One of the most internationally celebrated events in the year, Chinese New Year approaches once more. Due to its alignment with the lunar calendar and traditions tied with ancient zodiac animals, the celebrations alter slightly year by year and no two countries celebrate the same. The new year festivities are traditionally 15 days long, leading up to the first full moon of the year, but invariably, the true celebrations are anywhere between two to eight days. Cities string red lanterns across the streets, put up exorbitant red displays and set off firecrackers to light the sky and scare away the bad things. Ethnic Chinese and the citizens of China often go to temple and burn paper models and symbols to send off to their ancestors, have their fortunes told, clean the house to sweep away the bad luck of the year prior, and most importantly, see their families. Visitors don’t necessarily need to adhere to these philosophies and practices, but they can join the festivities where the festivities are held. For the biggest celebrations of Chinese New Year in Asia.
The mother of all Lunar New Year celebrations, almost literally, Beijing hosts a long string of carnivals, festivals, worship ceremonies and parties in town squares, parks and temples. Unlike the New Year and Spring Lantern festivals of the new world and Europe thrown by immigrant communities of Chinese, the festival scene in Beijing and surrounding areas in China places special importance on the idea of family and historical tradition. Families in Beijing spend the end of the year cleaning and decorating their houses to prepare for the coming 12 months and use the first two days of the festival to visit family. Much time is spent honoring ancestors and praying to the gods in temples.
Around town, the atmosphere of festive New Year is enriched by historic buildings and temples dating back to the 1700s. There’s the Heaven-worshipping ceremony at the Temple of Heaven, a ritual that dates back to 1748 with performers dressed in period Qing dynasty garb, the Temple Fairs held in temple parks around the city (this tradition dates back to around 1000 AD) where people crowd the parks and admire the lion dancers, folk performances, drum shows and parades and play games and delight in the vast array of local foods being sold. Recently, however, more places have been throwing their own twist on the celebrations: check out the illuminated ice sculptures at the Yanguing Ice Festival during the lantern festival. On the eve of the New Year, citizens ignite the sky with explosions of fireworks all over the city, which lasts for a very long time.
Penang George Town, Malaysia
The city of Georgetown in Penang, Malaysia, prides itself on having the largest Chinese New Year celebration in Southeast Asia. Thanks to its sizable Chinese population, Chinese New Year in Penang is especially boisterous. On the eve of the New Year, Malaysian Chinese turn up in their ancestral homes to eat, gamble, and celebrate with their families. Throughout the Chinese New Year season, Penang comes alive with innumerable parties and parades, but several events are particularly worth seeing if you’re visiting the area. The Temple of Supreme Bliss on Air Itam, or Kek Lok Si Temple, is the site for some of the biggest festivities leading up to Chinese New Year.
From February 7 to 22, 2016, more than 200,000 light bulbs and 10,000 lanterns will illuminate this century-old temple, shedding light on the Chinese New Year celebrations swirling around. The lights will turn on from 7pm to midnight, transforming this ancient temple into a gorgeous palace of light in the dark hours throughout Chinese New Year. This 15 day celebration draws visitors from all over the world and entertains them with deity parades, fireworks and lion and dragon dances. For comfortable and unique accommodations, look for the historic waterfront Jetty houses, owned by individual Chinese family clans.
Shanghai is a visitor-friendly destination to capture the centuries old traditions of the new year. Locals and tourists alike go to see the gorgeous lantern displays at Yuyuan Old Town Bazaar, ring the bells, burn joss sticks at the City God Temple which dates to the year 1403 or Longhua Temple, which was first built in 242 AD, and crowd Nanjing Road, one of the world’s busiest shopping streets, to go on a spree to replace old household items and lap up the Chinese New Year deals to get fresh for the new year. Performers and models wearing traditional cheongsam go walk through the Yuyuan Garden holding ornately decorated lanterns to celebrate the Lantern Festival, which opens the spring season and is considered the Chinese version of Valentine’s day.
Hong Kong, China
Hong Kong, an already colorful city, gets a red kick right around the days leading up to the new year. The night parade in Tsim Sha Tsui is one of the biggest attractions, kicking off the new year. It’s brightly lit float after brightly lit float, following performance artists and dancers along the harborfront sending down a rain of confetti and elaborate decorations. Families with young children can make their Happy New Year even happier at Hong Kong Disneyland, which has organized Chinese New Years events and attractions as well as Mickey and his crew rocking traditional Chinese garb. One night during the festival, hit the Peak at the top of Hong Kong Island and receive blessings at their Wheel of Fortune attraction as well as catch incredible panoramic views of Central, Victoria Harbour Lamma Island and more. During the day, visitors can wander the flower markets and temples, and indulge in the offerings from the local street markets.
Thailand is made up of more than 10% descendants from ethnic Chinese, expect large festivals for the lunar new year in Bangkok’s Chinatown and to a lesser extent, Chiang Mai. With more than 10% of the population descendants of ethnic Chinese and the ever-present influence of the big country to the north, it’s no surprise that the Chinese lunar new year is a big deal in Thailand. Ethnic Chinese celebrate by paying respects to their ancestors. In cities and towns all over the country, people put together traditional offering ceremonies, where elaborate feasts are prepared and laid out as a gift to the spirits.
People also offer symbolic gifts to their ancestors. If you walk the streets in the run up to the New Year, you’ll see vendors selling paper telephones, paper money, and even paper whiskey bottles! People buy these paper items and burn them as offerings, too. Members of the Chinese community take a day off work to pray to the gods and pay respect to the ancestors, and go into town to worship, crack fireworks, admire the dragon dancers and enjoy the huge Chinese banquets. The already bright signs of Chinatown get the red lantern treatment and the streets open up with more food stalls than usual while the parade charges through. Chinese New Year draws millions of visitors from all over to celebrate with the Thai-Chinese communities, and the parades and cultural performances highlight the legacy of Chinese culture in Thailand.
Unsurprisingly, Singapore also claims to have one of the largest Chinese New Year celebrations in Southeast Asia. Chinese New Year in Singapore marks the debut of the Year of the Monkey in style, with a fantastic celebration spanning the whole island. For 2016, the Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore’s Chinatown begin on January 16 and continue till March 8. Chinese New Year in Singapore kicks off in the ethnic enclave of Chinatown, particularly along Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road.
The Chinatown Chinese New Year Celebrations transform the island-state’s traditional Chinese enclave into a riot of lanterns, street stalls, and performing arts, with celebrations extending as far as Marina Bay. Look forward to a few key events of the season: a Street Light-Up, a Festive Street Bazaar, Nightly Stage Shows, and the Singapore River Hong Bao.
For the fifth year running, the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) participated in the design and construction of the Chinese New Year Light-Up. For 2016, the SUTD team took inspiration from the Chinese classic novel Journey to the West and incorporated 466 peach tree lanterns, 400 monkeys and 1,500 gold coins into their massive light-up.
Festive Street Bazaar. Chinatown will host more than five hundred stalls selling traditional foods, flowers, Chinese handicrafts, and customary New Year decorations. Have a go at barbecued sweetmeats, waxed duck, and cookies served fresh on the street, or pick up some traditional Chinese New Year decorations to remember the day by.
The Lunar New Year bazaar stalls line Pagoda Street, Smith Street, Sago Street, Temple Street and Trengganu Street within Chinatown, from 6pm to 10:30pm, extended to 1am on Chinese New Year. For the 2016 celebrations, the Bazaar runs from January 15 to February 7.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Ethnic Chinese are the largest minority in Malaysia’s metropolitan Kuala Lumpur; you’ll find a parade, fireworks, and grand celebration near the Central Market in KL Chinatown.
Quieter than many of the other cities in the area with large ethnic Chinese populations, the celebrations in Kuala Lumpur are a little more reserved out on the street. Celebrators crowd temples like Thean Hou, a gorgeous and ornately decorated six-tiered synthetic temple located in Robson Heights, to pay respects to the gods, light joss sticks and burn papercuts for their ancestors and admire the decorations. Malls also get a touch of decor and host small celebrations and in the evenings, people begin to stream through the streets to enjoy the open air markets and light fireworks.
Chinese New Year is celebrated enthusiastically in Vietnam as Tet Nguyen Dan, or just simply Tet. Expect a big bash in Hue, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
The Vietnamese New Year – Tet Nguyen Dan – follows the same lunar calendar that governs Chinese New Year celebrations worldwide. So on the same day the world celebrates Chinese New Year, the people of Vietnam celebrate Tet. The Vietnamese consider Tet to be the year’s most important festival. Family members gather in their hometowns, traveling from across the country (or the world) to spend the Tet holidays in each other’s company.
Tet Nguyen Dan translates literally to “the first morning of the first day of the new year”. Long before Tet, Vietnamese try to get rid of any “bad fortune” by cleaning their homes, buying new clothes, resolving disputes, and paying their debts.
Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese believe that Tet marks the time when the Kitchen God reports on their family to the Jade Emperor. A week before Tet, family members attempt to propitiate the Kitchen God by burning gold leaf paper and offering carp (live, placed in a bucket of water upon the family altar) for him to ride. Houses are cleaned (or repainted) and decorated with yellow blossoms. A bamboo plant called a Cay Neu is planted in the family courtyard: decorated with red streamers and flowers, the Cay Neu is believed to welcome good luck and ward off evil spirits in the week-long interregnum between the old Kitchen God’s departure and the arrival of his replacement.
Vietnamese also pay tribute to their ancestors throughout Tet. Each mid-day, for the duration of the New Year week, offerings are placed on the household altar and incense is burned in memory of the departed.
Chinese New Year Celebrations Outside of Asia
If you can’t make it to Asia for this year’s celebration, don’t worry: nearly every large city in the US and Europe will observe Chinese New Year to some degree.
London, San Francisco, and Sydney all claim to have the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside of Asia. Crowds of more than half a million flock to watch the cities trying to outdo each other! Expect big parades and an enthusiastic celebration in Vancouver, New York, and Los Angeles as well.
Travel During Chinese New Year
Unfortunately, travel in Asia during Chinese New Year can be pricey and frustrating as accommodation fills up and transportation services become limited. If visiting any major city in Asia during the festivities, plan well in advance!