On the fifteenth day of New Year my mama said to me
15. tang yuen and chap go mei
A few events take place on the last day of the New Year. One is chap go mei where people light up lanterns. One legend has it that a beautiful crane of the Jade Emperor flew down to earth and it was slaughtered by villagers. In his fury, the Jade emperor wanted to destroy the entire village. The emperor’s daughter took pity on the villagers and warned them. A wise man from another village suggested to the villagers to make and light up red lanterns, set up bonfires and set off firecrackers on the last three days of the new year. When the Jade Emperor’s troops descended from heaven, they saw the village ablaze and reported accordingly to the emperor. Disaster was averted. Hence on the last day of the New Year, firecrackers are lit and lanterns are made and lit as well a part of the celebrations. This day is not to be confused with the Mid-Autumn Festival later on in the year, which is also known as the Lantern Festival.
Fireworks were a big part of my CNY celebrations when I was growing up (the next highlight after hong bao collection) and the 15th day was the last day I could play with them. And play, I certainly did. The street we lived on was converted to fireworks street on certain nights. We would line or pile up our fireworks and take our turns firing them off into the night sky. The fireworks ranged from plain sparklers to shooting lights, to popping balls of fire that would break out into little droplets or form a flower in the sky, to spinners and everything in between. Some would be handheld and others placed on flat surfaces before being fired off. I remember on one occasion, a firework misfired and came at me instead of shooting off into the sky. I ducked in time to save my face! Whew! There was always a risk of fire and reports of houses being burnt down as a result of fireworks were not unheard of. After a few years, fireworks were banned. Today, fireworks are set off at the beginning and end of CNY in a controlled manner, usually as part of a very large celebration. It’s nowhere nearly as fun as holding it and experiencing the trepidation that it might explode in your hand when lit — adding to the thrill.
For most families, however, chap go mei is more like a second family reunion where the focus is again on family togetherness and food. Lighting of lanterns is not common in Malaysia and Singapore and is usually left to the Mid-Autumn Festival when the celebration is longer.
The moon is also supposed to be perfectly ‘full’ or round on that day, and many people eat sweet dumplings on the day.It is also a family affair as the dumplings in a bowl symbolises family togetherness.
Tang yuen is also eaten at the onset of winter when Chinese families in China reunite to celebrate the winter Dongzhi Festival (winter solstice), usually around the December period . The dumplings made then can be sweet or savoury, unlike during CNY when it is only sweet. On that day, everybody is considered a year older as under the Zhao Dynasty, that was their new year day and the tradition continued. The winter celebration however, is not well-known nor common in Singapore and Malaysia, unlike CNY and the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Lastly, it is also the first of two Valentine celebrations in the year. The 15th day was supposedly the only day that young maidens could dress up and walk out of their homes, albeit still chaperoned, to admire the many lit lanterns. The boys would also walk out, under the pretense of looking at lanterns but in fact, it was to look at the beautifully adorned young ladies. Mandarin oranges would be thrown into the river with messages on them and hopeful lads would fish out the oranges further down stream, with the hope that he has found the love of his life. It was said that the sweetness or sourness of the orange was also an indication of the sweetness or sourness of the impending relationship.
On this day, it is not uncommon for single ladies to write their mobile numbers, name and New Year wishes and throw them into bodies of water where the festivities are held, in the hope that a young man further along (with a fishing net, no less) would pick up the Mandarin and give them a call. Though not all are looking for love, many throw oranges into water as part of the festivities. This year, the western Valentine’s Day is within CNY as well. In some countries, lanterns were designed in the shape of hearts and they were on sale before the 15th day of CNY.
This brings us to the end of this series. Thank you for reading. Xin Nian Kuai Le! Wan Shi Ru Yi! Happy New Year! May all go well for you!
Tang yuen from:
Dessert Story, Hougang Avenue 10, #02-18, Singapore 538766. Tel: 6387 6620.
Ji De Chi, 63 Jurong West Central 3, #03-102/103/104 Jurong Point 2 Shopping Centre. Tel: 67948887.