Chinese New Year is just around the corner, but what do the customs and food eaten during this festive season actually mean?

There’s a plethora of traditions that we adhere to whenever CNY rolls around but if you have ever stopped to wonder why we partake in these rituals, then wonder no more.

We explore the “why?” behind the most popular traditions and discover how they came to be in our gallery below:

1. Is there a minimum sum that a hongbao should contain? Must the hongbao amount always be an even number? Can I put a Toto lucky draw ticket in place of physical money into a hongbao?

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Hongbao, or red packets, are traditionally handed out by married couples to their parents, single adults and children during the Chinese New Year celebrations as tokens of good fortune and blessing.

There is said to be no rule in terms of the amount that should go into a hongbao, as the act of giving a red packet is meant to be a gesture of blessing and not a transaction.

According to Chinese tradition, good things come in pairs, so an even number is preferred. You won’t go wrong with the number eight, as the number sounds like prosperity in Mandarin. Don’t give $4, as it is the Chinese homonym for death.

2. Why is the pussy willow popular during this festive season?

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Because pussy willow plants (also known as catkins) bear their furry buds from late winter onwards, they signify the beginning of spring. Its Chinese name, yin liu, sounds like “money flowing in”.

Some Chinese also believe that plants with abundant buds will bring good fortune.

3. What are the origins of the custom of eating yusheng during CNY?

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The raw fish salad has been the speciality of China’s Guangdong province for centuries and it is eaten there all year round.

It was brought to Singapore by Cantonese immigrants in the 1940s, and later popularised as a Chinese New Year dish by chefs from Lai Wah Restaurant in Bendemeer Road.

Over the years, the salad has become a riot of colours and flavours, including red-and green-dyed radish strips, candied orange peel, and even the use of salmon.

The practice of eating it, complete with the high drama of tossing the ingredients into the air while loudly declaring auspicious wishes during Chinese New Year, is said to be unique to Singapore and Malaysia.

4. How did the concept of a reunion dinner come about?

Before modern and affordable forms of transport came about, it was difficult for family members living in different parts of China to return to their hometown more than once a year.

Chinese New Year was the only time when they would make the journey home for a reunion. Today, the dinner is traditionally held on the eve of Chinese New Year, and serves as an occasion for family bonding.

5. Why do we see lion dance performances, especially during CNY?

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The lion is thought to be an auspicious animal that symbolises courage, determination and resourcefulness. It is traditionally believed that performing dragon or lion dances is a way to pray for good luck and drive away evil spirits.

Lion dances or dragon dances during the festive season or any other joyous occasion (such as store openings) also enhance the festive atmosphere and bring people together to appreciate this tradition.

6. Why do we exchange mandarin oranges during CNY?

This began as a southern Chinese custom. The Cantonese pronunciation of giving mandarin oranges – “song gam” – is the same as “giving gold”, therefore it signifies wishing prosperity upon the recipient.

7. Why do we eat bak kwa during CNY?

Bak kwa (barbecued pork jerky) is a delicacy that is said to have originated from Fujian province in China, where the people were poor and where meat was a festive treat reserved for Chinese New Year.

To make the treat last longer, the pork was sliced thinly, marinated with sugar and spices, air-dried and cooked over a hot plate.

The delicacy subsequently made its way to Singapore, where the pork slices are usually air-dried, then grilled over charcoal for a sweet and smoky flavour. Beyond being tasty, the jerky is also called “long yoke” in Cantonese, which means to have good fortune.

8. Why do we eat goodies such as pineapple tarts, kueh bangkit and love letters during CNY?

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Pineapple tarts are said to be taken from the Straits Chinese or Peranakans’ cookie repertoire, which later found their way to become a must-eat during the festive season.

The Cantonese term for pineapple is “wong lai” – which conveys the idea of ushering in prosperity.

Crispy egg rolls are common in southern China, but the Singapore version, called love letters, contains coconut milk. That suggests that Straits-born Chinese or Malays gave the original a local twist.

For the same reason, kueh bangkit, which is made from tapioca flour and coconut milk, is likely a Peranakan or Malay invention.

9. Why do we wear red clothes during CNY?

Not everyone will be decked out in red come CNY but many will pick this auspicious colour to wear as it symbolises good luck and is thought to chase away spirits that carry bad fortune.

Today, it’s more likely that Chinese families will gravitate towards red clothes or brightly-coloured clothes just to convey that they’re in a cheerful, festive mood. Black, sombre clothes in contrast are frowned upon, especially among the older generation.

10. Why do people visit friends and relatives during CNY?

During Chinese New Year, it’s common for relatives and close friends to visit each other to celebrate in the fun and revelry of the holiday together. These visits not only foster good relationships among family members, they are also a chance to catch-up with relatives that you don’t see very often.


This article was first published in The Straits Times and The Singapore Women’s Weekly.