bad luck and evil spirits.
Within the dance performance, the lions may be fed lettuce - it either waits for them on the ground or is hung from the ceiling, where the acrobatic dancers need to retrieve it.
This symbolic feature originates from another play of words: the word for lettuce, saang choi (生菜) in Cantonese and sheng cai (生菜) in Mandarin, sounds similar to the word for wealth. The dancers then “spit” the lettuce out as a way to shower business owners or the audience with good luck. In some of these performances, the lions may bite people on the head to bring good luck.
Occasionally, the lions leave behind four auspicious numbers, which they pack from mandarin pieces. These numbers can be used for purposes like buying a lottery ticket. Does it work...?
Lai See - giving and receiving of Red Envelopes
1. Hold the red envelope with both hands when giving or receiving a red envelope. Say “kung hei fat choi” to wish a prosperous new year.
2. Follow the big to small or senior to junior rule. Lai see is given by those older and received by those younger - parents give to children, married couples give to younger singles, grandparents to grandchildren. Bosses can give to employees.
3. Be mindful of the amount you give: Do not give in increments of four or an uneven number, as these are considered unlucky. 4 is considered an unlucky number as it sounds like the Chinese word for death. 8 is considered a lucky number.
4. Give only crisp notes, fresh from the bank.
The Legend of the NIAN Monster
In order to understand a lot of the traditions, it is imperative to take a look at the legend of the Nian monster (taken from: https://www.confuciusinstitute.ac.uk/the-legend-of-the-beast-nian-origins-of-chinese-new-year). This legend gave rise to the red CHINESE LANTERNS, the FIRECRACKERS and the use of the colour RED.
Chinese New Year's Day is called Guo Nian (过年) in Chinese, which can mean 'celebrate (a new) year' or 'overcome Nian'. The character 年 (Nián) could mean a 'year' or 'the monster Nian'. The legend is as follows:
“Long, long ago in ancient China, there was a fierce beast called “Nian”. Its head looked like a lion with a sharp horn on it which could be used to attack its prey. It lived at the bottom of the sea most of the time and would go ashore only on the last day of the lunar year to eat people and livestock. So on that day every year, people ate early, locked the livestock gate tightly and then fled into the distant mountains to avoid being eaten.
Then one year, an old man with silver hair came to one of the villagers and promised to drive away the cruel beast. However, all of the villagers were too scared to believe him and still fled before nightfall.
Nian broke into the village as usual and just as it was ready to butcher its prey and devour it, suddenly the sound of firecrackers arose together with bright flares. Nian trembled and dared not step forward. Then the old man stepped forward dressed in red, and this sent the beast into a frenzy. It was terrified and rushed away.
The second day, after the villagers returned and found their houses and livestock safe and sound they realized that the old man was a celestial being who had come to help them. He also told them the three secret “weapons” to drive Nian away – “items that are red in colour”, “bright lights” and “firecrackers”.
From then on, on the last day of the year, people put up red couplets, hung up red lanterns, set off firecrackers, kept the lights on and stayed up late to keep safe from Nian. As time passed, this custom spread to almost every corner of China and thus developed into one of the most important festivals of Chinese people, the Lunar New Year`s Eve.”
I think it is safe to say that I would have been terribly unprepared to host a traditional Chinese New Year Dinner, but I am always grateful to experience cultural traditions first hand.
*Note to self: next year, buy enough eggs before CNY. -