Chinese New Year in Malaysia
By Lloyd Green
Malaysia is a cultural hive of tradition, ancient customs and a blend of ethnicities that ensures a diverse and multi-cultural life. Chinese New Year is one such time when all Malaysians come together to celebrate the nation’s Chinese roots and of course the first day of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, which this year honours the year of the Monkey.
Chinese New Year is perhaps one the biggest and most important annual holidays in Malaysia and the world, highlighted by family gatherings, parades, traditional dancing dragons and lions, fireworks displays, decorations and amazing food.
Elaborate festivities take place right across the country, particularly in well-known Chinese communities in Kuala Lumpur, George Town in Penang, Ipoh and Malacca and continue until the 15th and final day of the holiday. Hokkien and Cantonese communities also add their own flair to celebrations with variations on traditional dishes, rituals and clothing.
In Kuala Lumpur, Chinese temples in and around Petaling Street are crowded by locals coming to worship and streets are occupied by lion and dragon dances as well as people lighting fireworks. Much of the same happens in Penang with Kek Lok Si Temple on the outskirts of George Town decorated with millions of colourful lanterns and lamps to go with extravagant wushu performances and Chingay parades. Fireworks are a major part of Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia with crackers of all shapes and sizes lighting up the night’s sky. Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur, Old Klang Road in Petaling Jaya and Jonker Street in Malacca are great vantage points for fireworks displays as well as to experience festivities first hand. Hokkien Chinese in Malaysia also light large numbers of fireworks on the ninth day of the Lunar New Year in celebration of the birthday of the Jade Emperor.
By far the best part of Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia are the numerous open house parties that take place around the country. Regardless of race and religion, family and friends are invited to indulge in various activities making for a truly colourful affair.
One of the most popular traditions of Chinese New Year is the giving and receiving of small red parcels containing money, called ang pow. In Malaysia, the giving of ang pow has cut across cultural lines and is no longer restricted to Chinese locals. So much so, Malays and Indians have adopted the idea and have used it for their own cultural celebrations, namely Syawal and Deepavali. The red colour of the envelope symbolises good luck and is believed to ward off evil spirits. Ang pow is typically given by married couples to unmarried people, creating a lot of tension of newlyweds to uphold the tradition.
Red, Red, Red
The significance of red is not just limited to money, with the exchange of red underwear an increasingly common practice. Red is one of the luckiest colours in Chinese traditions, standing for loyalty, success and happiness. Thus, many people exchange red undergarments with loved ones and sweethearts during new year celebrations. The red panties are decorated with gold embroidery illustrating the zodiac animal for that year. Traditional red and gold cheongsams are also popular during Chinese New Year with many Malaysian women, including non-Chinese, wearing the garment to parties and events.
In terms of food, one dish that has particular ties to Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia (and Singapore) is yee sang. Known as Prosperity Toss, this Teochew-style raw fish salad is believed to bring good health and wealth for the upcoming year. Yee sang has become so popular in Malaysia it was declared a Malaysian heritage food by the Malaysian Department of National Heritage. Historians say it was created at a restaurant in Seremban in the 1940s, which first serv
ed the salad during Lunar New Year celebrations.
Thing To Remember:
- Most states of Malaysia provide two official public holidays for the first two days of Chinese New Year; February 8-9.
- Popular tourist areas such as Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur and Jonker Street in Malacca will be extremely busy.
- Many Chinese owned shops are closed during the first two days of Chinese New Year.
- Transport via bus and plane to Penang, Ipoh and Malacca is on high demand, so book in advance.