Chinese New Year customs in Singapore
by Tan, Bonny
Chinese New Year is celebrated by most Chinese in Singapore. The first day of the lunar new year usually falls between the winter solstice (dongzhi) and spring’s beginning (lichun). This typically falls between 21 January and 20 February each year.1
One month before Chinese New Year
On the 24th day of the 12th month of the Chinese lunar calendar is xiaoguonian (little new year), which marks the beginning of the new year festivities. It is believed that on this day, household deities report to Yu Huang (Jade Emperor), the supreme ruler of heaven and earth. Special food offerings such as sweet cakes, candied fruits and sweet rice dishes are provided for the Hearth God or Kitchen God (zaojun or zaowang) in the hope that he would put in a good word for the family to the Jade Emperor. Sometimes, honey or rock sugar is placed on the mouth of the Kitchen God’s statue. Firecrackers are then lit to bid farewell to the deities and spring cleaning commences.2 However, firecrackers have been banned in Singapore for public safety reasons since June 1972, following the introduction of the Dangerous Fireworks Act.3
Prior to the New Year, homes are usually swept; bamboo leaves are traditionally used to sweep the floor as it is believed that this would drive evil spirits out. It is customary not to sweep, mop, scrub or wash on the first day of the Lunar New Year lest the good luck be swept away, with some even hiding their brooms.4 Pots of kumquat and flowers are also put up as part of the festive decorations to brighten up the home. Red scrolls and posters with auspicious sayings (chunlian, or spring couplets) are placed at the doorway. To usher in the new year, the Chinese wear new clothes and sometimes sport fresh hairdos.5 As cutting one’s hair is seen as cutting off one’s luck, people choose to get a haircut before Chinese New Year. Thus many local salons usually charge a premium for services during this period.6
Chinese New Year’s eve
The family reunion dinner and ancestor worship are the two of the most important highlights of the celebrations on the eve of the new year (chuxi). The Lunar New Year is traditionally ushered in at 11 pm, but many families, especially those in Singapore, have adopted 12 am as the norm.7
Before the reunion dinner, it is customary for families to worship their ancestors and invite them to join in the family’s celebrations with an offering of food, fruits, tea and flowers.8
The reunion dinner (tuan’nianfan) is an annual feast where family members reaffirm the love and respect that bind them together as a unit. It is also known as tuanyuan (or weilu) meaning “gathering around the family hearth”. This event is of sociological significance as it is a means to ensure the solidarity of the family and its cohesiveness.9
Family members are expected return to the family home for reunion dinner. The more traditional Chinese families also “invite” their deceased ancestors to join them by placing offerings on the family altar.10 As convention dictates, all sons return to their parental homes for the occasion. Married daughters, on the other hand, join their husbands’ families for reunion dinner on chuxi.11
At this gathering, food is served in abundance regardless of whether the family is rich or poor as the Chinese believe that having plenty of food during tuanyuan would bring the family great material wealth in the new year. Tuanyuan delicacies include dried sea moss (facai), red dates, dried flaked bean (fuzhu), dried black jelly fungus (mu’er), gingko nuts (baiguo), transparent rice vermicelli (dongfen), dried mushrooms picked in winter (xianggu or donggu) and dried pickled vegetables (jinzhen).12
Some families also cook abalone soup, chicken, mushrooms, duck, fish, mixed vegetables (chapchye), roast pork and steamboat.13 Other traditional food items stocked up for the Lunar New Year (but not necessarily eaten during the reunion dinner itself) include red preserved waxed pork sausages (lachang), waxed duck (laya), waxed lean pork in thick oil (larou), melon seeds (guazi), glutinous rice cake (niangao), mandarin oranges (gan) and kumquats (ganju).14
Chinese New Year’s eve is one of three days in the Chinese lunar calendar for settling debts, particularly for businessmen. This day is set aside for this purpose as it is considered shameful for one to start a new year with unpaid debts. The other two days for settling debts are the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (Dragon Boat Festival) and the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (Mid-Autumn Festival). After closing accounts for the year, traditional Chinese bosses may hand out bonuses to their workers.15
Chinese New Year’s Eve vigil
Children are encouraged to stay awake past midnight to send off the “old” year and welcome the “new”. Many children also do this to convey their new year wishes to their parents early in the morning. Some Chinese believe that the longer the children stay awake, the longer their lives or the lives of their parents. In return, the young ones get a hongbao – traditional red packets containing money – before going to bed.16
Welcoming the God of Wealth
Some Chinese offer joss sticks to welcome the God of Wealth, while others usher in the new year by praying at temples. They consult the almanac for the most favourable hour and direction to receive this deity, usually between 11 pm and 6 am the next morning.17 The lights are switched on and the doors and windows unlocked so as to welcome good fortune and prosperity.18
First day (New Year's Day)
The first day of the New Year is known as yuandan (also yuanri, yuanchen and duanri).19 The children pay their respects to their parents and elders, and in return, receive their blessings. Hongbao are given by parents to their children, as well as elders to those who are unmarried and younger than them. Other relatives and visitors also give hongbao to any child present.20
The first of 15 days of the Lunar New Year are set aside for visiting, with close and senior family members visited on the first day.
Visits to homes during Chinese New Year are usually accompanied by the exchange of Mandarin oranges. The Chinese words for orange sound like “luck” and “wealth”, and it is considered rude to visit anyone’s home during Chinese New Year empty handed. When visiting someone during Chinese New Year, a pair (or pairs) of oranges should be presented to the head of the household. They will then return this gesture during the festive period.21
Known as thoe ya, the God of Wealth is welcomed through the display of auspicious pictures to “attract wealth and draw in treasures” during this period.22 Thoe ya and the 16th day (known as weiya) are the best “feast” days for employees. For employees, the weiya feast is not only a sumptuous meal, but also a bonus for their hard work during the year. Besides being a reward for a year’s work, the bonuses are to make workers happy, as grim faces are a taboo during the festival. The second day is also traditionally a time for married women to visit their maiden homes and renew ties with their families.23
Known as the “Loyal Dog Day”, the third day is a day of rest. No visits are made nor are visitors received, as it is believed that evil spirits roam the earth this day and being outdoors would invite bad luck. Thus, conservative Chinese businesses do not open until after the fifth day of the Lunar New Year.24
The seventh day is known as renri or yan-yat25 (meaning “birthday of man”, “day of man”, “day of humanity” or “everyman’s birthday”). Customs in celebrating the seventh day vary from place to place. The people from Fujian, China prepare a special soup with seven health-promoting ingredients to counteract ill health, while those in Zhejiang, China eat “peace dumplings” to bring peace to the country. In Singapore and Malaysia, yusheng (a dish with raw fish and a salad that includes shredded carrots, radish, ginger, spring onions, red chilli, lemon leaves, pickled leeks, crispy fried biscuits, pounded peanuts, lime, cinnamon powder, salt, pepper and vinegar) is served.26
The birthday of the Jade Emperor falls on the ninth day of the first lunar month. The Jade Emperor is believed to be the God of Heaven and is said to have been born several millennia before the current era. The people of Quanzhou, China observe the ninth day as the birthday of Heaven, while the people of Amoy observe the same day as the birthday of the Jade Emperor.27
The 15th day marks the first full moon of the new year. It is known as yuanxiaojie, meaning “first night of the full moon” (Hokkiens call it chap goh mei, meaning 15th night).28 Another reunion dinner is held with lanterns and oranges being a large part of the celebrations. It is also referred to as dengjie or “lantern festival” due to a tradition that originated during the Tang Dynasty involving the lighting of lanterns on this day. In Singapore, chap goh mei is also a day where single ladies wishing for husbands throw oranges, red dates and longans into the Singapore River.29
Chinese New Year events and trends in Singapore
Another Chinese New Year tradition is the lion dance, which commemorates a legend where villagers in China donned a costume made of cloth and straw to scare away a monster called nian. The lion, typically portrayed by members of local pugilistic associations, performs ritualised dances to pluck a green vegetable (caiqing) to re-enact how nian had eaten all the crops. In Singapore, many lion dance troupes use the Singapore drum to accompany their performances — the Singapore drum has a softer resonance than traditional ones.30 In pre-war Singapore, it was common for these lions to perform a feat that required them to scale “human towers” to pluck the greens from a 100-foot-high window of a six- or seven-storey building.31
Lunar New Year mass in Baba Malay
Since 1984, the Holy Family Church (Roman Catholic) in Katong has been celebrating a unique Peranakan midnight mass on Chinese New Year’s eve conducted entirely in Baba Malay. The congregation dress in sarong kebaya for the women and baju lok chuan for the men. After the mass, oranges blessed by the priest are distributed.32 In 1990, several leaders of churches of other denominations in Singapore clarified that Christians could take part in most Chinese festivals, including Chinese New Year.33
Singapore River Hong Bao
The River Hong Bao has been on Singapore’s festive calendar every year since 1987. This iconic event has become an integral tradition of Singapore’s Lunar New Year celebrations for locals and tourists alike. This lively festival offers a special Chinese cultural experience – from giant lanterns to mouth-watering food. There are also fringe activities such as amusement rides and street performances.34
In recent years, some Singaporeans have adopted the practice of depositing cash into their own bank accounts on the auspicious day of li chun (which marks the start of spring in the Chinese calendar). They believe that this will boost one’s wealth and ensure good luck. Some wear auspicious colours and prepare a particular sum of money to deposit for extra luck.35
1. “Chinese New Year,” The Singapore Heritage, no. 3 (February 1984): 3. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SH)
2. Gregory Leong, (1992). Festivals of Malaysia (Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1992), 17. (Call no. RSEA 394.269595 LEO–[CUS]); “Chinese New Year,” 3.
3. “Why Singapore Banned Firecrackers in 1972,” Straits Times, 10 February 2000, 40. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Leong, Festivals of Malaysia, 17; “Chinese New Year,” 3.
5. “Chinese New Year,” 3–4; “Customs on Lunar New Year's Eve,” Straits Times, 26 January 1990, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Fay Robinson, Celebrating Chinese New Year (NJ: Enslow Elementary, 2012), 21. (Call no. J 394.261 ROB)
7. “Chinese New Year,” 3.
8. “Chinese New Year,” 3.
9. “Chinese New Year,” 3.
10. “Chinese New Year,” 3.
11. “Customs on Lunar New Year’s Eve,” Straits Times, 26 January 1990, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Chinese New Year,” 3.
13. “Customs on Lunar New Year’s Eve.”
14. “Chinese New Year,” 3.
15. “Customs on Lunar New Year’s Eve.”
16. Lai Kuan Fook, The Hennessy Book of Chinese Festivals (Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann Asia, 1984), 4 (Call no. RSING 398.33 LAI-[CUS]); “Customs on Lunar New Year’s Eve.”
17. “Customs on Lunar New Year’s Eve”; “Chinese New Year,” 3.
18. “Chinese New Year,” 3.
19. Goh Pei Ki, Origins of Chinese Festivals (Singapore: Asiapac, 1997), 58. (Call no. RSING 398.20931 ORI)
20. “Chinese New Year,” 3.
21. “Chinese New Year,” 3–4.
22. Goh, Origins of Chinese Festivals, 62.
23. Lai, Hennessy Book of Chinese Festivals, 82–83; “Customs on Lunar New Year’s Eve.”
24. “Chinese New Year,” 3, 4–5; Goh, Origins of Chinese Festivals, 63.
25. Lai, Hennessy Book of Chinese Festivals, 4.
26. Lai, Hennessy Book of Chinese Festivals, 4–5; “Chinese New Year,” 3–5.
27. Choon San Wong, An Illustrated Cycle of Chinese Festivities in Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: Jack Chia-MPH, 1987), 65–66. (Call no. RSING q398.33 WON)
28. “Chinese New Year,” 3–5.
29. “Licensed to Chase Men,” New Nation, 11 February 1979, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “Dances of Joy and Jubilation,” Straits Times, 2 February 1986, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Sit Yin Fong, “Lion Dance Has a Long History,” Straits Times, 28 December 1947, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Reunion and Mass for Peranakans,” Straits Times, 9 February 1985, 13; Ronald Wong, “Lunar New Year Mass in Baba Malay,” New Paper, 3 February 1989, 10; Sunny Goh, “Christians 'Can Take Part in Most Chinese Festivals',” Straits Times, 27 January 1990, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Goh, Christians 'Can Take Part in Most Chinese Festivals'.”
34. “River Hongbao,” Singapore Tourism Board, last retrieved 24 January 2018.
35. “Mad Rush to Deposit Money on Auspicious Li Chun Day,” Straits Times, 4 February 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Ng Huiwen, “Queues to Deposit Cash on Auspicious Day of Li Chun,” Straits Times, 5 February 2016, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article in valid as at July 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.