With roughly 30 percent of Malaysia’s population being Chinese, it comes as no surprise that one of the most important multi-racial festivals celebrated in Malaysia in Chinese New Year.
Celebrated on the first day of the Chinese Lunar Calendar in January or February, it is the most important annual festival for the Chinese community. It is also traditionally known as the Spring Festival as it welcomes the first day of spring, leaving behind the cold winter.
It is typically a time for friends and family to come together and where debts are settled, prayers and offerings are made and an array of delicious food is prepared.
After Christmas, decorations are replaced with lanterns, cherry blossoms and lots of red.
This color is particularly auspicious during Chinese New Year as it symbolizes good luck in Chinese culture. Conversely, the color black is to be avoided and is considered taboo during celebrations.
People often decorate their homes with mandarin trees and gift the fruit to visitors as the term for the ‘mandarin’ sounds like the word ‘gold’ in Chinese.
On the eve of Chinese New Year in Malaysia, houses are cleaned thoroughly in order to sweep out bad luck and evil spirits. However, people need to make sure they don’t sweep the floor after this day as it could mean sweeping your fortune away.
In many Chinese cultures, and in Malaysia, lion dances form a key part of public celebrations. The performance is often accompanied by loud staccato drum beats and impressive firework displays. During the finale, the lion will often swallow mandarins for good luck.
Festivals in Malaysia are always a great time to sample new local cuisine for visitors. For many families, the ‘reunion’ dinner is the most anticipated part of Chinese New Year in Malaysia although many enjoy eating out as well. People come from afar to spend time with one another, often in the parents’ home or the eldest brother’s.
It is particularly lavish with many courses. In Malaysia it is common to toss Yee Sang (raw fish salad) as the word ‘yee sang’ means ‘easy to prosper’ in Chinese. It is also known as the ‘prosperity toss’ where everyone at the table helps to mix the salad for good luck. The tradition is that the higher you toss the salad, the better your fortunes will be for the following year.
There are also special New Year sweets that are commonly served such as “nian kueh” (steamed glutinous sugary rice), “kueh kapit” and “kueh bangkit” (cakes), pineapple tarts and peanut biscuits.
Many families also pray at temples for good luck and as a chance to meet with friends and families. Gift-giving is important in Malaysia during this time and it is common place for married couples to gift ang pows (red packets) containing money to children and single people. This is also thought to bring good luck. Gift-giving between other family members, colleagues and business acquaintances is also favored.
Because Malaysia prides itself on being a multi-cultural country, during Chinese New Year and other major celebrations such as Deepavali and Hari Raya Aidilfitri, people like to celebrate with people from other backgrounds by having an ‘open house’ where they too can join in the festivities.
This open house concept is commonly practiced by business communities as a form of networking and to show gratitude to their clients. Malaysian Embassies in other countries also host an open house to bring Malaysians together.
Chinese New Year festivities generally last for 15 days, culminating in Chap Goh Mei – a celebration with the family involving dinner, music and laughter.
Most states provide two public holidays for the first two days of Chinese New Year apart from Kelantan and Terengganu who only provide one.
Being in Malaysia during any of their multi-racial festivals can be an exciting time but Chinese New Year in particular excites with its colorful celebrations, firework displays and electric atmosphere that promises good luck for the coming year.