Over the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to observe and learn about the different ways in which people gather around Malaysia. Family and religion are central themes across this multi-cultural melting pot of Eastern religions and tradition. In fact, Kuala Lumpur means muddy confluence, based on where the Klang and Gombak rivers meet, as seen in the picture below.
Chinese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, and Arabic influences are evident everywhere you turn. It’s fascinating to see so many different types of backgrounds and religions blending openly and supported by the government; the main holy days of each major religion are public holidays.
I have been lucky enough to take part in two of the major celebrations in Malaysia – including Chinese New Year and the Hindu festival Thaipusam. Below, I will share a bit about Chinese New Year. Look out for my next ‘Gather’ post about Thaipusam.
Gathering for Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is celebrated for two weeks, though primarily falls on two days. This year, the two days were January 28-29. It is marked by visits with family and friends, special meals, fireworks every evening, and gift giving. Though I was not yet in Malaysia at that time, I was lucky enough to be invited to a Japanese-style Chinese New Year celebration in Los Angeles by my mother’s neighbor and talented chef, Lily You, daughter Frances, and her husband, Mike.
Our leaders at Remote Year gave us all a traditional Chinese New Year envelope with 1 MRY (Malaysian Ringgit ~$0.25 USD). I asked one of my young Uber driver’s what he likes best about Chinese New Year, and he said ‘It’s annoying because I have to visit with family. The only good part about it is that I get to eat a lot of good food and get gifts.’ Apparently, the tradition is for married couples to give single people gifts/money.
Chinese New Year is evident everywhere, from the red lanterns strung across streets to flashing signs welcoming the Year of the Rooster, celebrated every twelve years. Below are a few shots from Penang, where the red lanterns were beautifully strung along homes and storefronts.
Regardless of whether you like spending time with family or not, Kuala Lumpur knows how to celebrate the New Year! Our group received visitors from a friendly dancing lion during lunch one day. The lion dance is typically operated by two people and is based on martial arts moves, mimicking the movements of a cat and accompanied by the music of beating drums, cymbals, and gongs. The tradition is for the lion to visit houses and shops to perform the tradition of ‘cai qing’, which means ‘plucking of the greens’ where the lion plucks greens like lettuce tied together with a red envelope containing money or oranges. The lion dances and approaches the green and red envelope like a curious cat and is believed to bring good luck and fortune to the business.
These are decorations inside Pavillion KL, the most beautiful mall I have ever been inside of. This marks the year of the Fire Rooster, the year of fidelity and punctuality. Noted, as I tend to be late to most things!
Finally, fireworks are a big part of the celebrations here, and I have heard fireworks every single night since my arrival in KL. Here’s a short video of the fireworks from my balcony.
How to Throw Your Own Chinese New Year ‘Reunion Dinner’ Celebration
- Create a red-themed table-setting with napkins like these and chopsticks like these. Serve, fish or dumplings, which are both signs of prosperity. Other typical dishes include spring rolls (wealth), sweet rice balls, mandarin oranges (good fortune), and noodles (longevity). Serve them in blue and white Chinese inspired china.
- Have guests make a wish using these biodegradable paper lanterns to celebrate the coming of the New Year and drive away evil.
- Place red packets like these at each place setting, with a dollar in it. Money is believed to ward off evil and provide good health and longevity.
- Decorate with red lanterns like these and mandarin oranges. Before the New Year, people will do a complete cleaning of the home, which signifies removing of the old and welcoming the new. After cleaning, people decorate their house red to welcome the New Year. The most typical decorations include lanterns, paper cutting, and door gods.
- Offer guests satin robes like this or this as a party gift and something to wear during the party.
Do you have any favorite Chinese New Year traditions you have participated in and can share?