25 February 2015

Chinese New Year - Sarawak Style

Here in Sarawak we celebrate almost every festival you can think of – with a mixed population it could be no other way and one of the lovely things about being here is seeing how much populations embrace and enjoy festivals that are not theirs. 

Malls sell all sorts of decorations for the New Year

Including some amazing balloon creations
Of all the festivals we celebrate over the year, however, Chinese New Year is one of the biggest.  Decorations have been in the shops since before Christmas and the malls have been hosting Lion Dances and fairs selling special treats and clothes. People have been looking forward to the long break (two days’ public holiday tagged onto a weekend).

Lion Dance Competition (nibbling the greens)
at a local mall 
The colour red is everywhere.  As the date has got closer more and more houses and shops have been sporting red lanterns and replacing their door-mats with red ones.  The children asked us if they could decorate our house like their friends, we did not want to go all out but we did buy some plants (we love greenery in the house anyway), some lights and blossom sticks.

House are decorated for the New Year

The supermarkets have had special New Year promotions and many  of these include free gifts – a mug with your chocolates, free angpows (red packets) with spends over a certain value.  Tangerines are a traditional gift (their name in Chinese sounds like the word for luck) and many houses buy miniature orange trees (the word orange sounds like the word for wealth) to display outside the front door.  
Decorated plants for sale
Plants are everywhere – lucky bamboo, blossom, orchids, ginseng, pineapple plants and so on, many tied with red ribbon for luck.  The garden centres have been full of mini trees for weeks but, rather disappointingly, the fruit is inedible as the growth has been forced with high dose fertilizer to coincide with the New Year.  Children are given gifts to bring in the new year, usually a present of money in Angpow packets and one friend gave each of my children a toy goat to celebrate the year of the goat. 

Toy goats - for the year of the goat...
Before New Year it is traditional to ‘clean the corners of the house’ and then on New Year’s Eve families traditionally gather for a meal.  One of the traditions with the meal is to use chopsticks to throw the ingredients high into the air, the higher they go the more luck the family will have. We went to spend the evening with friends and, driving back the streets were completely deserted.  Family members exchange gifts and it is traditional to wear new clothes in bright colours (often red).

Fireworks at the stroke of midnight - our quiet suburb
erupted in a blaze of sound and noise

video

On the stroke of midnight the city erupted in a blaze of fireworks and the bangs of firecrackers.  The firecrackers are usually strung on a string which is then hung up from a pole.  As they explode they shower the pavements with red paper/confetti so the entries to the houses are covered in a sea of red.  The displays lasted for at least an hour and the sound was phenomenal (they are designed to be loud to scare away evil spirits for the New Year).  The firecrackers are meant to be banned but are smuggled in over the New Year.  Local Facebook groups have been advertising them for sale for weeks but this can cause problems as the police monitor the groups to catch the sellers, still people do not seem to have any problem finding enough to set off and create an amazing display.  Our older children slept through (we were tempted to wake them but they were sleeping so peacefully) but the baby cooed with delight and the dogs cowered in the bathroom thinking Armageddon was nigh.

The result of all the fireworks - the pavements are awash in red confetti!

On the first day of Chinese New Year many who are religious will visit the temples.  They are decorated with a lot of red and burn  huge sticks of incense, some long and tall with faces on the front and some in the shape of pineapples.   

Incense sticks outside a temple

The first two days are spent visiting friends.  Open house is a tradition amongst all groups in Sarawak where you invite others to come and spend time with you to celebrate your special festivals.  In the lead up to the New Year we received many invitations to visit with our friends.  All had buffets of delicious food and treats prepared to feed the guests and angpow packets for the children.  Some had even arranged for lion dancers to provide entertainment and to drive away bad spirits. 

A roving group of lion dancers touting for custom
The lion dances themselves are absolutely spectacular.  they are performed by local martial art groups and some of the acrobatics have to be seen to be believed.  I understand that there are 6 different lion 'personalities' that can be used in the dances, the differences are shown by the different colour fur and different decorations on the lion costume,  I have not yet been able to work out what they are! It is quite funny to see a truck will pull up, the gongs and drums start up and a lion will pop out to do a spectacular dance and entertain the crowd before jumping back in and moving on to the next engagement. The very best troupes are booked a long time in advance and the dance itself will be done by masters.  Some less accomplished lion dancers will form roving troupes and go street to street to find custom.  


Gong Xi Fa Choi and best wishes for the year of the Goat.



NB apologies for the photographs, my telephone camera is not too good!

Click on the picture for more posts on life in Borneo.

Ersatz Expat

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