Chinese New Year - The Wise Traveller

Located in East Asia with the iconic Great Wall of China running east west across the north, China has vast landscapes and over 14,000km of shoreline.  The capital of Beijing has a diverse cityscape of modern and historical sites like the Forbidden City Palace and Tiananmen Square.  The global financial center and skyscraper throbbing metropolis is Shanghai and all over China you can feast on mouth-watering dumplings, not only during the New Year celebrations.

The Chinese New Year is an international celebration of mammoth proportions celebrated anywhere you find a community of Chinese throughout the world. This centuries old festival was traditionally held to honor deities, as well as ancestors.  It is firmly rooted in myths and customs.  According to legend it all began with a mythical beast named "Nian" who would eat villagers, especially the tender children.  The story goes that one-year an old man decided to get revenge.  The villagers hid during the night, whilst he set off a horde of firecrackers amidst floating red paper.  When the villagers came back nothing had been destroyed and they proclaimed the old man as a deity who had come to save them.  It was deduced that Nian was scared of the color red and loud noises.  From thereafter, every New Year the villagers would wear red, hang red lanterns and scrolls on windows and doors and let off firecrackers.  Nian never returned.  It is said that Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk, captured him and that Nian became Laozu's mount.

Chinese New Year - The Wise Traveller

Where is it celebrated?  Maybe that should be, "Where isn't it celebrated?"  Today the Chinese New Year is one of the most prominent and most celebrated festivals globally, with the largest annual mass human migration in the world.  You can dress up in red and scare away Nian wherever you find a Chinese community - sometimes even where there are no Chinese.  The countries in the forefront of the practice are Asian countries and territories such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mauritius, Australia, the Philippines and of course mainland China.  The cities that go all out for Chinese New Year include Singapore, London, New York and Sydney, with San Francisco having the largest celebrations outside of Asia.

Celebrations include fiery red dragons dancing in street parades, massive firework displays and the giving of red envelopes containing money. Celebrations usually begin the preceding evening and follow through to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first calendar month.

Many restaurants and hotels have special Chinese banquet menus, are decked out in red lanterns and hand-written poetry on red paper is plastered on doors.  Homes are decorated in a similar manner and families gather en masse for an epic New Year's Eve dinner of fish and dumplings (some of which have coins in them), which signifies prosperity. Quite often family members will stay awake all night, letting off fireworks at midnight, just like the villagers in the myths.

Chinese New Year - The Wise Traveller

It is the traditional time for families to thoroughly clean the house to sweep away any bad fortune and to make way for the incoming good luck.  Come midnight you will be amidst a pyrotechnics dream mayhem that will resemble a war-zone with skies lit up in fiery shape-shifting colors, booming rockets shooting for the stars and the constant staccato of crackers going off.

What to see, eat and do during the Chinese New Year festival period:

  • Get a haircut before the festivities because if you cut your hair during the festival period, apparently your "maternal uncle" will die...hmm.
  • Buy new shoes prior to the festival period, because the word for shoes sounds like the word for evil - you have been warned.
  • Make sure you eat fish and dumplings for prosperity, even if it is from a cafe de wheels on a curb.
  • Head outdoors onto the streets with its heaving hordes of people and watch a parade of dancing dragons or lions, to bring you good luck.
  • Grab a wine or a cocktail and relax at a rooftop bar overlooking the streets' colorful display of red and fiery chaos.
  • Attend a New Year market to get up close to the locals and check out the food, the decorations, clothing and fireworks on display.

Whatever you do, don't get upset whilst in China.  Always remain calm and patient so that no one "loses face".

Gail Palethorpe, a self proclaimed Australian gypsy, is a freelance writer, photographer and eternal traveller. Check out her website Gail Palethorpe Photography and her Shutterstock profile.