Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Gong Xi Fa Cai 恭禧发财

With a population that’s 74% Chinese, it’s no small wonder that Chinese New Year is a big deal around here. Decorations come out early, the CNY music starts playing, and once February rolls around, everyone’s pretty excited for the two-and-a-half days off work (more than we get for any other holiday)!

It’s bizarre to experience a holiday as an outsider. When you know almost nothing about a holiday, everything looks so random. Last year, I was totally clueless, and CNY appeared to be about tigers eating oranges, red envelopes, cookies, LOTS of red and gold decorations, and big sales at the malls. This year I know a little more, but forgive me if I screw something up - I’m still an ang moh, after all.

Chinese New Year is based on the Chinese lunar calendar, which is on a cycle of twelve years. There’s a different animal for each year in the cycle. Much like the Zodiac signs I’m more familiar with (Aries, Pisces, Sagittarius), each animal has a set of characteristics that are supposed to be embodied in those born during that year. For example, I was born during the Year of the Rat, so I’m supposed to be energetic, talkative, witty, curious, observant, and occasionally aggressive. There are twelve animals total: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon (?!), snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. There are also five elements (water, wood, metal, fire, and Earth) incorporated into the calendar. The elements are associated with the positions of certain planets, and people born during certain years aligned with elements and animals are supposed to have special, slightly different characteristics. For example, tigers are supposed to be brave, competitive, unpredictable, and protective. However, Bryan’s a Water Tiger, which means that he should be compassionate, giving, and able to work well with others without feeling the need to be in charge. I don’t put any stock in Zodiac signs, but I think the Water Tiger and the Rat describe the two of us reasonably well.
Japanese Garden has statues of all the Chinese Zodiac animals

So last year was the Year of the Tiger. This year is the Year of the Rabbit. Rabbits (unlike tigers) have a lot of positive characteristics such as creativity, friendliness, loyalty to family, and calmness. Because of the desirable characteristics of the Rabbit, I hear that birth rates are expected to rise a little bit in Singapore this year! Whatever the animal of the year, it shows up all over the place in all the decorations. Last week I saw a lion dance team outside of Singapore General Hospital (lion dances are also popular this time of year) and they were accompanied by a guy in a bright pink Easter bunny suit. Hilarious.
Creepy rabbit decorations at IMM
Less creepy rabbits at Changi Airport

That’s the lunar calendar aspect of Chinese New Year. The holiday is observed over a couple of weeks and involves some other aspects as well. For example, a lot of attention is focused on luck and prosperity in the coming year. Because the Chinese word for tangerine sounds much like the Chinese word for luck, and the Chinese word for oranges sounds like wealth, tangerines and oranges are all over the place during the holidays. They’re incorporated into decorations, handed out at work, and laid out as offerings for ancestors. Chinese coins are a more obvious symbol of wealth, and are often seen in holiday decorations.
Oranges and rabbits for CNY
Chinese coin decorations at Changi
Chinese New Year at Changi

Much like Christmas in the States, Chinese New Year involves spending a lot of time visiting family. Instead of getting presents, people hand out hongbao, or red packets, full of money. The packets are usually little red envelopes. Generally older people and married couples give them to children and young people who are still single.
Coins, hongbao, and oranges at IMM

Gold and red feature prominently in the holiday, just like red and green at Christmastime. Much like the red and green of Christmas, I don’t fully understand the significance of the CNY colors. I believe the gold is related to prosperity. The color red is apparently significant because of a traditional myth about a beast who eats children, but is afraid of the color red. Thus, those wearing red aren’t eaten. Apparently this is the origin of the red decorations and lanterns- they’re all put out to scare away a mythical, child-eating beast. Remember what I said about holiday traditions being strange when you’re an outsider? This is one of those. Although I suppose it’s no stranger than a mythical fat man who squeezes into your house via the fireplace and eats all your cookies.

Speaking of cookies, they're my favorite part of CNY. Just like at Christmas, there are cookies EVERYWHERE. They all come in these plastic see-through containers with red lids. Even when people make them at home, they end up in those containers. I don’t know why, and I don’t care, because Chinese New Year cookies are amazing. A friend who shall remain anonymous claims to have gained 10 pounds one February due to these things. When I say they’re good, I’m not messing around.

Our days off work have passed but the New Year celebration continues. If you’re in Singapore and looking for a way to enjoy the holiday, you might want to peruse this list of events.

Gong Xi Fa Cai (Wishing you prosperity in the coming year)!