Wednesday 2nd February 2011

Gong Xi Fa Cai: An Expat's Guide to Chinese New Years Traditions

If you're an expat living in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan or any other predominantly Chinese area you may find this time of year somewhat confusing. Should you give red envelopes, who to and why? Why is everyone worshipping a rabbit? Why were you charged extra for dog grooming? These are just some of the questions that you may be asking. Fear not, with our quick and simple guide to Chinese New Years traditions, you'll be an expert on this event in the Chinese calendar quicker than you can say gong xi fa cai (if you can say it at all).

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is a massive event in Asian culture and it is celebrated with some style. The event announces the beginning of a new lunar year and starts with the first new moon in the new moon cycle. OK, so that's the background but why is everyone wearing red and hanging fireworks outside their doors? Good question. The Chinese New Year's traditions are rumored to have begun with a dragon (as most Chinese beliefs do). In this case a dragon called "Nian", which translates to "year" was responsible for reaping havoc on the Chinese community once a year when he would emerge from his ocean home and gorge himself on the helpless and poor people of China. Bad dragon. In order to avoid Nian and save their very bones, the Chinese would hide in the mountains, hoping that they could escape his clutches.

One year, however, this was all to change. A young man, notably dressed in red, scared bad dragon away by letting off a firework. And so it is that each year Chinese people attempt to ward off evil by letting off fireworks, wearing red and painting their doors and windows as crimson as possible. Apparently there's even a surge in the sales of red underwear in Chinese cities at this time of year!

The Great Unwashed

Chinese New Years traditions start with cleaning (this is the not so fun part). Every respectable home owner will clean their home from top to bottom before moving onto themselves, whereby they will pamper, prune and perfect their appearance. For this reason expats may find that are unable to get an appointment at their usual coiffeur during the run up to the holiday period and, when they do, that they are charged a "Chinese New Years premium." Once everyone has undergone a major appearance change and ridded their home of any dirt, dust and cockroaches, they will reward themselves with a major family feast on Chinese New Year's eve. Every single family member will sit down together to celebrate the occasion and enjoy the best fare on offer in the region.

The Dreaded Red Envelopes

Often considered by expats as being the scourge of new year, red envelopes are a very important element of Chinese New Years traditions. Red envelopes, or Lai See, are banded around like crazy and it can be a very expensive time of year for some. In general it is expected that people (including expats) give red envelopes to children, unmarried individuals, office juniors and any service staff who have helped them on a regular basis throughout the year, e.g. gate house staff, cleaners, gardeners etc. The idea is that these red packets bring good luck and scare away ghosts but I think that the majority of Chinese people today recognize them as being a fantastic method of boosting the coffers.

If you are expecting to be distributing Lai See this year there are a couple of things you should be aware of. If possible the red envelopes should be stuffed with new notes (hence the queues at the cash machine) and money should be given in even numbers (odd numbers are associated with funerals). If that wasn't complicated enough, try to give money in auspicious numbers (e.g. 8) and definitely avoid giving any amount of money in fours (this is associated with the Chinese character for death).

If you are invited to a colleagues house it is tradition to give them two mandarins. You will receive two mandarins in return. Please note, it is NOT good form to take the mandarins and give them straight back to the host as means of your gift of mandarins. Mandarins are a symbol of good health. What Chinese household wouldn't enjoy good health as a result of the vitamin C consumed as they munch through hundreds of mandarins?


So there we have Chinese New Years traditions in a nutshell. Joking aside, those luckily enough to be living in an Asian country during this time of year will have an amazing time and lots of fun during this fantastic festival.


Gong Xi Fa Cai / Kung Hei Fat Choi / Happy Chinese New Year.

Do you have a comment about this article, a further question or even a correction? If so please do let us know.
We may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all comments will be published, please be nice!