By SGN | 16 Jan 2023
The Lunar New Year is one of Asia’s biggest annual celebrations. A spring festival that symbolises new beginnings, it entails a series of customs, rituals and superstitions that ward off bad luck and welcome good fortune for the year ahead.
While many Lunar New Year traditions are universal – spring cleaning, reunion dinners, red packets, lion dances, temple visits, etc. – a closer look reveals just how diverse cultural practices surrounding the holiday can be, not just within Asia but also among the vast Asian diaspora.
Here are eight countries around the world and the unique ways in which their communities ring in the new year.
China: Join the Great Migration ✈️
The Lunar New Year is a time of family reunion. In China, this sets off a massive annual migration known as chunyun (春运), which lasts for 40 days. Across the country, hundreds of millions of people travelling back to their hometowns contend with busy airports, packed trains and congested roads.
At reunion dinner on the eve, families gather to eat dumplings (considered lucky because they are shaped like gold ingots) and watch the Spring Festival Gala or Chunwan (春晚), the most watched television programme in the world. The night then ends with admiring fireworks at midnight or visiting bustling street markets.
Malaysia: Call Me Maybe 🍊
Chinese communities in Malaysia enjoy such festivities as firecrackers and lion dances in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown and the mesmerising light-up at Kek Lok Si in Penang, whereby the country’s largest Buddhist temple is set aglow by millions of coloured lamps.
On the 15th day of the new year, also known as chap goh mei in Hokkien, locals carry lanterns, eat glutinous rice balls or tangyuan (汤圆), while some females perform the peculiar custom of the orange toss – with a modern twist.
Traditionally, young and unmarried women would throw mandarin oranges into the sea or some other water body to wish for a good husband. Today, they might scribble their names and phone numbers on the oranges in jest (or should we say zest?) before tossing them for men in boats to retrieve.
Did you know? Malaysians have coined the term Kongsi Raya to describe the once-in-33-years phenomenon of the Lunar New Year overlapping with Hari Raya Aidilfitri for three consecutive years. The next cycle will commence in 2029!
Australia: Cultures Converge in Chinatown 🏮
Home to a large Asian population, Sydney famously throws an elaborate multicultural Lunar New Year bash each year.
In addition to a dazzling New Year’s Eve fireworks display on Sydney Harbour, this year’s celebrations will include dragon boat races, street festivals in Chinatown and Thai Town, handpainted gateways with references to Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese architecture, Asian-Australian art exhibitions, and performances by Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Taiwanese and Japanese community groups.
Korea: Respect (and Feed) Your Elders 🙇
During the Korean New Year, or Seollal, there is a great emphasis on honouring one’s ancestors. On Day 1, families perform ancestral rites that involve deep bows and food offerings before they themselves tuck into a feast.
In contrast to the Chinese glutinous rice cakes niangao (年糕), which are usually darkened with brown sugar, Korean rice cakes at New Year’s are white and sliced into discs (much like the Shanghainese version of niangao).
These rice cakes are cooked in a beefy broth to make tteokguk, which is topped with seaweed, spring onion, and julienned omelette. In the past, there used to be a custom of asking ‘How many bowls of tteokguk have you eaten?’ to inquire about someone’s age.
Vietnam: Welcome the Year of the Cat 😸
It’s a little unclear how the Cat usurped the position of the Rabbit in the Vietnamese zodiac, but one common theory is mistranslation, since the traditional zodiac character for Rabbit (卯) sounds like the character for Cat (猫). In any case, Vietnamese celebrations this year will be featuring a slightly different furry friend from the rest of the world!
Lunar New Year or Tết decor in Vietnam typically showcases a beautiful profusion of yellow flowers such as marigolds, chrysanthemums and yellow apricot blossoms. Also on display are cây nêu, New Year ‘trees’ that are in fact long bamboo poles adorned with scrolls, amulets, and other good luck charms.
Festive fare is highly varied, but most essential are the glutinous rice cakes wrapped in dong leaves and filled with pork belly and mung bean. Depending on its shape, this scrumptious snack is known as bánh tét (cylindrical log) or bánh chưng (square block).
Japan: Pull Hard for Good Luck 🪢
Although Japan has been celebrating New Year’s Day on Jan 1 since adopting the Gregorian calendar in 1873, pockets of the Ryukyu Islands in the south still observe the Lunar New Year and retain charming traditions of olden days.
During this season, some Okinawan towns put up flags and eat Okinawan soba, Kudaka Island fishing boats raise colourful banners to pray for a bountiful catch, while residents of Kuro Island don happi coats and perform a ceremony that culminates in a tug of war – a win by Team North signifies livestock prosperity, a win by Team South portends an abundant harvest – and the arrival of the god of the harvest.
United States: Celebrate with Mickey & Mulan 🏰
There are fantastic annual Chinatown parades in major American cities such as New York and San Francisco, but if you’re a child (or a child at heart), none might be more magical than Mulan’s Lunar New Year Procession at Disneyland. This year, the theme park will be presenting a touching water show centred on family reunion and food marketplaces offering an array of Asian-inspired dishes.
If you happen to be in town, you could also pop over to Universal Studios in Hollywood and join the revelry with Minions, Hello Kitty, Kung Fu Panda – all dressed for the occasion – and a Mandarin-speaking Megatron from Transformers.
Singapore: Lohei Till You Drop 🥢
On top of the vibrant festivities in the Chinatown district, Lunar New Year in Singapore is associated with two beloved nighttime events: River Hongbao, featuring spectacular lantern displays and an evolving lineup of performances, and the Chingay parade, a massive multicultural showcase originally introduced in 1973 to lift festive spirits following a ban on firecrackers.
Singaporeans love to eat. During Lunar New Year, just as inescapable as pineapple tarts and bakkwa (sweet pork jerky) are the endless servings of yeesang (鱼生). At the start of each meal, everyone gathers round the table for lohei (捞起), where the salad of raw fish, shredded vegetables and crispy crackers is tossed into the air with chopsticks while auspicious sayings are uttered enthusiastically. The higher the toss, the greater the luck!
We hope you’ll be having a wonderful celebration with your loved ones this Lunar New Year. Here’s wishing you great happiness and prosperity in the coming Year of the Rabbit (or Cat). Huat ah! 🍊🧧