Beginners’ guide to Chinese New Year in Singapore: CNY greetings, traditions and foods

Chinese New Year
If you don't know your ang bao from your lo hei then you're going to need our guide to Chinese New Year for beginners...

Now that the Christmas tree is down and we’ve all survived the festive season (just), Singapore is rolling out the big guns and prepping for the next big celebration on the calendar: Chinese New Year! So if you’re not planning on jetting off for a short CNY getaway during the public holiday, you’ll definitely want in on the festivities. But if these festivities aren’t something you traditionally celebrate, or you are a newbie here in Singapore, then you might need a quick lesson in ang pao etiquette, instructions on how you should be tossing your lo hei, and the answers to why feel suddenly compelled to eat tarts filled with pineapple at this time of the year. Read on for our beginners’ guide to Chinese New Year!

CNY lingo decoded

Gong xi fa cai: First off make sure you watch the cuteness overload that is our HoneyKids’ CNY traditions video from previous Chinese New Year celebrations, and find out how to pronounce gong xi fa cai (Happy New Year). You may also hear kung hei fat choy, which is the same greeting in Cantonese.

Huat: Keep your ears out for this word which is everywhere at the moment, and for good reason. It translates to prosperity or getting rich– very important for an auspicious year ahead.

Ang pao: AKA red packets to many of us. Giving an ang pao is a traditional way to share your own blessings, but whilst there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to how much cash you should be filling the packet with, there are customs to be followed:

  • Red is the preferred colour for packets as it is regarded as a symbol of happiness and good luck.
  • It is impolite to open a red packet in front of the person who gives it to you.
  • The amount of money in the envelope usually contains a digit that ends with an even number. Odd numbered packets are associated with funerals!
  • Money should not be given in fours, and nor should the number four appear in the amount. In Mandarin and Cantonese the word four is similar to the word death, and considered unlucky.
  • If you have not tied the knot yet, then you won’t be expected to send red packets.
  • Generally once you are married, you will no longer receive red packets, other than from your parents and grandparents.
  • Oranges and auspicious sayings are usually offered in exchange for ang paos as an extra sweetener to the rellies. Check out this website for a list of sayings you should listen out for (or try them yourself!)

Nian: A lot of the traditions surrounding CNY were created to chase away Nian, and you will see and hear this name a lot during the New Year celebrations. But who or what is Nian? According to Chinese mythology, a Nian is a terrifying beast that lives under the sea or in the mountains. Each spring, on the eve of Chinese New Year, it comes out of hiding to attack people, munch on animals and devour children. Kinda makes the Boogie Man seem like a puppy dog in comparison.

All about CNY eats

Chinese New Year

The kids can be as messy as they like during a lo hei prosperity toss!

Lo hei / Yusheng / Prosperity Toss: You’ll see all three of these names being bandied about at eateries and supermarkets all over Singapore right now, but they all refer to a Teochew-style raw fish salad. Expect strips of raw fish, mixed and shredded veggies and a plethora of sauces in a dish that is not only meant to be shared together, but tossed together while you recite auspicious sayings for the New Year. Wield your chopsticks and gather the troops: the higher the toss the better your prospects for the year ahead.

Love letters / kueh kapit: Don’t be alarmed when you hear your kiddos telling you they had a heap of love letters given to them in school: these are of the edible kind, not the romantic kind. Also known locally as kueh kapit, these delectable little wafers were historically a way of lovers to secretly communicate back in the day. Once the message was delivered, it would then be eaten and the edible words consigned to the lover’s heart forevermore. A way more romantic version of SnapChat, basically!

Chinese New Year

We just love how these crunchy cookies just melt in your mouth. Photography: Ikea

Kueh bangkit: These tapioca cookies are traditional nonya cookies that were historically used as altar offerings to ancestors to spend in their afterlife, hence them traditionally being in the shape of currency from ancient China. Animal and flower-shaped versions are popular today, with each having its own symbolic meaning:

  • Goldfish – prosperity
  • Butterfly – afterlife
  • Peonies – faith
  • Chrysanthemums – fortune

Bak kwa: This air-dried meat delicacy is super popular here in Singapore and for deliciously good reason! Expect long, looooooong queues during CNY to bag yourself this treat as it’s a popular gift during the festive season for friends and family due to its reputation for being a luxury food and its deep red colour, which symbolises good luck.

Chinese New Year

We loved these delectable pineapple tarts by Bakerzin

Pineapple tarts / ong lei: These are yummy small parcels of pastry with a pineapple filling meant to bring good luck and prosperity to the house. Ong lei literally translates to ‘prosperity has arrived’.

Fish: It is traditional to serve a whole fish on Chinese New Year’s Eve, but to then save half of it for the New Year’s Day celebrations. The Mandarin and Cantonese word for fish (鱼 yú /yoo) resembles the word for plenty, and so by saving half the fishy fella for another time, it symbolises abundance for the future. The CNY fish dish comes with its own rules though:

  • Buy the freshest fish you can possibly reel in for yourself.
  • The fish must have clear eyes, and not have a fishy odour.
  • Your fishy friend should be cooked and served whole, with the head and tail intact. The body of the fish represents family unity and togetherness.
  • If you are serving your fish up to guests, make sure you place it on the table facing them as a sign of welcome and respect.
  • Only tuck into the fish once the person who faces the fish’s head eats first.
  • The fish shouldn’t be moved during the meal.
  • Diners who face the head end and the tail end of the fish should have a drink together to ensure a nice big dose of good luck.

Tangerines and mandarin oranges: Tangerines represent wealth and oranges are a symbol of good luck, so they make popular gift amongst friends during CNY. Make sure to offer these fruits with both hands, and don’t be alarmed if your prezzie gets knocked back first time around: it is polite for the recipient to refuse initially!

The final day of Chinese New Year is also considered a time ripe for love, and is the day all the single ladies (cue Beyonce) write their phone numbers on mandarin oranges and toss them into the river. The single men will be waiting, eagerly, downstream to collect the fruits and eat them. The sweetest fruit the man tries is the lucky lady he should be dating for a lifetime of luck together! Much nicer than Tinder, we think.

Pomelos: This massive Asian fruit shares its name with words similar to status and prosperity in Cantonese. It also represents good health, family and fertility. All that from a fruit!

Tray of Togetherness: Also known as Eight Treasures Box, this is a childhood favourite for any kid who’s ever been dragged along to family reunions at Chinese New Year. First things first, greet the relatives with oranges, collect the cash offerings, and then raid the Candy Box! The boxes can be made from any material and are usually hexagonal or octagonal (eight-sides=extra lucky) and then stocked with all kinds of treats. Dried fruit, melon seeds, pistachios and candy are the usual winners. Once the box is emptied, the host will restock it so keep an eye on how much sugar your kids are stashing when they think you’re not looking!

CNY traditions 

Ancestor worship and reunion dinner:  Festivities kick off with the ancestor worship: family members will make an offering to ancestors by offering food, fruits, flowers and tea. Once the ancestors have been honoured, it’s time for the annual feast where the whole family gets together to celebrate their love and respect for each other and reaffirm the bonds of unity with a gastronomic dinner with food, food and more food (the Chinese believe that by having plenty of food, this will bring the family material wealth in the new year ahead).  

Firecrackers: Chinese New Year is all about colour and noise. Firecrackers are lit to ward off the advances of the terrible monster, Nian, and other evil spirits. Firecrackers aren’t allowed in Singapore anymore but you’ll still see cardboard recreations strung up around people’s houses. 

Chinese New Year

The traditional lion dance is a colourful, noisy affair: the drummers help to scare away evil spirits. Photography: Tracy Tristram

The Lion Dance: Lion dancers rove around the neighbourhoods around this time and are hired to perform in front of houses and establishments to chase away ghosts, evil spirits and bad luck and welcome in prosperity, while accompanied by gongs, cymbals and drums to provide extra scare tactics against nasty ol’ Nian. Need to brush up on your lion dance etiquette? We love this cute beginner’s guide to lion dances by Ireny Draws.

Roving God of Wealth: There is no one God of Wealth in Chinese folklore, but the popular representations are historical figures combined with religious gods, goddesses, devils, immortals, demons and spirits in Chinese mythology. You will usually see one of the depictions roving around shopping malls, lion dances, condos and public areas with a pot of gold (chocolate) coins or basket of sweets over Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year

This year it’s the Year of the Pig. Photography: Christopher Carson

Chinese Zodiac: According to ancient folklore, the order of the zodiacs was determined by a race designed by the Jade Emperor, a very, very long time ago. The animals had to cross a river and get to the finish line, and so the order of the Chinese Zodiac follows the same order these animals finished in this legendary race. Rat came first, pig came last! This year we’re ushering in the Year of the Pig – number 12 out of 12 in the zodiac, and we’re seeing out the Year of the Dog.

Pigs are considered mild and lucky animas representing carefree fun, good fortune and wealth, and piggy people are thought to be happy, easygoing, honest, trusting, educated, sincere and brave, if sometimes a little lazy. Pig did come last in the race, after all (some say he was late to the race because he was napping).

The colour red: Red is everywhere over CNY and is heavily associated with happiness and good fortune and red loving customs can be traced back thousands of years to when fire was worshiped as a provider of warmth and safety. It is also believed to ward off nasty evil spirits, and Nian is especially terrified of red! Many Chinese households decorate their homes with red paper cut-outs, red couplets and the red character 福 (fu – fortune) during Chinese New Year. Red clothes, right down to red undies, are also a must!

Sharp stuff: Stash away the kitchen knives and scissors, people! Chinese superstition is huge when it comes to sharp stuff during the CNY celebration period. Sharp objects are a deterrent in bringing good luck your way, so definitely no trips to the hairdressers during the festivities either (unless you want your chances of a good fortune snipped away!).

Spring cleaning: Get your cobwebs tackled, your dusty corners conquered and your house in spick and span condition on the 28th day of the last month of the old year prior to CNY. Traditionally bamboo leaves are used to sweep and clean the house as bamboo is believed to chase out evil spirits. The spring clean symbolises sweeping away any traces of bad luck at this time, but sweeping the house during the Chinese New Year is a massive no-no: it is important to collect the dust bunnies in a corner to keep the newly arrived good luck inside the home until at least the fifth day of the New Year.

Keep those locks dry: The Chinese word for hair is “fa” as in “fa cai” or “to prosper” meaning if you give that hair a scrub, you’re flushing your fortune down the pipes. Don’t worry about skipping this one (we’ve been skipping for years), but if you’re willing to give it a try and you find some money in your locks, do let us know!

Photography (top image): Darissa Lee

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