Lunar New Year Traditions

by AFP/Mark McCord, Jan 23, 2004 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China / Taiwan

HONG KONG, Jan 22, 2004 - Hongkongers will play mah jong but superstition prevents them from betting their pants on a game, while in Taiwan thousands will risk life and limb to watch a nine-hour fireworks display.

As tradition wrestles with modern tastes in dictating how families mark Chinese New Year, Asia's most important holiday is being celebrated in ways as weird, wonderful and varied as the region itself. At the festival's traditional core is an obligation to spend time with family members.

In China, for millions of people who work hundreds of miles from their hometowns, the holiday is the only time of the year in which many get to see their families. With employment booming in the coastal cities like Shanghai, migrant workers have moved east in droves out of the poor hinterland in search of work. The trend has meant the break up of many families -- including the separation of parents from young children -- who cherish New Year as a time for catching up with loved ones. Changing economic circumstances have also given the fast-growing Chinese middle classes the money to take long, overseas vacations during New Year. The upshot is that the modern New Year in China is marked by huge numbers of people travelling throughout and outside the country, often spending much of their holiday waiting in packed airport lounges, on over-full trains or on groaning buses.

As in all cultures, holidays are times for giving gifts. In China presents are handed to members of the family and usually consist of food or clothes. In Hong Kong, however, gift-giving requires an almost expert understanding of local customs and superstitions. It is taboo, for instance, to give trousers as presents. They are considered lucky and to give away a pair of pants is tantamount to throwing your luck away. The giving of clocks is also a bad thing, as custom says that doing so means you give away time from your life. Shoes are also a no-no. As the dirtiest part of a person's attire they are considered the recipients of their bad luck. Thus to accept shoes as a gift is to accept bad luck.

For ordinary Chinese, the festivals dos and don'ts can get a little confusing. For that and other reasons, many younger Chinese in Hong Kong have decided to skip the traditional new year. "I'm going to go away with my boyfriend for New Year this year," said Sharon Ho, 23, of Hong Kong's Mid-Levels neighbourhood. "It can get too much -- there are 15 days of festival and at the end of it you can feel a little exhausted. It's difficult remembering what you have to do."

Taiwan has managed to keep many traditions alive, one in an unusual and terrifying way. Most people will let off fire-crackers on New Year's Eve -- which falls on Wednesday this year -- to blast out the old year. In Taiwan, however, the fireworks are let off on the 15th and final day of the holiday with a bigger bang than anywhere else. Between 6:00 pm and 3:00 am of that day, city fathers in Yenshui let off hundreds of thousands of crackers in the annual Lantern Festival. Every year tens of thousands of people swarm to the small southern town for the orgy of explosions, and every year there are injuries, either from flying sparks or from the intense noise. The event is so dangerous, in fact, that celebrants are asked to wear helmets, masks, gloves and protective clothing if they want to join in.

Lunar New Year is an ancient festival and, of course, has a timetable that most celebrants all over the world will observe. New Year's Day, for instance, is always marked by a feast, usually consisting of chicken and whatever delicacies can be bought or grown. There is also the giving of gifts to members of the family, and traditionalists and religious families will offer prayers begging for prosperity in the coming year. For married couples, New Year's Day must be spent at the husband's family home. The wife's family will be visited the next day. The seventh day of New Year is considered everybody's birthday and gifts -- usually "lai see" or "lucky money" given in small red envelopes -- are exchanged with friends as well as family.

Many other superstitions prescribe New Year festivities. For good luck, many people wear red clothes and eat lotus seeds, black moss seaweed or bamboo shoots. But there are also a number of unusual taboos. To have one's hair cut during the holiday is considered bad luck, and if children cry on New Year's Day, it is believed they will shed tears for the rest of the year. In many countries, it is also considered improper to eat meat, to ensure the body is purified for the rest of the year. To use knives or scissors is also frowned upon as superstition says it will cut off good fortune.

For Chinese overseas, there are fewer opportunities to indulge in the full festival, but it doesn't stop them from trying.

In Malaysia, where ethnic Chinese make up a quarter of the nation's 25 million population, families celebrate in "open houses" where the festival can be marked with like-minded neighbours. The government has organised a huge open-house celebration for New Year's Day in the southern state of Joho where Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmed Badawi and Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong are expected to join 300,000 people. Even in troubled Afghanistan, Chinese will be able to celebrate: China's embassy has invited all the capital Kabul's 100 Chinese residents to a traditional party. And in Islamic Pakistan's capital Islamabad, the Chinese embassy's spokesman said there would be a chance to glimpse some New Year pageantry. "There are more than 10,000 Chinese living in Pakistan ... we will watch TV from Beijing," said Cai Hongyu.

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