*Post updated in 2016
New Year’s Day on 1 January signifies the start of a brand new year and is a major celebration all across the world, but for Chinese people, the new year doesn’t really start until the Chinese New Year (CNY) is over. CNY is one of the major ethnic celebrations in Singapore – while it is a great opportunity to see a more traditional side of Singapore, this national holiday and festive period which can wreak havoc on your travel itinerary plans if you’re not prepared for what it entails.
Here’s what you need to know if you intend to spend Chinese New Year in Singapore:
What is the Chinese New Year?
Chinese New Year, or the Lunar New Year, is when the Chinese people celebrate their new year based on the lunar calendar. Hence, the dates fluctuates every year, though it generally falls some time from mid January to mid February.
- CNY 2016: 1st day on 8 Feb 2016
- CNY 2015: 1st day on 19 Feb 2015
- CNY 2014: 1st day on 31 Jan 2014
- CNY 2013: 1st day on 10 Feb 2013
Traditionally CNY is a 15-day celebration and is celebrated that way in China and other countries, but in Singapore, the Eve, First and Second days are the most important days that are celebrated – the first and second days are usually declared official public holidays, and the eve is usually a half day so people can prepare for the festivities. Hence, this makes CNY one of Singaporeans’ favourite public holidays – not only does around 70% of our population in Singapore celebrate this holiday, but the rare two consecutive days of public holidays makes it a great time for people to go overseas (and a good number of people do so to escape the festivities and crowds!)
Here’s a more detailed breakdown of what to expect in the days before and after CNY:
1-4 weeks leading up to CNY
By now, the shopping malls will have swapped their decorations from jolly fat Santas to equally jolly Gods of Fortune, and the tunes of tinny Christmas carols have now become a cacophony of cymbals and Chinese music, or what I call ‘dongdongdong chiang’ music. You’ll probably be faced with a sea of auspicious red and gold decorations everywhere you turn. CNY is coming and you’ll definitely feel it in the air.
What to do: Head to Chinatown where there is an entire street market for you to explore and soak up the CNY spirit, but be warned that it is going to be jam-packed with fellow Singaporeans and tourists doing the same thing, and it gets even more packed the closer it gets to CNY. I usually avoid the crowds when I can, but here’s a bit about what it’s like to be in Chinatown during CNY.
- The main thoroughfare at Eu Tong Sen Street is usually decorated according to the zodiac animal sign of the year, and the streets will be lit up at night which makes for great pictures. Expect road traffic in the area to be slow, and there may be road blocks as well
- Many street and retail stalls will be selling a whole array of snacks which people usually buy to entertain guests who will be visiting them. Sample all that you can even if you don’t end up buying anything – popular snacks include bak wwa (Barbecued pork), pineapple tarts (in various shapes and sizes) and cookies of all varieties
- Spring cleaning is a big thing during this period – pick up some traditional decorations like calligraphy scrolls or intricate paper cuttings. Lots of sales happening for furniture and home decor during this period.
- New clothes are traditionally worn to signify a brand new start to the year -For fashion fanatics, this is usually one of the best times because there are post-Christmas and pre-CNY sales – expect mostly bright colours and floral designs, black tends to be a taboo colour when it comes to CNY clothing.
1 day to CNY – Chinese New Year Eve (Chu Xi)
Reunion dinner time! This is the day that most Chinese families in Singapore will gather to have dinner together. Some families keep it a small home-cooked affair – My family tradition is steamboat or hotpot with just immediate family members, while others have a full-blown many-course meal at a Chinese restaurant with their extended families.
For visitors to Singapore, you actually might want to avoid eating at Chinese restaurants during this period because they will be packed full of Singaporean families, and because of high demand, many restaurants only offer set meal menus (no a la carte) which tends to be more expensive. Getting a table may also be challenging, make an early reservation if you want to soak in the atmosphere! Certain Chinese hawker stalls may also be closed early or for an extended period from this day.
There is a tradition in Singapore of tossing Yu Sheng (literally translated: Raw Fish), which consists of a large plate of raw fish, with various grated vegetables, several sweet sauces and crispy crackers:
- A designated person (or the server) pours each individual ingredient into the main plate, reciting a litany of Chinese well wishes which are symbolised by the ingredients that is being added
- When all the ingredients are added into the dish, everyone at the table then sticks their chopsticks into the dish and tosses it around to mix it together, all the while shouting their own greetings and wishes for the new year. As the point is to toss the food as high as you can (the belief is higher tosses means better luck) you can imagine that it is a rather messy affair with half the food ending up on the floor at the end of it!
- What’s left in the plate is now an odd sort of tossed salad, which is then distributed to everyone at the table to be eaten.
I personally only like to nibble on the crackers since I’m not a fan of vegetables or raw food, but there’s something fun about the whole experience that is fun to try at least once in your life. Best enjoyed in a large rowdy group.
Here’s a comprehensive video that shows you exactly how Yu Sheng is prepared and the blessing phrases used:
Check whether the places you want to visit are open on this day or if they are closing early – Many companies (especially those with a lot of China or Malaysian Chinese workers) give their employees half or even a full day off on this day so they can have more time to prepare for the celebrations, or in the case of the foreigners, extra time to travel back to their home countries.
Flights to countries like Malaysia, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are usually booked up quite well ahead of time and tend to be more expensive. To note: if you’re planning a jaunt up to Malaysia from Singapore, this period is a singularly bad time to do so because the causeways tend to be jam-packed with Malaysians returning home for the new year.
CNY Days 1 & 2 (Chu Yi and Chu Er)
Happy Chinese New Year! Families and friends spend these two days visiting each others homes as per custom – younger folk usually pay their respects to older relatives but it really depends on the traditions of the family.
If you are out and about:
- Sadly most of the hawker stalls run by Chinese folk are CLOSED on the first day as they will be making their way around the island visiting their kin – mostly fast food or tourist food joints are available on these two days. More food stalls tend to reopen on the second day, but some businesses take a long break and only open on a fortuitous day in the later part of the new year. As above, dinners at Chinese restaurants will largely be catering to a specialized CNY menu, but most of the other restaurants should be serving up their usual fare.
- Most major retail outlets and shopping centres as well as tourist attractions will still be open, though you may encounter higher prices and crowds as this is a public holiday for Singaporeans. Chinese temples will be filled with local devotees making their prayers, so expect those spots to be VERY crowded – I suggest avoiding temples if you prefer not to be squeezing with the crowd
- For those getting around on public transport, you are likely to encounter lots of gaily dressed families going visiting throughout the day. Getting a taxi is going to be a lot harder than usual, and more impossible than usual if it rains during this period, even if you try to call for one. For those driving, watch out as you will encounter more weekend drivers who only take the wheel during special occasions such at this, so more patience is needed to ensure you don’t spend your public holiday getting your car serviced
If you have been invited to visit your Singaporean Chinese friends houses during this period, some customs you to take note of:
- Avoid wearing black and dark coloured clothing, the older folk especially are more superstitious and associate black clothing with funerals. Even if your friends are younger and don’t really mind, you don’t want to unwittingly offend them or their families. Other no-nos: sweeping the floor or any sort of cleaning (you’re sweeping the good luck away), using the scissors or knife (cutting off fortune), and making sure any monetary debts you owe are all settled for an auspicious start to the year
- If you can, bring a pair of mandarin oranges (you can buy them in the supermarkets or markets easily, and it HAS to be a pair, no just one) and present them to the owner of the house. The recipients will give you a different pair of oranges in return – the mandarin oranges representing wealth and it’s an auspicious thing to exchange this good fortune. Learn some simple greetings to accompany this exchange: Xin Nian Kuai Le (Happy New Year) or Gong Xi Fa Cai (Wishing you good fortune, quite literally) are simple traditional ones to get you through anything in this festive period. If the Chinese pronunciation boggles you too much, just a simple ‘Happy New Year’ or ‘Wishing you good luck and good fortune’ in English is sufficient for most folk – it’s the thought that counts!
- Then comes the tricky part – Hong Baos (Ang Bao/Lai See) or red packets with money inside are traditionally given from married folk to the children, elders and single folk as token blessings, so don’t be too surprised by all the nosy questions about your personal life – if you are an older single person, this is when you get nagged about why you’re not attached/producing children/etc. As a traveller who is just visiting, you are not expected to follow the traditions so it is ok for you not to give out red packets even if you’re married. If you’re single or if you have children with you, you/they are likely to receive token red packets from the married folk you encounter. In case you are eager to partake in this tradition, a rough guide of the amount I’ve observed is $10-$20 per red packet for closer relations, and for distant relations or people you run into and just want to be polite to, anything from $2-$8. Avoid the banks during this period if you can and expect ATM lines to be extra long – everyone is withdrawing crisp new notes to put into red packets.
- Be prepared to snack a lot. Every house usually has various new year goodies prepared to welcome guests, and you are expected as a guest to indulge a little or it will seem a bit rude. I usually don’t bother eating proper lunch or dinner during this period given the amount of food I encounter at every house I visit.
CNY Days 3 – 15
Back to work! CNY is traditionally celebrated for 15 days, though it’s back to the office for most Singaporeans from Day 3 onward. The very traditional will only return to work on particular ‘auspicious’ days, so they take a longer leave break. Certain industries with lots of overseas Chinese workers institute a longer break for their companies during this period. You are likely to still hear a lot of clanging and banging all around as one traditional way to celebrate going back to work is for companies to have a lion dance troupe perform in front of the company’s premises. One notable part of the ceremony involves the Lion dancers climbing up high to pluck a piece of lettuce or vegetable from a high spot. This is Cai Qing, or plucking the green literally, because ‘Cai’ (vegetable) also sounds like the word for fortune in Chinese. Definitely a sight to see and quite hard to miss because of the racket.
Here’s a video of a typical lion dance troupe in action:
The Festivities Continue
One thing that happens in Singapore every year is River Hong Bao, where activities celebrating the Chinese culture and CNY traditions happen along the Singapore river. It iss free for all, check out their website for the exact dates and details.
Another thing worth visiting would be the Chingay Procession, which is an annual parade with extravagant floats and performers that takes place on the downtown streets of Singapore. What’s unique about this traditional Chinese custom is that it’s morphed into a multi-cultural affair in Singapore, so you’ll see lots of Malay, Indian and international performers taking part in the parade.
Here’s a video of past Chingays to give you an idea what it’s like… think a toned down Asian Carnival perhaps? Get more details on the Chingay website.
Have you visited Singapore during the Chinese New Year period? Tell me about your experience and share your tips!