Chinese New Year is this weekend and where I’m from, it’s a major festival. Every one joins in the celebrations in one way or another, and you don’t even have to be Chinese to enjoy the festive occasion. Here’s what happens in my neck of the woods when Chinese New Year rolls around.
#1. We get a holiday – Though Chinese New Year falls on a Saturday this year, the entire country is granted a holiday the following Monday which means it’ll be a 3-day weekend for me!
#2. Stalls selling Mandarin oranges pop up – It’s customary to give out Mandarin oranges to colleagues at work and to folks who visit your house during Chinese New Year. These oranges are typically sold at supermarkets and roadside stalls which pop up specifically for this festival. There are often multiple stalls along the same stretch of road, all of which peddle these oranges and all of them would be able to turn a profit.
#3. Lion/ Dragon dancers are every where – They’re in shopping malls, in the back of trucks on the streets en route to their next gig and even at your local watering hole. You know Chinese New Year is fast approaching when these dancers with their white t-shirts and colourful pants that supposedly mimic a lion’s/ dragon’s legs show up almost every where.
#4. Streets in the city centre are exceptionally clear – This is one of my favourite things about Chinese New Year. Traffic jams in the city has gotten from bad to worse and it’s only when folks leave the city for their hometowns that I’m willing to drive into the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
#5. Highways leaving the city centre turn into parking lots (almost) – During Chinese New Year (and all other major holidays), commuters returning to their hometowns pack the highways. A regular 2-hour trip home can turn into a 5 hour journey from hell! The congestion is so bad that one year, authorities issued a Travel Time Advisory which recommended times to get on the road depending on where you’re heading.
#6. Retail stores and banks give out (almost) free ang pow packets – Giving ang pows (red envelopes stuffed with money) is a key activity during Chinese New Year. Well, other than eating, drinking and playing mahjong. In recent years, shopping malls and banks stock ang pow packets for their customers and these are where folks tend to get them from. The packets aren’t entirely free if you intend to get them from shopping malls though. Shoppers would need to spend a pre-determined amount before redemption of the ang pow packets are allowed.
#7. Folks exchange their old bank notes for new ones – It’s traditional to use crisp, new notes when handing out ang pows. Hence, the long lines at the banks before Chinese New Year as folks come in with stacks of old bills to exchange for new ones. Apparently every year, the central bank has to print an additional 500 million pieces of the smaller denomination banknotes to meet the demand for new notes!
#8. Almost everyone organises an open house – Eating is a national past time and open houses are basically an opportunity to eat all you can for free! This tradition encourages family and friends to visit one another’s homes to celebrate together. Even companies and government agencies have started organising open houses to which the general public is invited.
#9. Eateries serve some variation of yee sang – In the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year, expect to see some variation of yee sang or the prosperity toss in any eatery you visit. Apparently, this cultural activity is unique to both Singapore and Malaysia as it’s not practiced as much in other countries.
#10. You hear firecrackers eventhough it’s illegal – Yep, fireworks are illegal in Malaysia. Unless you have a permit. I don’t think the homes in my neighbourhood who light up their firecrackers applied for one though. Yet, I go to sleep on the eve of Chinese New Year listening to a barrage of fireworks. All night long.