Happy Chinese New Year

YESTERDAY was the most auspicious occasion for the Chinese community in Brunei and more than 1.3 billion Chinese around the world — the Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year celebrations are marked by new-year visits to kin, relatives and friends. Everyone will be wearing new clothes to signify a new year and most in various shades of red. To the Chinese, red is the emblem of joy, and symbolises virtue, truth and sincerity.

The origin of Chinese New Year began with the fight against a mythical beast called Nien.

Nien would come on the first day of New Year to devour livestock, crops including villagers especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers put food in front of their doors.

Over time, they saw that Nien was scared away by the colour red. Every time when the New Year was about to come, the inhabitants would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. They also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nien.

In Brunei, presumably the New Year celebrations were held since many centuries ago. The Chinese had been in Brunei for centuries. In the old days, China was Brunei's trading partners.

One of the more vivid descriptions of the New Year celebrations in Brunei about 110 years ago was written by Peter Blundell in "The City of Many Waters" published in 1923 about Brunei life around 1890s and 1900s: " ... the Chinese opens the New Year proceedings with processions in which dragons, serpents, devils and other creature figures. He lights paper lanterns, lets off fire-works, and pays great attention to his joss. He feeds, till he bursts almost, on birds' nests, sharks' fins, duck and beef, mixed with many curious vegetables. And if he wishes he may gamble all day long without paying any fee or licence ... "

There were a number of gambling games then. One of the favourite was "Ti-Chow". "Put and Take" (better known now as Katam-Katam) was another favourite game among Brunei Chinese. In Brunei then, gambling was taxed but during New Year, gambling was free. The Gambling Farm, the Syndicate of Chinese who had purchased it from the government has the sole right to keep gambling tables in Brunei.

Opium was also farmed and the opium farmers were usually the richest among the Chinese. Together the Chinese traders were able to build the first Buddhist Tengyun Temple in 1918.

The New Year in Brunei nowadays began with the reunion dinner or "makan besar" on the eve of the new year. It is a time where everybody in the family comes home to celebrate new year.

For the Taoists, they will either pray at home or at the temple with their offerings including fish (the sound of fish in Mandarin means "leftover" — leftover to be carried into the new year), meat, vegetable, kuih telur ("fa gao" — sounds like prosperity in mandarin), oyster (sounds good things in cantonese), pineapple ("ong lai" in hokkien means "auspicious is coming").

The Chinese is said will pray with any offering and eat anything that sounds auspicious today. "Yee Sang" is one new creation.

Though one taboo still practised today is that the diners are not allowed to finish all the food during the reunion dinner. This is to ensure that they will continue to have "rezeki" or prosperity the coming year.

!Celebrations must have the red packet or better known as Ang Pow — a gift from elder to the young. Only those married are allowed to give ang pows. However, despite the marital status one can give it to one's parents or the elderly grandparents and uncles but not to the younger ones.

The red packets had to be filled with even numbers but not $4 as the number Four is a homophone for death. So for the less wealthy, the minimum ang pow would be $1.20 to make it an even amount.

!Another important element is the fire cracker. In Brunei, the Chinese Community is very fortunate to be able to have lion dances with firecrackers for a complete package.

The Chinese have a number of taboos which is practised during the celebrations though some are starting to fade away. Among the popular ones include a taboo not to sweep the floor especially on the first few days. After that the refuse must be swept into the direction of one's house as this symbolises fortune is not being swept away.

Another is not having hair cuts during the 15 days period. The reason given is that hair sounds like "prosperity" in mandarin, hence no cutting.

A third taboo is not to wash one's hair in the first three days. A fourth is not to say anything that is not nice especially swearing and cursing. This is clearly not auspicious. A fifth is to eat vegetarian food only as the first day of the new year is said to be when all the gods meet and not every single one of them is a carnivore. The elderly also believed that anything bad that happens during the new year period is a bad sign for the rest of the year.

The biggest celebration difference today and yesteryears is the atmosphere. Nowadays new year holidays is considered the as the best holidays getaway time. During the 1960s, new year was an extended family affair, where there were lots of eating and visitors from all walks of life. "Open House" was truly open. Nowadays, it is quieter with invitations sent to select friends and associates for certain days. Food is served buffet style, but there is still the customary Lion Dance.

In those days prosperity is a rarity amongst the community. That's why it means big day for the best food of the year. It could be the only time they will have meat. Some children would have never eaten a chicken drumstick in their life.

This is also the only time that they will wear new clothes. No matter how poor you are, a pair of new clothing for children is a must. It symbolises a year of growth (physically and mentally) for them.

Carbonated drinks are also something the children would be given only during the festivities. Biscuits and cakes were home-made and not bought. Even the "makan besar" used to be at home and not at today's five-star restaurants.

Spring cleaning home is a must. But with house maids, cleaning means nothing much to people of today. Decoration with stick-ons (made of colourful papers) and lanterns is a must too.

Nowadays, lion dances had to be reserved. In the old days, the lion dance troop would go to all residential areas and everyone would tag along till they have gone to all the houses in that area. Chris Chin remembered hanging an ang pow from the third floor apartment and watched excitedly as the lion climbed up to take the ang pow.

Our best wishes for the Brunei Chinese celebrating their new year includes "Gong Xi Fa Cai" (wishing you prosperity); "Wan Shi Ru Yi" (may your wish come true); "Sen Ti An Kang" (wishing you good health) and "Ma Jing Shen" (wishing you good spirit and good health).


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