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Chinese New Year 2020 - Traditions and Customs

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Sue is a mother and grandmother living in sunny Malaysia. Like many Malaysians, she is passionate about food.


Follow The Chinese Zodiac

The Chinese New Year is set according to the Chinese zodiac. There are twelve cycles and each year has been designated with a different animal. The Chinese consider a person's personality is very much related to which zodiac year they were born.The year 2020 will be the year of the rat.

Chinese New Year - A Celebration With Many Traditions

Chinese New Year is the most important celebration to the Chinese all over the world. It is the beginning of a new year in the Chinese lunar calendar.

Here in Malaysia, we have our own traditions which are unique to the migrant Chinese community which have settled here.

It is also referred to as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival. Whatever name you call it you can be sure it is great time of rejoicing.


Reunion Dinner - The Most Important Tradition

The Reunion dinner on the eve is always the highlight of the celebration. You see an exodus of people leaving the city to return to their home towns for this celebration. Many who are studying or working overseas will make an effort to be home for this auspicious dinner.

It is customary for sons to return to their parents' home for this dinner. Daughters will celebrate this feast with her husband's family. So my son and daughter-in-law will be back for the reunion dinner while my daughter will be at her husband's home.

Here in Malaysia shops and offices close early so that their employees can make it home in time for this very special annual family dinner.

Roast Duck - My Family's Favorite Dish


The reunion dinner is a feast with pork, chicken, duck, fish and seafood cooked in a variety of ways depending on which region the family came from originally. The Cantonese will feature a black hair-like algae called "fat choy" since its name sounds similar to "prosperity".

I am sure you can imagine the great amount of work to feed such a big family gathering. Daughters-in-law would arrive early to help with the cooking though that tradition is slowly dying out.

Families continue to hold this tradition except these days more and more families are opting to hold this dinner at the local restaurant or hotel. Major hotels in the city have special buffets or many courses feasts. Bookings are often made early to avoid disappointments.

This year we will have a steamboat dinner for our family reunion. This will mean less cooking and more preparation. Of course the roast duck, a family favourite will be one of the dishes served.

Reunion Dinner - Most important annual family get-together


Poon Choi - A Hakka traditional dish - A treasure dish with abalone, duck, prawns, roast pork, broccoli......

Poon Choi Set

Poon Choi Set

Gold nuggets

Gold nuggets

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Red Undies For New Year

An "under" tradition

During Chinese New Year you are surrounded by red colors everywhere. The color red represents prosperity, fortune and good luck. Many can be seen wearing red during this time and especially for the first few days of the New Year. New clothes is of course a must especially for the first day of the new year.

Red underwear is very popular for Chinese New Year as well. I have a friend who will get a new set of red panties and bra every year.

"Yee Sang" - Raw Fish Salad Is A Malaysian Tradition

Symbol of abundance and prosperity

This is definitely a very Malaysian Chinese tradition. "Yee Sang" or "Lo Hei" in Cantonese is a raw fish salad and is served only during Chinese New Year. The dish consists of strips of raw fish, often salmon mixed with shredded vegetables like radish, carrots, red peppers, turnips and red pickled ginger. A variety of sauces and condiments are also provided.

It is often the first dish served during the dinner. All the condiments and sauces are poured onto the dish of salad and raw fish. Everyone at the table usually will then all stand and mix all the ingredients together with their chopsticks, tossing as high as possible. Wishes of good luck and prosperity in business for the coming year is loudly shouted by all.

This is a tradition faithfully kept by those who are involved in business.

It is getting so popular that everyone would have had this dish several times by the time the New Year celebration reaches its fifteenth day. Everyone join in the fun to wish a brighter year ahead.

Yee Sang

Yee Sang

Tossing The "Yee Sang" For Good Luck In Business


Make sure you get your chopsticks in to toss up this dish.

Your business will get booming in the year of the dog!

It's a healthy dish as well with all that salad.

Chinese New Year Fast Facts

1. It is a 15 day celebration.

2. The dates are calculated according to the lunar calendar using a 12 year cycle of the animal zodiac.

3. The year 2018 will be the year of the dog.

4. The Reunion dinner with family on New year Eve kick starts the celebration.

5. "Yee Sang" or raw fish salad is an important dish on the menu during any dinner during these 15 days.

6. Giving of Hong Pao or red envelopes is an important tradition.

7. Red and gold are auspicious colors from decorations to clothing.

8. Seventh day of the New Year is the common man's birthday when everyone grows one year older.

9. The ninth day is an important day for the Hokkiens when they offer prayers to the Emperor of Heaven and where sugar cane is an important element as it saved them from being exterminated many centuries ago.

10. A time to visit relatives and friends where gifts of food are exchanged.

11. The fifteenth day is the last day of the celebration and is an important celebration especially for those seeking a life partner. It is the Chinese Valentine. Hopeful single ladies will throw mandarin oranges into the river.

12. Most Chinese businesses will reopen for business on even days as this is considered auspicious. The eight day of the calendar is a popular day for most businesses to reopen. If it falls on a weekend, then it will just open for a few hours as a ceremonial gesture.

An important tradition is the "hong pao". Chinese New Year would not be complete without the red envelope of money called "ang pow" or "hong pao". The red color symbolize good luck. The red packet is presented by those who are married to children and to those who are still single.

The children love this tradition and can acquire quite a good amount of pocket money during these festivities. Since Chinese New Year is a 15 day celebration, "hong pao" are given during this whole period. New notes are often packed in these red envelopes. How much to give in each "hong pao" is up to each individual. Often a bigger "hong pao" is given to relatives.

During earlier times the money given was always in even digits and not odd ones.These days people are not so particular about the numbers. These red envelopes are not just given to immediate families but also children of friends and the children of your hosts as there is much visiting done during these period.



Change your money to the new notes early. A tradition to give new notes rather than used ones for the "ang pow".

Now you can also give e-ang pow with online transaction but they just don't have that same festive feeling!

Don't leave it till the last and you may find the bank has run out of new currency.

The Traditional Lion Dance bring good luck and fortune to your business


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese New Year celebrations would not be complete without the lion dance. These are often performed by Chinese guilds and also Chinese school associations. These lion dance troupes will visit shops and homes of the Chinese community in a quest to "pluck the greens". It is to bring good luck.

The dragon will attempt to pluck the " auspicious green" which is often held dangling from a high place together with the mandarin orange. The green vegetable in Chinese sounds like fortune. The lion will perform a dance to the loud beat of drums and cymbals and eat the lettuce and orange and then spit it out bringing good luck and fortune to the business. The lion is then rewarded with a red "hong pau".

One year a lion troupe was visiting a neighbour house. They also approached the homes along the same street if they would like a visit from the lion. As my kids were quite young at the time, we were more than happy to invite the lion dance troupe to perform in our home. Of course a red hong pau was given to the lion in thanks.

Many shopping malls hold these lion dances as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Some of the lion dance troupes exhibit some amazing stunts so it is a good idea to catch a glimpse of them if you can.


Lion Dance Poll

Lion Dance Performance - Watch it on YouTube if you can't see it live


Mandarin Oranges Is A Must

In Chinese, its sound can also mean "gold"

As with any celebration, Chinese New Year have their own special delicacies. At the top of the list is of course Mandarin oranges. Folks buy these oranges by the carton.

It is a common sight to see these mandarin oranges sold by the boxes not only in the supermarkets but also along the roadsides where motorists can stop to buy.

These mandarin oranges are easily peeled by hand and are in abundance during this festival as they symbolize abundance and good fortune. Most of the supply is imported from China. The mandarin oranges are given as gifts to friends and family. Business people also like to present a box of these oranges to their clients.

These mandarin oranges are thirst quenching on a hot day. The are sweet and succulent. Not only the Chinese buy these fruits but those not celebrating this new year have also started buying them by the box. In fact my family has started on our second box, lol.

Lime tree

Lime tree

A lime tree abundant with golden fruit is an auspicious decoration for Chinese New Year

During Christmas you have the Christmas tree. Well, for the lunar new year, many also like to decorate their homes with a mini Mandarin orange shrub in its full bloom.

Nurseries which grow these shrubs have timed the fruit bearing in time for the festivities. The fruits in full bloom are abundant, ripe and golden in color during Chinese New Year. They look like small golden limes and are more for decorating and not for eating. These golden mandarin orange shrubs are an auspicious symbol and give a glorious welcome to visiting guests.

Roasted Red Melon Seeds - Tasty little snack

Roasted red melon seeds are a popular snack during Chinese New Year. Looking at the size of the seed you must wonder how it is possible to crack open the seed and eat the kernel that is inside.

Well, this is a skill that can be acquired after many tries. It's all about your skill with your teeth! Eating this snack can be addictive especially when sitting in front of the TV.

A word of caution! Don't eat too many of these melon seeds. According to Chinese belief, they are quite "heaty" and can lead to a sore throat!

How To Open the Melon Seed!

Hold the melon seed between your thumb and index finger. Grip it between your upper and lower front tooth to crack the seed open. Once it is open, use your teeth to open the shell and grip the kernel inside.

Voila! You have eaten your first melon seed.

Waxed duck

Waxed duck

Preserved Chinese sausages and waxed duck are popular gifts during Chinese New Year. These are imported from China and available during the Chinese New Year though the Chinese sausages can be bought all year round.

The waxed duck is made by preserving a flattened deboned duck in salt, spices and fat. It is very salty and leathery in texture. Both the duck and sausages can be steamed in the rice cooker while the rice is cooking. The duck is often cut in small pieces and eaten with rice and rice congee. It is more popular with the older folks who have grown up with these two specialities as part of Chinese traditions.

Chinese Sausages

Chinese sausages are great with fried rice or steamed and eaten with rice congee or plain rice. You can remove the outer skin and then cut into thin oval slices to cook with your fried rice. If eating it plain, then steam it first and then slice it. They are slightly salty in taste.


Sticky Cake

In Malaysia, another traditional food is the sticky cake or "Nien Gao". " Nien" means year and "Gao" means high and the sticky cake symbolizes increase of success and prosperity. It can be eaten steamed or fried in a batter sandwiched between yam slices.


Chinese New Year Cookies - Love Letters Or Egg Rolls


Love letters or egg rolls is a Malaysian Chinese New Year favorite cookie. These are folded into a quarter round shape or rolled to resemble love letters. When I was growing up my mother would make her own love letters.

A batter was mixed and poured onto an iron mold with various designs. This mold is made of two metal round pieces which is then pressed together and placed on a hot charcoal fire. This will create a paper thin cookie which is then folded into quarters or rolled into a cigar like cookie.

It is hot work sitting in front of the charcoal fire. My mum would let us fold the cookies as it was very hot tending to the love letter moulds. They had to be turned over so that both sides would be evenly cooked.

Snack Foods Served During Chinese New Year - Dried longans, cookies, crispy rice biscuits....

Qi Pao

Qi Pao

Wear A Cheongsam For Chinese New Year - A traditional Chinese dress yet sexy look with slits at the sides

Chinese New Year is one of the times when you see women wearing this classic Chinese dress. The Chinese dress is called cheongsam in Cantonese or qi pao in Mandarin and is a figure hugging one-piece dress with Mandarin collar, high slits on both sides and often made from silk.

The stylish cheongsam that we know today was created in the 1920s in Shanghai and made fashionable by socialites and upper class women. Women hardly wear the cheongsam on a daily basis as it does restrict easy movement and is now worn for more formal occasions.

© 2011 Sue Mah

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