By Nick Kellingley
IT’S easy to forget that a sizeable part of Malaysia’s population is Chinese. In fact 30 percent (give or take) of people born in Malaysia are of Chinese descent. That means that Chinese New Year in Malaysia is a major festival in the holiday calendar, and just like in China it’s a time of celebration.
The first day of Chinese New Year
In common with China, the first day of the New Year is a family occasion. However, it’s very common for the Malay Chinese community to hold an “open house” on that day too. This is where people from other races and belief systems will be invited to join the celebration with wishes of Gong Xi Fa Choi. Gong Xi Fa Choi, is often thought to mean “Happy New Year” by Westerners but it actually means, “Congratulations on getting rich!” and is a wish for prosperity throughout the following year.
The cities and villages of Malaysia rest during the peak of the day as everyone gathers to celebrate, so it’s worth getting out and enjoying your time with the community rather than expecting a party to come to you. The decorations in each Chinese area of a town are quite spectacular.
Like in China it’s customary to give red envelopes to small children on this day, though they are called Ang Pow in Malaysia and not Hong Bao. These envelopes contain money, so you should always carry a few packets with some small denomination bills (never coins) inside. It’s not compulsory to give every child you meet an Ang Pow but if you’re celebrating with a Malaysian Chinese family the gesture will be appreciated.
Don’t impose yourself on Chinese friends, unless they have formally invited you to an open house as they will expect to spend this day with their families. It’s more usual for friends to visit on the 2nd or 3rd of the New Year.
If you’d like to try some of the festive food, there may be some restaurants open. The Chinatowns in KL, Melaka, Penang and Ipoh will certainly be able to help, as will Chinese restaurants in major hotels.
You’ll want to try yee sang, a Malay Chinese starter that symbolizes good luck throughout the year. It’s made of raw fish (thinly sliced), daikon (a white radish), red peppers, turnips, carrots, ginger, oranges (sun-dried), lime leaves, chili, jellyfish, peanuts, parsley, five spice powder, prawn crackers and often other ingredients. It’s a flavour sensation that bursts onto the palette.
When it is served don’t just dig straight in. Wait for your host to make a toast, and then thrust your chopsticks into the bowl and toss the ingredients as high as you can (make sure you can catch them again). The height of the throw represents the amount of luck a person will have during the year. It is not acceptable to cheat and use a fork for this.
Also keep an eye out for some of the fantastic New Year’s sweets that are served, like the nian kueh (steamed glutinous sugary rice), kueh kapit and kueh bangkit (cakes) and pineapple tarts and peanut biscuits. It’s a good idea to save a little room for dessert!
Another thing to look out for during the first day of the New Year is Chinese lion and dragon dancing. These range from fairly tame displays of dancing costumed players to dazzling acrobatics worth photographing.
The second day of Chinese New Year
Don’t look surprised when everyone you meet tells you much they’re looking forward to spending time with their boss on the second day of the New Year – this is because it’s the day bonuses are paid and when the company holds a dinner in everyone’s honour.
Many of the Chinese stores will start to open in the afternoon, though others will remain closed for another day or two. Visits to Chinatowns in this period are much less hectic than at other times of year and you’ll enjoy having the streets more or less to yourself.
Chinese New Year in Malaysia is great fun and both different and similar to China; you’ll have to experience it for yourself to fully understand.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website
About the author…
Nick Kellingley (UK)
Nick Kellingley is a full-time writer based between Shenzhen, China and Siem Reap, Cambodia. He has been published in many different media and is an award winning blogger. He spent his honeymoon in Malaysia and loves the country and its people.