A quarter of the population in Malaysia is of Chinese descent, hence Chinese New Year takes on great importance and is a national holiday.
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The Chinese have had a centuries-long presence in the country, and, in Penang – one of the biggest cities in Malaysia – a plurality of the residents are of Chinese ethnic background.
Chinese New Year is also called “Spring Festival” and “Lunar New Year” because it comes in the springtime and is dated based on the Chinese lunar calendar. The date fluctuates, from a Western perspective, but comes in either January or February. Each Chinese New Year is designated as “the year of“ one of the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac, which animal is supposed to characterise that year and all those born in it.
Chinese New Year is the most important annually recurring festival for people of Chinese ancestry all over the world. It has been celebrated for over 1,000 years – possibly much longer, and the traditions involved are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. For many, it is also a religious holiday, full of prayers, offerings, and other acts of devotion.
In Malaysia, as elsewhere, people prepare for Chinese New Year well in advance. Houses are cleaned out thoroughly before it arrives to “sweep out any bad luck,” but brooms are hidden away on New Year’s Day for fear of “sweeping away the good luck” that the arrival of a new year brings. New clothes, to be worn on New Year’s Day, and a large stash of food for New Year’s Eve dinner, are also purchased in advance, making the shopping centres very busy this time of year. Greeting cards are also commonly exchanged.
Chinese New Year is actually celebrated for 15 consecutive days, but the first three days are most important. The 15th and final day, Chap Goh Mei is also a big event, where houses are decorated with an abundance of brightly coloured lights. It is a way of ending with a grand finale rather than the festivities just fading away gradually.
On the eve before the first day of the new year, family-only dinners and reunions are held. On the subsequent days, however, many will invite friends and outright strangers to come dine with them. This “open house” policy is also practiced during other Malaysian holidays and at large public Chinese New Year gatherings put on at Malaysian community halls. It should not be hard to get invited to a party.
Other Chinese New Year traditions include: “Yee Sang,” a vegetable medley dish eaten by throwing its pieces high in the air with chopsticks to bring good luck; hanging up “duilian,” scrolls bearing famous lines form Chinese poetry; attending lion and dragon dances; betting on card games, so long as the bets are modest; giving out gifts of money in small red ang-pao packages; and attending fireworks displays, the biggest of which are in Chinese districts of Kuala Lumpur and in cities with large Chinese populations.
You can expect traffic jams when traveling during the days just before Chinese New Year’s Day. Many are heading from the big cities to the villages to celebrate New Year’s with family, and many others are on their way to upcoming celebrations. On New Year’s Day itself, however, the streets are eerily silent. Businesses largely close down, and all of the noisy celebrating is going on inside private homes where it can’t be heard.
If touring Malaysia during Chinese New Year festivities, you will certainly find many activities to take part in. Three that you may wish to consider are as follows:
- Visit the island of Penang, the number one place to be for a Malaysian Chinese New Year. In the island’s main city, Georgetown, you can view numerous gorgeously decorated temples, including the famous tourist magnet known as “Kek Lok Si Temple”. Also make sure you stay up late into the night this time of year, as do many of the locals, to see Georgetown set ablaze by millions of coloured lights that are turned on every night.
- See Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur. On Petaling Street, there are many temples where the devout come to pray for New Year’s blessings. There are also lion dances in the streets and fireworks going off overhead. More lion dances can be seen inside the shopping malls nearby during the first three days of Chinese New Year, and the elaborate decorations in the mall are also well worth seeing. Many of the smaller shops will close down so the owners can visit their relatives for a few days, but after that, they will be open as well.
- Get a taste of adventure by going on the Kinabatangan River Cruise in the East Malaysian province of Sabah. This will certainly give you a change of pace and some memories that will last a lifetime. The river winds through Sabah for 335 miles, and all along the way, you can view the exotic wildlife on its shores. During the daytime, look for pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, and saltwater crocs. At night, with the help of a light, you may catch a glimpse of leopard cats, wild jungle pigs, and tropical birds asleep in the tree branches.
Visiting Malaysia is always a fun and interesting experience, but visiting during Chinese New Year makes it even more memorable. Most states of Malaysia provide two official public holidays for the first two days of Chinese New Year, however Kelantan and Terengganu only provide a holiday for the first day.