Chinese New Year – 2016

We just wrapped up our first Chinese New Year (CNY)/Spring Festival here in Penang.  It is now the year of the  Monkey.  I was vaguely familiar with Chinese New Year as a concept before moving here, it was certainly not something I gave a whole lot of thought. It is a major holiday here in Penang.    I have to tell you it was pretty crazy.  The Fireworks alone put this over the top of anything I have ever seen.  There were fireworks going off every night for 15 nights, some nights were crazier than others but still that is a lot of gun powder.  You could smell it in the air on some days.

The Spring Festival runs from the first new moon in either January or February until the Full moon.  It moves around every year depending on the cycle of the moon.  It was February 8th – 22nd this year.  In preparation for the holiday houses are thoroughly cleaned to sweep away any ill-fortunes from the previous year,  and red lanterns and sashes are hung up in front of doors.   Red in Chinese culture symbolizes good fortune and joy.  It is thought to be a happy color and is strictly forbidden in funerals.

Here are some of the decorations we saw:

House with CNY decorations
Restaurant Courtyard
Outside a clan temple
Decorations in the mall

As part of the spring cleaning, B’s school had a  cleaning day in which all the kids helped clean the school.  It was really cute they had mops, brooms and vacuums and all helped.  If people do not do a good job cleaning their houses especially the kitchens, the Kitchen God can make a bad report to the Jade Emperor.   As part of this they bribe him with sweets.  This is a sticky sweet treat you can get in the market to place in your kitchen.  It is so sticky that it will make sure the Kitchen God can’t open his mouth to tell on you.

The Jade Emperor is according to Wikipedia:

The Jade Emperor (Chinese: 玉皇; pinyin: Yù Huáng or 玉帝, Yù Dì) in Chinese culture, traditional religionsand myth is one of the representations of the first god (太帝 tài dì). In Taoist theology he is Yuanshi Tianzun, one of the Three Pure Ones, the three primordial emanations of the Tao. He is also the Cao Đài (“Highest Power”) of Caodaism.

The Jade Emperor is known by many names, including Heavenly Grandfather (天公, Tiān Gōng), which originally meant “Heavenly Duke”, which is used by commoners; the Jade Lord the Highest Emperor, Great Emperor of Jade (玉皇上帝, Yu Huang Shangdi or 玉皇大帝, Yu Huang Dadi).

The Jade Emperor’s birthday is the the 9th day of the first lunar month.  So half way through the CNY celebration his birthday is celebrated.  There is a lot of prayer and lots more fireworks.  This celebration is especially important to the Hokkien people.  There is a large population of this Chinese ethnic group here in Penang.

Treats for the Kitchen God

Houses are also decorated with Chrysanthemums, kumquats and gourds for good luck and prosperity.  They symbolize good luck and prosperity for the year ahead.

Gourds used for decoration
Mums and Kumquats
Gourds and oranges

The Mandarin Orange is another thing you will see tons of around CNY.  They are everywhere and exchanged freely by everyone.  We received them from both Nathan’s company and B’s school.    The kids at the school had their own orange exchange too, it was cute!

Oranges from B’s school

One of the biggest events for CNY is the dinner on the New Year’s Eve.  It is called Nian Ye Fan, and is a reunion dinner for families.  People travel far and wide back to their home towns to be with their families.  It is very much like our Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Steam boat, which is a primarily sea food meal you cook your self in a boiling broth at the table, is especially popular for the family meals here in Penang.

We get two public holidays following CNY Eve.  All the Chinese owned businesses were closed for at least those 2 days, closing early on CNY eve, if not closed the whole week.  Many restaurants and shops were closed in the malls too.  I was quite surprised by this as nothing has ever closed for a holiday before.   It is eerie quite around here, until midnight and then holy fireworks.  Below is a rather poor quality video I took on my phone, but you can see the amount of fireworks going off. Keep in mind when you watch this that fireworks are technically illegal in Penang.


One of the things that goes along with CNY dragon and lion dances.  B LOVES lion dances, I can not even begin to describe to you how much he loves them.  It is all he talks about.  They did one at school, he got to be one of the drummers.  This means he loves drums, his Grandparents thought it was so cute, they bought him one while they were here.  Luckily in the monster condo you can actually walk away from the noise.

There was a lion dance on stilts in the mall.  It is always a neat thing to see.


The below video is of B watching this Lion Dance.  It is only here for the family.  I am not naive enough to think that most people want to watch a 1:30 video of my kid watching a Lion Dance, but the Grandparents will love it.  Enjoy!

While walking around in Chinatown during CNY we came across this.

Traveling Lion Dance Troupe

They pulled up in a lorry banging their drums and started setting up.  B was beyond excited.  Businesses and home hire these troupes to come in and do a symbolic dance to chase away any bad spirits the may have accumulated in the previous year.  They also use fireworks in this.

Below is a video of the Lion Dance with fireworks, excuse the bad camera work in the middle, as I needed to make sure B wasn’t being hit by anything as they went off.

The aftermath

B loved the whole thing, the fireworks, the drums and the Lion. He was not even remotely scared of all the loud noise.  He cried the whole way down the street when we left.  He then proceeded to talk of nothing but fireworks and lion dances for the next 3 days.  He demands to watch Lion Dance videos on-line, and every time he sees a lorry like the one they got out of he yells LION DANCE!!!  Like that is where the dances come from since he saw them get out of one at the store.

The Spring Festival wraps up after 15 days. The last day is for couples kind of like Valentines day.   There is a tradition for single ladies to write their name and contact info on a mandarin  orange and throw it into a body of water such as river, lake or ocean.  The single men collect the oranges and eat them.  If  they are sweet, it could mean good fate with that lady if they are sour then that is a bad match.  There are also more fireworks, possibly crazier than the first night.

We enjoyed our first CNY.  It was interesting to learn all about the symbols of luck and prosperity and the traditions that go along with the festival.  From what I have gathered most expats stay their first year, and then generally travel the rest of them while they are here.  That is probably what we will do next year since there are two holidays guaranteed with it.  I think it is a lot like being in the US on Christmas when you don’t celebrate it. Not a lot to do because it is such a family based holiday and nothing is open.

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