Today is a special day around the world. Of course, it’s Valentine’s Day in the United States. It’s also the full moon, which actually occurs at 7:53 am tomorrow here in Malaysia. In the Asian parts of the world, it’s the final day of the 15-day celebration of the Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year since it’s celebrated not only among the Chinese but many other Asian cultures. Some of my favorite discoveries during the Lunar New Year in Malaysia included:
1. Year of the Horse
As a kid in a rural and culturally homogeneous area of California, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to Chinese culture. My knowledge of the Chinese zodiac came from the paper place mats at Chinese restaurants and I always thought I was born in the Year of the Goat (1979). After some more careful research this year, I discovered that the lunar year follows a different calendar, that 1979 actually began on January 28 and I was born on January 25, a few days before the Year of the Goat. So I’m actually a Horse. The traveler. Celebrating Lunar New Year for the first time while traveling during the Year of the Horse. Perhaps I should start playing the lottery this year.
2. Free food at the Buddhist Temple
We felt a little guilty for giving up on hiking the 2,031 meter-high Gunung Batu Brinchang but we were simply too tired after trekking through Cameron Highlands’ jungle the previous day. Instead, we visited Brinchang’s Sam Poh Buddhist Temple, the fourth largest in the country. Smoke from joss sticks clouded the air as devotees in brown robes had lined up to give offerings of food to ancestor spirits and monks chanted over a loudspeaker. An attendant invited us to a free meal and ushered us into a large mess hall behind a one of the altars. “Special for the New Year,” he said. We helped ourselves to a buffet of delicious Chinese vegetarian dishes and our regret for not climbing the mountain faded away.
3. Burning money
We walked through the streets of George Town on New Year’s Day through clouds of smoke and ash. Giant joss sticks decorated with neon-colored dragons burned in front temples and neighborhoods were littered with firecracker rubbish from the previous night. I fanned ash from my face as we walked past piles of paper burning on the sidewalks in front of shop houses. Some kind of cleaning ritual? Actually, superstition bans cleaning during New Year (lest you sweep all the luck away) and encourages money burning (usually fake money or joss paper), with the belief that it will be accessible to the deceased in the afterlife.
4. Restaurant surcharge
On New Year’s Day, the manager of our guesthouse warned us we may have a hard time finding a place to eat and to expect to pay more once we do. While the public holiday in Malaysia last two days, the Chinese celebrate the entire 15. Not all businesses close for the whole two weeks, but those who stay open can and do charge extra to provide a service during the holiday. Our hosts in Kuala Lumpur treated us to a delicious Chinese dinner at Them Yew , a restaurant in the Ampang neighborhood, who added a 20% Chinese New Year service charge onto the bill.
5. Lion dances
Spend a while in or near a Chinatown during New Year and you’re never far from a lion dance, especially after the third day of New Year when people typically return to work. Lion dances can be performed on stilts or on a stage by two dancers in an elaborate lion costume. And they’re for hire: Businesses will contract lion dancers to perform outside their shops during New Year celebrations. It’s especially important for new businesses to cultivate the good luck brought by the lion dance.
We mistakenly tried to go to sleep early on January 30th, or New Year’s Eve. Fireworks blasted at almost window-shattering decibels just outside our guesthouse window for hours. We heard blasts off and on for the entire 15 days, even a few in the peaceful mountains of Cameron Highlands that sounded like sonic booms as they echoed through the hills. Celebrants light fireworks and firecrackers not only to ring in the New Year with a bang, but to frighten Nian, a mythical demon who represents misfortune. If fact, in addition to fireworks, the color red and the loud cymbals and drums played during the lion dances are said to keep Nian at bay.
7. Chap Go Meh
Throughout Asia, the 15th day of New Year is known as the Lantern Festival, and like the first day, various celebrations involve carrying lanterns to houses and temples to deliver blessings and good wishes. But the Chinese community of Penang holds a special ceremony on the 15th day. Known as Chinese Valentine’s Day, on Chap Go Meh (the Hokkien phrase for the 15th day) single women toss mandarin oranges into the sea with messages, phone numbers, or email addresses for young men interested in finding a girlfriend.
8. Gong Xi, Gong Xi
Gong xi, gong xi, gong xi ni. This catchy tune followed us everywhere: in the 7-11 buying cold water, at the hawker stalls as we ate dinner, even blasting from the motorbike repair shops along the street. Before even knowing that it was a New Year song, we were humming it as we sipped our morning coffee. Gong xi, gong xi, gong xi ni. Soon we would be spontaneously breaking into dance, rocking our heads back and forth while waiting for the bus and singing it to each other before falling asleep. Gong xi, gong xi, gong xi ni.
9. Red underwear
Does ExOfficio make travel underwear in red? I recently discovered that I’m wearing the wrong color underpants. While most don red clothes just for the New Year celebrations, those of us born in the Year of the Horse should especially wear red all year to encourage prosperity and ward off evil. Chinese languages have many homonyms and superstitions derive from to word similarities. Since the Cantonese word for pants (fu) sounds exactly like the word for wealth or luck, red underpants are the most auspicious accessories.
Happy Valentines Day and gong xi fa cai (best wishes of prosperity) for this 2014, the Year of the Wooden Horse!