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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Chinese New Year celebration: Then and Now

 Chinese New Year celebration: Then and Now
    By Wan Chwee Seng

 Ensconced in the warmth and comfort of the sofa, I watch my wife, as she busied herself in the annual ritual of sorting and throwing papers and envelopes into a plastic bag. It is that time of year when most Chinese families are engaged in spring cleaning. 
A few Chinese New Year cards, their pink envelopes, now faded and worn, catches my eyes and I begin to reminisce about the Chinese New Year celebration of my childhood days in the 1950s. With a twinge of nostalgia, I recall how Chinese New Year celebration has changed over the years.
Chinese New Year then was a much awaited occasion for it was not only a time for joyous celebration, but a time when we kids would have  new clothes and perhaps, a pair of new shoes.

I remember we would wake up in the middle of the night to hear the almost incessant, clicking cadence of the old Singer sewing machine,  as mother worked tirelessly to sew clothes for my six sisters.
The dresses were virtually identical, as they were cut from the same piece of cloth.

Today, we just have to walk into a boutique or department store, at anytime of the year, and pick the 'hippiest' and trendiest fashion off- the- racks

Weeks before Chinese New Year we would shop for Chinese New 
Year cards at the many temporary stalls that were set up along the road sides. 

A photo greeting card from our uncle Song Soon Chin

Some well-wishers even sent photo greeting cards.
Greetings were written in our best handwriting and the cards were posted  as early as possible, as it was  the era of the 'snail mail'. 
The moment we received mail with pink envelopes, we would open them excitedly to find out the names of the senders. The cards were then proudly displayed on the table or hung as decoration.  

Today, we can send out new year greetings with a click of a mouse or the tap of a finger.

Granite grinder (batu boh)

Cookies were mostly home-made and whenever rice flour was required we had to grind the glutinous rice manually with the aid of a granite grinder ( batu boh) 


Flour in plastic packets

Today, rice and wheat flour are readily available in neatly packed plastic packets.

Kuih kapit cooked over charcoal fire 

Dodol cooked over wood fire

Cookies such as kuih kapit (love letters) were baked over charcoal fire while others such as dodol and kuih bakul were 
cooked over wood fire. Somehow, the traditional method gave the cookies a unique flavour and fragrance.

A gas stove and electric oven

Families now cook or bake cookies using  gas stove or  electric oven equipped with touch buttons and timers.

Like most families in our kampung (village), mother would buy and raise chickens, so that they would be ready for the New Year.

Today, we just have to pick a dressed chicken from the shelf and pay at the cashier's counter.

 New Year's eve reunion dinner  was celebrated at ancestral home with family members, as all restaurants and shops would be closed for the New Year. I remember mother would prepare a wide variety of nyonya dishes(pongteh, buah keluak, itik tim, chap chai, kari ayam) and other scrumptious dishes for the special occasion. 
The house would be filled with the sound of animated conversations and boisterous laughter.

The growing trend is to hold reunion dinners at hotels and restaurants where families have to dine among strangers. Much of the gaiety is lost in the formal atmosphere.

At the stroke of mid-night, a rapid burst of explosion like the sound of sporadic gunfire would jolt us from our sleep, as firecrackers are set off to usher in the New Year. Soon the whole neighbourhood would echo to the pops and crackles of 
crackers and the occasional sonic boom of bamboo cannons. Later,
throughout the day and night, children with lighted joss sticks would light firecrackers hung from bamboo poles or planted under tin cans.

Fireworks lit the night sky

Today with the ban on firecrackers and fireworks Chinese New Year is relatively quiet. However, the tranquility of the nights are still broken by the boom of illegal fireworks which send children rushing out to catch a glimpse of the blaze of colours that light up the night sky.                                             
The traditional way of greetings

 On the first day of Chinese New Year children would ask their parents and elders to take a seat and then with clasped hands they would squat and wish them a long, healthy and prosperous life.        



Modern way of greetings

Youngsters will give their elders a hug or a hand shake and wish them 'Happy Chinese New Year'.

'Ang pau' made from a piece of red paper

Ang Pau (red packets) were made from a piece of red paper that was carefully cut and folded and we were happy to receive the twenty cents ang pau money. 

Red packets with  New Year greetings

'Ang pau'  now come replete with New Year greetings printed on their covers and are available from banks and most super markets. With inflation the 'ang pau' money too has increased to a few dollars.

Peranakan Chinaware

During this festive season, mother would bring out her peranakan Chinaware and used them to serve tea and cookies to our guests. At the end of the New Year she would complain of missing cups and spoons. Later, she discovered, beside enjoying
the nyonya kuih some guests also took home small items  as mementos of their visit.

F&N drinks in glass bottles and a bottle opener

Guests were also served fizzy drinks, usually F&N  drinks in
glass bottles, packed in wooden crates. A bottle opener  was kept close at hand to open the tin bottle caps.

Nowadays, guests are usually served packet drinks, conveniently equipped with straws, canned drinks or fizzy drinks in plastic bottles.

Food is served in disposable paper plates.

These are some of the changes that I can remember about Chinese New Year Celebration. Readers who can remember about the other changes I hope can share their experiences. 


  1. So many changes! But it's good to know, despite the continuously evolving way of celebrating the Chinese New Year, the essence of the celebration remains the same- family and home.

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