Chinese New Year, Days 1 and 2

Ang bao packets.  Read on!

Ang bao packets. Read on!

So we should probably get back to Chinese New Year, before the whole holiday is completely over, huh?  My last CNY post left us at “Day -1”, on the Eve of the New Year.  Let’s go back there for just a moment…

At the risk of overlooking the hard work of some prominent Chinese entertainer/personality, I’ll venture to say that there is no Chinese New Year equivalent of Dick Clark’s (now, Ryan Seacrest’s) New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.  Readers from outside the US, here is how to imagine New Year’s Rockin’ Eve:  Think of the “happening-est” city in your country (New York City!), and pick the biggest, craziest, most iconic street corner in that city (Times Square!).  Now close it off to traffic, pack in as many people as possible, and have a huge party hosted by an entertainment legend.

Anyway, there’s no such pomp on Chinese New Year’s Eve, as far as I can tell.  I believe there was a fireworks display and celebration along the river/shore, but in our neighborhood, I heard no crowds, rowdiness, or excess noise.  Granted, we live in a pretty residential area – no one is bar-hopping down our street – but still, although everyone’s windows are open, I heard no cheering, no drunken party-goers, and none of those pesky noise makers.  I’d guess that, in all likelihood, everyone was resting up for the first day of the New Year.

The first day of the New Year holiday dawned quietly. Very, very quietly.  Like, more quietly than I’ve ever heard (not heard?) Singapore.  I walked out of our bedroom and into the common area of our apartment (which faces the road and a hawker center), and I was struck by…the silence.  Even at 8 AM, there were virtually no cars on the road, no people walking about (yet), and no shops or stores open.

Singapore closes for Chinese New Year the same way that a city in the US might close up for Thanksgiving, or perhaps Christmas Day.  I’ve spent two Chinese New Years in Singapore so far, and both times, I found the quiet…disconcerting. While the restaurants and shops stayed closed for the next two days, soon the streets became busy with people out visiting.  Chinese New Year is the time to visit with family and friends.  The majority of this visiting, especially in Singapore, occurs on the first two days.

Don't forget to wear your red!  The color red  is a "good luck" color in Chinese culture, and is thought to scare off evil spirits and bad fortune.        Even better if the clothes are new: New clothes for a new year!

Don’t forget to wear your red! The color red is a “good luck” color in Chinese culture, and is thought to scare off evil spirits and bad fortune. Even better if the clothes are new: New clothes for a new year!

Chinese culture places a high value on respect and deference to elders – so typically, you’ll find the younger generations/siblings visiting the older.  For example, my generation visits the grand-generation, our parents’ generation (aunts/uncles), and any of our older siblings. KMN and I do our visiting with his parents.  Both of them are the youngest sibling in their respective families, so they, too, must visit all of their siblings (KMN’s aunts and uncles).

The coordination of all this visiting seems overwhelming to me – with so many people to be visited, who also must go visiting – I have no idea how we manage to find everyone at home.  But there is an elaborate choreography within the family, honed over many Chinese New Years, so by tagging along with his parents, we manage to see just about everyone.  Tremendous kudos to KMN’s Mom for helping orchestrate this whole endeavor.

On the first day, we start the visiting with KMN’s Mom’s side of the family.  This is how a typical CNY visit goes:

  1. Someone roots through his/her phone, address book, or little scrap of paper to find the correct address (we only visit some of these people once a year).  Meanwhile, we have a brief debate over the correct Block number (apartments in Singapore are often grouped with 3-5 identical looking buildings in one complex).
  2. Find parking.  Especially parking that is legal on a Public Holiday.
  3. Discuss which elevator is the best one to take (each building is quite large, and often has several elevators).
  4. Find apartment.
  5. Remove shoes at the door.  [Woe is you if you fail to wear slip-on shoes on this particular day.]
  6. Enter.  Everyone who’s there already – including the inhabitants and anyone else who’s visiting at that particular moment, stands and comes to the door.  Hug, kiss, wish Happy New Year to everyone.  Get eyed curiously by strangers (if you’re the only Caucasian in attendance).
  7. Present 2 mandarin oranges to the oldest member of the household.  [You remembered your oranges, right?  Don’t ever forget those!]

    Mandarin Oranges 2

    The Mandarin word for “orange” sounds like the word for “prosperity”, so – here we go with language play again – giving oranges symbolizes giving prosperity for the New Year.

  8. Find a seat.  Make small talk and visit for 10-30 minutes.  Aunties quiz youngsters on school, grades, university plans, job prospects, girl/boy friends, marriage, and babies – depending on life stage.  [We get the babies one – but this year, no one patted down my abdomen. I’m calling that a WIN.]
  9. Accept some food – perhaps a small serving of an actual meal, or just a few Chinese New Year treats (more on these in another post).  Have a juice box of Chrysanthemum tea, whether you want it or not.
  10. A few more minutes of chit chat.
  11. Distribute ang baos.

    "Ang bao" literally means "red envelope".  These are cash gifts given by married, working people to younger, unmarried friends/family members (mostly kids).  And older, retired relatives.  And your friend's kids.  And the Security Guards in your building.  Chinese New Year is an expensive time for married, working people...

    “Ang bao” literally means “red envelope”. These are cash gifts given by married, working people to younger, unmarried friends/family members (mostly kids). And to their parents. And to older, retired relatives. And to the Security Guards in their building. Basically, we walk around for 2 weeks with a few envelopes with different denominations, just in case. Chinese New Year is an expensive time for married, working people…

  12. Announce, “Well, we’d better make a move!” [This Singaporean phrase cracks me up every time I hear it…]
  13. Everyone stands, and there’s more kissing, hugging, and Happy New Year-ing.  The host returns two oranges to you (not necessarily the same two that you brought).

    I secretly really want to add GPS trackers to some of the mandarin oranges sold during the Chinese New Year period, just to see how many moves each makes during the holiday period.

    I secretly really want to add GPS trackers to some of the mandarin oranges sold during the Chinese New Year period, just to see how far they travel during the holiday season.

  14. Scramble into shoes.
  15. Return to car.
  16. Repeat.

On the first day of the New Year, we made seven stops, plus one at the Chinese Temple, where the urns and ashes of some family members are held.  The temple is quite busy on these first two days, as families stop to pay their respects to deceased loved ones.

We ended the day at a party with many of KMN’s Dad’s relatives.  From an efficiency standpoint, this party is a great way to visit lots of people in one swoop.  Plus, they’re fun people, and I always enjoy hanging with them for an evening.  Finally, at midnight (13-14 hours after we started), we made a move (tee-hee-hee!) and headed home.

The second day of visiting is quite a bit lighter for us – being a bi-cultural couple means that we only have one set of Chinese family to visit.  In the morning, we visited a few more of KMN’s Dad’s family (who were also all gathered together – their side gets bonus points for efficiency!), then headed home for a quiet afternoon.

As someone pretty new to this whole thing, I happen to love the visiting period of Chinese New Year.  Even in this small country, people tend not to see extended families outside weddings, funerals – and Chinese New Year.  The addition of this holiday, to me, tips the balance toward more celebratory gatherings than somber ones. And I can’t help but adore a holiday that promotes visiting family, and eating lots of food.

However, some young Singaporeans aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the celebrations, and a few even make plans to be out of the country during this time.  Indeed, it is a busy time – and one that includes probing, personal questions from the Aunties, often exacerbated by the changing traditions, values, and ideas of generations. After 25 or 30 years, I guess I can understand why some youngsters might want a break. 🙂  Personally, we luck out in this regard, as KMN’s family tends to be pretty progressive, accepting, and dynamic.  I would’ve married him no matter what, but I really did win the awesome family lottery (plus, they’re a matriarchy – read this post)!

Now, I know a few of you are waiting for the post on Chinese New Year Treats.  But this post is already long enough, so that will have to wait for another day.  I also promise a higher photo-to-text ratio.  So stay tuned. 🙂

Honestly now (non-Singaporeans): If you were at a family gathering, and your mother-in-law stood up and announced, “Well we’d better make a move!”, wouldn’t you giggle?

8 thoughts on “Chinese New Year, Days 1 and 2

  1. torontorunner

    wow, BUSY!! Lots happening during that time.
    Yes, I wore red this year..and totally did the mandarin oranges thing(they are sooo sweet and yummy. my goodness!) and did the exchanging of money stuff.
    I wish I made a trip out to Taiwan to visit my extended family for CNY. The atmosphere would have been amazing!

    How long have you been in Singapore for??

    1. Holly KN Post author

      We’ve only been living here for 5 months. But my husband grew up here, and all of his family is here, so even while we were living in the US, we’d be back about once a year to visit. Unfortunately, CNY is a really inconvenient time to take extended leave in the US (everyone is just getting back into the swing of things after Christmas, and it doesn’t align with any holidays there), so we haven’t been able to come back often.

      But it really is a cool atmosphere to be here, and there are some great traditions to celebrate with family. You should try to make it back to Taiwan for the celebrations one day! 🙂 But in the meantime, red, mandarins, and ang baos are a pretty good substitute! Does your family have any special food traditions? (Yep, I’m always worried about the food!) 🙂

  2. Efo

    This post brings me back to the good ol’ days of living in Singapore. I miss those traditions, granted, we (my American family) didn’t do the whole run down like you guys do — but it was still pretty fun to hand out/receive the ang baos, eat mooncakes, and say “Gong Xi Fa Cai” to everyone we knew.

  3. Jules

    Ha, I loved reading your account of CNY! It’s so funny and yet so true, right from the recycling of mandarins, to wearing the right shoes, to the chrysanthemum tea boxes to the aunties asking about boyfriends and marriage.

    O and my dad always says, “Well we’d better make a move!”. 🙂 I’ve never found it funny, but it’s funny that you do hahaha.

    1. Holly KN Post author

      To me, “make a move (on a person)” means to pursue some kind of romantic relationship – depending on context, anything from a quick physical encounter to courtship. The subtle developments of language are so interesting!

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