AGELESS TRADITIONS: The Lunar New Year is around the corner and during this festival, many families abide by a set of beliefs and superstitions to start off the year on the right foot. Tan Choe Choe shares 10 enduring ones that are still observed
1. GIVING 'ANG POW'
In the old days, the elders would thread together coins using a red string. This string of money is called yasui qian, which means "money to ward off evil spirits", and would be placed under the pillows of their young to protect them from sickness and misfortune.
Over time, as paper money replaced coins and the printing industry took off, the red strings were replaced with red envelopes and the coins replaced with notes. Gradually, yasui qian became known as ang pow or hong bao (red packets) or lai see (good luck). Today, it is given by elders and the married to children and those who are single, and is regarded as a blessing.
2. CLEANING THE HOUSE
In the weeks before the Lunar New Year, many Chinese folk would spring-clean their houses to wash away remaining bad luck from the previous year and have the houses ready to receive the good fortune that the new year will bring in. For those who might "forget" to do so, there is a rhyming Cantonese saying often bandied about to remind them to clean the house: Ninyabaat, sai lad tad (On the 28th of the last month of the year, wash away the dirt). This does not mean that the cleaning up is only to be done on that particular day, but rather, it is a reminder to do so, with the big day just a couple of sunsets away.
Then, on New Year's Eve, all brooms, dusters and brushes would have to be put away, as there must be no sweeping or dusting done on the dawn of the New Year. This is to prevent good fortune from being swept away.
After the first day of the New Year, the floors may be swept, but sweeping must be done with inward strokes, where dust and rubbish are swept from the periphery of the house to its centre, before being carried out through the back door in dustpans.
3. SETTING A PRECEDENT FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR ON THE FIRST DAY
All debts have to be repaid before the first day of the Lunar New Year. And when the big day arrives, nothing should be lent on the day itself. This is to ensure that the year starts off on the right note and remains that way throughout the year.
By the same token, one must refrain from cursing or using bad or unlucky words. Negative terms and references, like "death" or "dying", should be avoided. Ghost stories are also taboo.
On this day, misbehaving children are tolerated and not punished because it is believed that if you cry on the first day of the New Year, you will cry or have reasons to cry throughout the year.
4. STAYING UP LATE TO GUARD PARENTS' LONGEVITY
Children often stay up as late as possible on New Year's Eve because it is believed that the later they stay up, the longer their parents will live. This practice is called sau sui in Cantonese, which means "guarding parents' longevity".
5. NO KNIVES, SCISSORS AND HAIR-CUTTING
It is believed that knives or scissors should be avoided on New Year's Day, as using them symbolises the cutting away of good fortune. While some families still abide by this belief, other modern Chinese folk find it to be impractical, especially if one needs to cook on that day.
For the same reason -- to ensure good fortune and prosperity -- haircuts need to be done before the New Year, as cutting hair on New Year's Day is considered bad luck. The word for hair is fa or hua in Chinese, both being homonymic to the Chinese word for "prosperity".
6. SPECIAL PRAYERS ON THE EIGHTH DAY
The eighth day of the Lunar New Year is also known as the Hokkien New Year. Legend has it that the Hokkiens were once hunted by an enemy clan just before the New Year and were forced to hide in a sugarcane plantation to avoid being massacred. Failing to capture the Hokkiens, the enemies left. This allowed the Hokkiens to come out of hiding in the early hours of the morning on the ninth day of the New Year.
To give thanks to the Jade Emperor God, Tian Gong, who is the ruler of the heavens, for keeping them safe, the Hokkiens offered special prayers starting after midnight of the eighth day, with the ritual involving sugarcane. To this day, the tradition remains well-observed by the Hokkien community.
The eighth day also happens to be the Jade Emperor's birthday, so other Chinese clans also honour him with food and incense offerings.
7. NO SHOE-SHOPPING
In this age of retail, perhaps this may be hard to imagine. Yet, many Chinese, urban or rural, young or old, still observe this tradition because the term for shoes in a few Chinese dialects, including Cantonese and Hakka, is hai, which is similar to the sound of sighing.
The Chinese equate sighing to times of sadness, frustration and helplessness, so they will avoid starting off the Lunar New Year with hai.
8. CELEBRATING EVERYONE'S BIRTHDAY ON THE SEVENTH DAY
The seventh day of the New Year is known as renre or yan yat, which means "the common person's birthday". On this day, everyone symbolically grows one year older.
In Malaysia and Singapore, it has become a tradition to celebrate this day with loved ones by tossing and eating yee sang, and wishing one another continued good health and prosperity. Good wishes would be shouted during the tossing of the raw fish salad, with some meals escalating to fun shouting matches.
Other countries with a large Chinese community, such as Hong Kong, are also adopting the yee sang culture.
9. WEAR RED, BUT NOT BLACK OR WHITE
It is no secret that the Chinese regard red as a lucky colour. They also think that a bright, fiery red is able to keep away bad spirits and misfortune, an association borne from the story of how the Nian, a mythical creature that used to terrorise a Chinese village, was found to be afraid of the colour red and the noise of fireworks and firecrackers.
So, do wear more red if you are visiting Chinese friends this festive season, but never show up in an all-black or white outfit, as it symbolises bad luck and death.
10. COOK A LOT TO ENSURE A SURPLUS IN THE NEW YEAR
The most important meal of the year is perhaps the Reunion Dinner, which is eaten on New Year's Eve when family members return from far and wide for the celebration. In accordance with the Chinese tradition of honouring the elderly, the venue for the meal would be the house of the most senior member of the family.
The dinner would usually be the largest and most sumptuous meal of the year. A lot of food would be prepared to ensure that there would be leftovers for the next day, the first day of the New Year. In addition to many meat dishes, fish is also a popular dish, as the term for fish is yu, corresponding to "surplus" in the Chinese saying, nian nian you yu (may there be surpluses every year), to herald blessings of prosperity and abundance.
NST Nation General 26/01/2014