Brave the New Year

Feb 08, 2011
*Special to asia!
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Running the annual gauntlet sometimes proves too much, what with the shrill music, the many rules and the red, red, red everywhere.

What will going through the Rabbit hole bring this year? Lots of cutesy bunny trinkets, a huge dose of Vitamin C from oranges and a guaranteed smaller bank account.

I’ve loaded up on enough ginseng to get me through the Chinese New Year.

“The effort is going to be worth it,” I tell myself.

“Just think how happy you will feel after it’s all over.”

Ah, but right now, to quote Robert Frost, “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

I would like to be spared the superstitions and the heavy duty cleaning that the New Year brings but unfortunately that dream will never come true.

Every year, about three weeks in advance, the first thing that goes up at my house is the chai kee, a red banner hung above the door to frighten away a dragon originally, but now just to ward off bad luck. From it dangle firecrackers, also a dragon chaser but now defused and devoid of gunpowder.

The raising of the chai kee is like a call to arms. Out come the broom, the vacuum cleaner, the mop and all manner of cleaning fluids.

Then come the jars of cookies and sweetmeats, the auspicious plants and the spring couplets written on red paper.

385 When only the best will do for your friends and business associates, these loaded hampers are the answer.


Then the kitchen is turned topsy turvy in preparation for the reunion dinner which is a hotpot with every meat and vegetable known to man. This year I have bought Hokkaido crab legs to add to the mix, never mind the price. Celebrating the New Year is all about the appearance of abundance and prosperity.

My mother saw me cleaning a shoe which had a broken strap. “Lan hai (broken shoes)!” she admonished. “Throw it away. Lan hai means that everything broken and annoying will come to you next year!”

My normally frugal Mum becomes a big spender during this season. Her transformation at this time of the year always amazes me.

I kept the pair hidden away in my bedroom. My normally frugal Mum becomes a big spender during this season. Her transformation at this time of the year always amazes me.

Yes, throw out the old, bring in the new. It’s all about putting your best foot forward. Things that invariably go up at this time of the year are the prices of haircuts, “lucky” plants, and must-have food items such as pork. The price of the last is up by 20% this year because of the floods in Australia. Most likely Airpork is flying in a holding pattern above Singapore. (Airpork is a popular brand of airflown meat.)

As for the rules for the New Year, here are 10 that are observed around Asia.



Have a New Year Cake on display for the Kitchen God, who returns to heaven on New Year’s Day to give a report about your family. The sticky cake will keep his lips sealed when he sees the Jade Emperor, who has the power to punish or reward you. This custom is practised by many Chinese and Vietnamese.

Decorate your house with auspicious plants. Each year there are new additions to the group of lucky plants. This year’s crop: a painted turnip which is supposed to lure the lucky rabbit to your home, this being the Year of the Rabbit and all. In Singapore, there is a guzmania mania. These plants are so popular because they represent the arrival of riches. Celosias have the same effect as they look like fountains of luck. Orange plants have top billing as the Cantonese word for them, gam, sounds like the word for gold, and we know how Chinese love money. Vietnamese decorate with peach branches and pussy willow as do Chinese. This simply celebrates the arrival of Spring. Orchids are popular too as they are emblems of fertility and abundance.


386 Bunny shapes can be picked out everywhere this season.


Wear new clothes. Strictly speaking, a whole new set of clothes from underwear to shoes is called for. Fuchsia, pink, red and yellow are the way to go. Some have taken the belief as far as wearing red underwear on Chinese New Year’s Day. This year the window display of women in red underwear at a certain department store would surely confound the stickler for the rules of the New Year. Seeing someone in their underwear is inauspicious yet if the underwear is red, does that make it lucky?

Celebrate family A typical Mongolian family will meet in the home of the eldest in the family. Many people will be dressed in full Mongolian costume. When greeting their elders, Mongolians will grasp them by their elbows to show support for them. The eldest receives greetings from each member of the family except for his/her spouse. During the greeting ceremony, family members hold long pieces of coloured cloth called khadag. After the ceremony, everyone eats rice with curds, dairy products and buuz, a steamed dumpling stuffed with minced meat. The drink of the day is airag, a smooth alcoholic beverage made from fermented milk. There is a gift exchange after. Be generous. In the Philippines, Chinese Filipinos, or Tsino, make up 5% of the population. Like Chinese everywhere they give out red packets which contain crisp new notes inside. In many countries, long queues form at banks during this time of the year because people want stacks of new notes for this purpose.

Invite a dance troupe. A lion dance is symbolic ceremony performed to scare away evil spirits and to summon luck and fortune. The lion comes in many colours and has a mirror on its forehead. Demons are supposedly scared of their own reflection. Lion dance costumes are blessed before they are used so that they protect the wearers from evil spirits. The fervent drumming and skilled acrobatics often make for an electrifying experience at homes and restaurants.


387 Lions chase away bad spirits and bring good cheer all round in Teck Sing, a restaurant in Johor Bahru.



Curse or speak about ill health or death on the Eve of the New Year. This will seriously screw up the rest of the year for you.

Sweep the floor throw out the rubbish on the first day because you will throw out your luck with the orange peels and waste paper.

Refuse anything others give or wish you during Tết, say the Vietnamese. This sounds like a dangerous injunction. What if your mother-in-law gives you her mangy poodle?

Wear black or white as it is the colour one wears at funerals. You don’t want to bring on a funeral, do you?


vivienne khooOnce a lifestyle editor at a website, a newspaper journalist and a food editor, Vivienne Khoo writes about luxury hotels, food and travel whenever she is not sub-editing. The perfume industry and essential oils are her pet topics at the moment.

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