CNY series: On the first day of New Year…hong bao

I decided that I would talk about Chinese New Year(CNY) over the next fifteen days, as that is how long CNY is celebrated for. So using the idea of the 12 Days of Christmas, I decided to write one thing a day, over the 15 days of the New Year, for fun! Instead of writing ‘my true love said to me’, I am going to write ‘my mama said to me’ instead as most of the culture and practices were practised by her as I watched her as I was growing up. The practices here are mainly seen in Malaysia and Singapore and may not be practised in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan. The weather is also a factor in the practices especially when it comes to food. Countries like Hong Kong, China and Taiwan are still having their winter and they are looking forward to the coming spring and new year and hence, different food may be cooked differently there than here. In Malaysia and Singapore, the weather here is hot all the time (though it has been raining a lot this new year) and certain foods are a result of the influence of other cultures here as well, e.g. the peranakan culture. Where I can and if I am aware of it, I will highlight the differences. There are also slightly different practices between the dialect groups though many of the practices are common to all and the differences are no longer noticeable. The order of the food in this blog is not important, nor the quantity, unless explicitly stated. So here goes.

On the first day of New Year my mama said to me
1. hong bao for you…

On the first day of the New Year, I used to wake up eagerly for my hong bao packet. We would have donned our new clothes, usually in red, and after greeting my parents, I would be handed my hong bao packet. Nowadays, I (being younger) would go and visit the older siblings and relatives in my immediate and extended families. So if I am the youngest in my family and I am no longer staying at home, I would go to my parents’ home and show my respect to them. Usually, everyone in the family would all gather at our parents’ place and we would have a lunch together. The wives would usually follow their husbands to the husbands’ side of the family to pay their respect first. I would then go to my oldest sibling’s place first to visit them and down the line I would go. Of course, with greater distances nowadays, it is not always possible to visit so the reunion dinner is planned like once in a few years and everyone comes back from wherever they are, for it. The reunion dinner happens on the eve of the New Year and is very important for the family to gather, especially if the patriach or matriach of the family is still around.

Chinese New Year is the time when countries like China, Hong Kong and Taiwan are on extended holidays as people travel great distances to make it for their reunion dinners on the eve and the first day of the New Year. In Singapore and Malaysia, many Chinese companies close for about a week to celebrate the new year and to allow their staff to return to their countries for the celebrations.

On New Year day, hong baos(red packets) are given by parents to children and grandchildren, and by those who are married to the unmarried ones. If the person is an unmarried bachelor/bachelorette, they would still receive the red packets. Some adult singles give hong baos to their nieces or nephews and to their parents, especially if they are already earning an income. All red packets have money in them. Even if one does not know another person very well, as long as one is married, they’ll give a red packet to those who are unmarried. The only difference is in the amount of money in the red packet.

Samples of red packets. The packets are red traditionally so the purple ones are an adaptation. The words on the purple packet mean ‘joy’, while the ones in the background mean ‘harvest’. Some red packets would have the zodiac sign of the year on the packets as well. This year is the Year of the Snake, according to the Chinese zodiac.


One thought on “CNY series: On the first day of New Year…hong bao

  1. Pingback: An initiation into nobility | Sudah makan? Have you eaten?

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