Thursday, 4 February 2016

Chinese New Year: not just for the Chinese.

You don't have to be Chinese to have fun during the Lunar New year

Chinese New Year is coming up. In the same way that millions of non-Christians celebrate Christmas, you don’t have to be Chinese to celebrate Chinese New Year. Here are just a few reasons why:

It’s not a religious festival.

Unlike Christmas, Eid or Diwali, Chinese New Year is not a religious festival as such. There are various customs and superstitions. Some people might make offerings at family altars of to household gods, but not everyone does. I’m pretty sure that for most people, participation in the festivities will not be in conflict with their religious beliefs.

It occurs around February

This is often considered a rather bleak time in the Northern hemisphere. Everyone is back at work after Christmas, it’s cold and dark, and although Chinese New Year is sometimes called the Spring Festival, Spring seems very far away. It’s a good time for some festive activity, especially in countries where Carnival is not a big thing.


It’s the custom to get new clothes and to get a haircut before Chinese New Year.  Not so much an indulgence, as it is for Christmas, but more of an obligation. Something to do with a fresh start, I believe. The colour red is favoured as this is regarded as auspicious, but it doesn’t matter too much if it’s not really your colour.


The eve of Chinese New Year is the traditional time for a family reunion dinner. Another excuse for a family get-together after Christmas, or just to meet up with your friends.

Cash in red envelopes.

Chinese New Year is the time for giving. Not presents, but cash, in little red envelopes.

These are given by adults to children (and teenagers), who are not obliged to reciprocate. On New Year’s Day, the children wish their parents a Happy New Year. Traditionally, this is done in a kneeling position, but a handshake should suffice. The cash is then handed over. During the festive perod, which lasts officially for 15 days, any adult who is known to the child, or who might be an acquaintance of the parents is fair game, and expected to hand over a red packet when greeted. It probably helps keep the young ones well behaved on social occasions.


The tradition is to let off fireworks during Chinese New year, to ward off evil spirits. The period before Chinese New Year is one of the four occasions when it is legal to buy fireworks in Britain (the other three being the time around Guy Fawkes Day, Between Christmas and New year, and the Diwali period). Traditional Chinese firecrackers, the ones that look like sticks of dynamite, also known in Britain as bangers, have been illegal in the UK since 1997, so you’ll have to make do with normal fireworks. But never mind. They’re still a lot of fun, and it’s your last chance before Diwali.

In case you're wondering, this is the traditional version (not permitted in the UK, may I remind you once again).


Traditional Chinese New Year food varies according to region and community, so my advice would be to eat what you like. It doesn’t even have to be Chinese. In  Singapore and Malaysia, one of the traditional dishes is raw fish, sliced finely and mixed with finely shredded vegetables and pickles, and tossed in together with a sweet sour sauce. Known as yu sheng in Mandarin, or yee sang in Cantonese, it’s a sort of sashimi for people who don’t really like raw fish. There’s no beef or pork, so it should be acceptable to most Hindus and Muslims.

The dish is put in the middle of the table and everyone participates by in mixing the ingredients, tossing them in the air as they do so, which is supposed to bring good luck, as shown in the video below. Watch it till the end for a demonstration of the traditional method of consuming alcoholic beverages on festive occasions.

I believe there are restaurants in the UK which serve yu sheng. Because the raw fish is so disguised, there are also vegetarian versions, where you probably won't notice much difference.

This is clearly not a comprehensive account of the Chinese New year, and I may even have got a few facts wrong, but I have tried to show how it is a festival which can be celebrated by everyone. There is no need to be Chinese. After all, what could be more British than red coats, explosions, shopping, hairdressing, parties and cash. Not to mention tossing food around, at least among members of certain social classes.

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