Chinese New Year is the New Cool

Feb 02, 2011
*Special to asia!
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Red is the new black, lo hei is the new high, and oranges are the only fruit. Welcome an age-old celebration that’s becoming funkier by the year.

A childhood friend of mine, now a mother of two beautiful daughters, tells me that in the past few years, Chinese New Year has gained new meaning for her. “I teach my children the customs that were taught to me as a kid,” she says, “But we adapt them to suit our lives.”

In the days running up to the event, she and her young daughters waft around the home, putting up decorations of faux firecrackers and curly-wurly bamboo. They go shopping for bright-coloured clothes (preferably red). Come New Year’s Eve, she leaves the kitchen light on, to allow the Kitchen God – who reports back to Heaven as to the family's activities year round – to find His way back. Then all three of them go for manicures and pedicures.

375 A Sino Santa?

I have no memories of my mother and I doing pedicures together. That’s because we didn’t. My mother, along with all other Malaysian mothers of Chinese extraction in the 1970s, cossetted me in a polyester frock, handed me a tiny bag in which to stash my hong bao, and instructed me to keep quiet when visiting relatives’ homes and not to reach for the pineapple tarts and Green Spot without permission – or else. I remember all these things now with nostalgia, but am struck at how different we now regard this yearly festival, in just the space of one generation.

In the first place, I note how the Kitchen God has taken on benign, even friendly status, welcomed to the hearth like a kind of Sino Santa Claus. In my day, I regarded the Kitchen God with awe and fear, as the divine policeman who kept surveillance over our domestic affairs. The plethora of superstitions surrounding the Lunar New Year – all geared toward warding off bad luck, while attracting good – was an intimidating canon of do-or-die dictums.


Don’t sweep the floor during the First Day! (Oops, I brushed my feet in a kind of wide-ranging motion across the living room. Is that considered sweeping?) Make room for the God of Fortune! (Uh-oh, are our firecrackers loud enough, our doors opened wide enough, to greet the God of Fortune? What if it isn’t, and He sidesteps our home, and I suffer from bad school grades the whole year?) Don’t cut your hair on New Year’s Day! (OK, I confess I was never really daunted by this one. What peculiar person is consumed with the desire to snip their hair when major festivities are afoot, anyway?)

Chinese New Year knick-knacks too, have changed markedly. These days, hotels and shopping centres adorn their lobbies with tasteful all-scarlet lanterns, rather than the garish mismatched baubles of yore. Pussy willow is artfully arranged in large glass vases, at most three branches per receptacle – more would be crass. Hong bao, too, is getting ever classier, and are sometimes not even red. I received very modish and tasteful beige-and-gold ones last year.


376 You don’t have to see red with hong bao anymore.


For the unavoidable cheap bric-a-brac that will always prevail (invariably made in China), we have coined terms such as ‘chee-na’ and ‘ching-chong’, to show that we regard them in a tongue-in-cheek, ironic manner. The tinkly festival tunes with their merciless drumbeats (face it – Chinese New Year music is awful) are now often played with a nod-nod wink-wink. Kitsch is acceptable if it’s Retro.

No doubt about it, somewhere along the way, Chinese New Year became cool. Red is the new black. Lo hei is the new high. Oranges are the only fruit. Millions of younger Chinese around the world, thanks to greater prosperity and yes, Westernisation, are celebrating the festival with all its colourful trappings but few of its superstitions and beliefs. Chinese New Year, in short, is well on its way to becoming Christmas.

Is this OK? Who cares? Cultural celebrations are meant to morph and change. That’s what they do. If you ask me, anything that brings us away from traditions such as a suffocating worship of ancestors, the endless bowing and scraping before black-and-white photos of the dour dead, is a good thing.

Furthermore, here are a few reasons why Chinese New Year is particularly cool this year.


Cash is king

The world is in the grip of an economic downturn. In these times, the hong bao, filled as it is with dollar notes (and sometimes, I am sorry to say, coins) is the ideal present. Who wants gifts of actual things? What good will a silk scarf do me, in the midst of a financial blizzard? And why would one take the risk of giving someone an iPad, when the iPad 17G With Wings could hit the market any second? No, liquidity is the best asset in these trying times, superseded only by gold. And Chinese New Year is good at that too, bullion being a mighty symbol of the festival. Chinese ingots may look weird, shaped as they are like little sailor hats. But remember that metal can be melted.

377 Ready for smelting


It’s the Year of the Rabbit

The Bunny is much cuter than, say, the Snake.


You see your relatives on Facebook, anyway

It used to be that one of the most dreaded things about Chinese New Year was facing all your relatives – many of whom you had not clapped eyes on for 364 days – at one go. You got the inevitable interrogation – “Why aren’t you married?” “Why are you married to him?” “Why don’t you have children?” “How much do you earn?” “Why did you lose so much weight?” “Why are you so fat?”

These questions, pent up over the span of a year, bubbled to the surface in a rush of curiosity.

But now, with all of your relatives (I assume) on your Facebook, this need for nosiness must surely have lessened. Be-numbed as we all must be by the surfeit of Status Updates on each other’s lives, you and your relatives will just look at each other wearily come the New Year, defused of all conversation. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.


Chinese New Year is for everyone

There’s no underlying religion to Chinese New Year. True, it’s very name would suggest that it’s for Chinese people, thus shutting out anyone non-Chinese, but then every festival is supposed to be ‘for’ some cultural or ethnic group or other. No, because Chinese New Year is not religious, anyone can partake of its rituals or ceremonies, peculiar as they may be. Scrabble your chopsticks through the yee sang! Deck your home with upside-down fook calligraphic characters!

clarissa tanClarissa is a journalist who focuses on travel and the arts. As a desperately hopeful author, she writes short stories and is working on a novel. Clarissa won the Spectator’s final Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

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