Snapshots of Chinese New Year Around the World
You probably already know that Chinese New Year is the most important holiday of the year in China, perhaps even that it is the world’s largest annual mass migration as 700 million Chinese make over 3.62 billion trips to and from their hometowns to celebrate with their families.
But did you also know that Chinese New Year is an official public holiday in 12 countries, or that millions more people in another 14 major world cities with prominent Chinese communities also join in the festivities every year?
Chinese New Year is traditionally a family holiday and time of unity in most Chinese communities. People all around the world from Beijing to Bangkok to Boston celebrate through family gatherings, sharing meals with relatives, visiting friends, giving red envelopes, also known as hongbao (红包), watching fireworks, and lion or dragon dances to bring good fortune.
Many nations also add their own diverse characteristics and cultural flavors to these shared traditions, making each celebration unique. To capture the international spirit of this important holiday, we’ve profiled some brief snapshots of interesting lesser-known Chinese New Year festivities from all corners of the globe where the holiday is most popular. Take a look below at how Chinese culture is celebrated around the world through different Chinese New Year activities!
Chinese New Year is observed in diverse ways even within China itself! The Northern and Southern regions have quite different cultures that make the holiday traditions like food, decorations, ceremonies, entertainment and activities just as diverse.
People in northern China have relatively conservative and traditional practices for the Chinese New Year. For example, hanging paper cuttings as decoration, conducting men-only ancestor tribute ceremonies, and gathering the family on New Year’s Eve to eat and play mahjong are common. Tradition in the North requires eating jiaozi dumplings (饺子) during the holiday for their resemblance to the shape of gold ingots, signifying a hope for good fortune in the New Year. Coming together as a family or community to watch the annual CCTV New Year’s Eve Gala, (also known as Chun Wan (春晚), a four-hour extravaganza of performances, variety acts and cultural displays,) is also much more popular in the north since the programming caters to the living habits and cultural traditions in northern China.
Another uniquely northern way to celebrate Chinese New Year is attending Beijing’s miaohui Temple Fairs (庙会) on New Year’s Day. Temple Fairs began as celebrations to local deities and have evolved into massive events that draw thousands of spectators with cultural displays of kung fu and puppet shows, folk dance and opera performances, parades featuring acrobatics and lion dancers, and commercialized snacks and shopping areas.
Chinese in the south celebrate in many similar ways to their northern counterparts with lion dances, family gatherings and other mainstays of the holiday. However, they have also incorporated location-specific practices. These include decorating with flowers or Kumquat trees instead of paper cuttings for good luck, due to the availability of the tropical plants and a preference for the Kumquat fruit’s roundness and fortune-bringing orange color, or eating niangao rice cakes (年糕) instead of dumplings, due to the prevalence of rice over wheat in the southern diet. Other popular dishes for Chinese New Year include Tangyuan (汤圆) or soup balls, because the name signifies family reunion and togetherness, and fish, with the Chinese word for fish, “yu” (鱼) sounding exactly like the auspicious word for “surplus”, also pronounced “yu” (余).
Southerners celebrate the New Year with lantern festivals, flower fairs in the Cantonese cultural areas of Guangdong province, and ancestor worship ceremonies inclusive of both sexes. When it comes to giving hongbao red envelopes, southerners have different beliefs about what amounts are considered auspicious: while those in the north prefer even numbers like RMB200, 500 or 1000, southern people favor the lucky numbers 6, 8 and 9, preferring their hongbao cash in sums such as RMB88, 66, 888 or 999. These differences demonstrate the regional diversity of Chinese New Year celebrations within China, and the holiday has taken on more unique aspects throughout its spread to places outside China too.
2. The United States
Chinese New Year is also celebrated in many cities across the United States! The festival has long been observed in large Chinese-American communities from Boston to Seattle to Washington D.C., and it is now an official public holiday in California since 2015 and New York City since January 2016.
San Francisco, California
San Francisco has the most well-known celebration outside China. The famous Chinese New Year Parade, which is widely viewed by an audience of up to 3 million on television plus several hundred thousand live spectators each year, moves through the Chinatown area and features special touches such as a Miss Chinatown USA contest and a giant dragon puppet controlled by 100 martial artists.
Los Angeles, California
In southern California, Los Angeles also holds two weeks of Chinese New Year celebratory events dating back over 100 years. The festivities include an annual Golden Dragon Parade and a local Midnight Temple Ceremony to welcome the New Year.
New York, New York
New York has a particularly large Chinese population and a long history with Chinese New Year celebrations. The Lunar New Year Parade and Festival in Chinatown draws 10,000 marchers and over half a million spectators every year, and the Chinese-American cultural associations in the area also organize many more New Year-themed community events.
3. Hong Kong & Macau
Hong Kong observes three days of public holiday for Chinese New Year and marks the occasion in style with a flashy series of parades, fireworks and horse races over the three day period that draws over 150,000 spectators. Macau hosts its own smaller firework demonstration and street parade on the date of the Lunar New Year itself.
The ethnic Chinese residents who make up 91 and 95% of the cities’ respective populations also celebrate by praying and burning incense at local temples, eating traditional foods like turnip puddings or nian gao sticky rice cakes, and giving gifts of flowers from the city’s seasonal flower markets, with each plant holding special significance to locals. Hong Kong families prefer to give Mandarin trees symbolizing wealth and prosperity, lucky bamboo to bring auspicious feng shui, cherry and plum blossoms representing new beginnings, daffodils for good luck, peonies signifying harmony and peace, or pitcher plants that are believed to catch and store the good fortune of the New Year.
Taiwan observes a three-day public holiday and maintains many of the same holiday traditions as Mainland Chinese, including giving gifts of red envelopes with cash, watching dragon and lion dances, and flocking to temple ceremonies to burn incense and pay respects to ancestors.
The most popular local events are the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, where well-wishers release floating lanterns with messages of goodwill for the New Year, and the Yanshuei Firecracker Festival, where people parade through the streets following a firecracker-laden sedan representing a local folk deity and then gather to watch a wall of firecrackers igniting at close-range. Both festivals draw thousands of participants from Taiwan and abroad every year.
Singapore’s history as a former British colony, “Asian Tiger” economy and magnet for immigration from Asia and abroad has helped it become a particularly multicultural city-state. Singapore today has three major ethnic groups (Chinese, Malay and Indian), four official languages (English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil) and a population made up of nearly 43% foreign-born residents. This diversity is reflected in the Chinese New Year’s celebration and people of all ethnic backgrounds view it as an occasion for unity and honoring the Singaporean identity that has evolved from this history and environment of cultural blending.
The city’s Chinatown hosts lion dancers and fire eaters in performances at Kreta Ayer Square, while the carnival-like Chingay parade, the largest street performance and float parade in Asia, features street opera singers and wushu martial artists alongside colorful floats and stilt walkers. The term “Chingay” comes from the Mandarin word zhuangyi (妆艺) meaning “The art of costume and masquerade”, and the event is unique in that it involves thousands of volunteers, performers, and attendees from different races decked out in traditional costume. Light and lantern displays also decorate Singapore’s streets during the two holiday days, adding to the festive atmosphere.
About 7 million Chinese Malaysians ring in the New Year by watching long street processions of dragon dancers and setting off firecrackers in the streets. Malaysian-style celebrations take the community aspect of Chinese New Year to a higher level with the “Open House” tradition, where people invite friends and relatives to come by their homes anytime on the first day of the holiday season for elaborate feasts and drinks. Malaysian politicians and government institutions have also adopted the practice as an opportunity to connect with constituents in person, throwing massive galas at the state or national level that attract up to 30,000 attendees eager to see the featured performances and public exhibition areas. As for more traditional Chinese New Year spectacles, the nightly light show at the Kek Lok Si Temple on Penang Island, which features thousands of lanterns illuminated around the large Buddhist temple complex, is the most elaborate and unique Malaysian celebration during the Chinese New Year festival season.
Though there are 2.8 million people with Chinese heritage in Indonesia, Chinese New year carries some historical baggage there. The autocratic government’s anti-ethnic Chinese policies from 1967 to 1998 banned any and all public displays of Chinese cultural or religious heritage, including celebrating Chinese New Year. The holiday was legalized again in 1999 and became a public holiday in 2004, with Chinese Indonesians allowed an extra two days off for festivities.
Today, Chinese New Year is celebrated in Indonesia with the traditional lion dances and street celebrations along with distinctions influenced by the nation’s strong majority-Muslim identity. As a result, Indonesia perhaps places a stronger emphasis on praying and burning incense at temples than some other countries that observe the holiday. Celebrations on the island of Java also have unique features: thousands of people gather to form procession lines similar to those for Islamic holidays, and monks distribute cakes to temple-goers and release 888 songbirds and catfish, with 8 being a lucky number for the Chinese.
8. The Philippines
Chinese New Year is celebrated by over 30 million in the Philippines. It is not only the most important cultural holiday for the extensive community of Filipino-Chinese, but has also notably expanded to involve many Filipinos without Chinese ancestry in the festivities too. The majority of the festivities take place around Manila’s Chinatown, with fireworks and street parades a common occurrence along with the tradition of selling sticky sweet rice cakes called Tikoy. Despite this popularity, it was only recently declared a public holiday by the Philippine national government in January 2014.
Although many Thai-Chinese personally observe Chinese New Year, the occasion does not have official public holiday status in Thailand. Celebrations in Thailand center more around ancestor worship than in China and other countries, with many Thai-Chinese families owning an altar in their home that they use to prepare a ritual offering to honor their ancestors and perform a meal ceremony. Going to Chinese temples to pray for health and success in the New Year is also more heavily emphasized in Thailand. Unlike ethnic Chinese in other countries, who typically visit friends and family first thing on Chinese New Year’s Day, Thai-Chinese will often spend the early morning praying at the local temple instead and make these visits later in order to show greater respect for their ancestors.
The Vietnamese do not celebrate Chinese New Year but a related Vietnamese holiday called Tet Nguyen Dan or Tet for short, which also marks the Lunar New Year on the same day as Chinese New Year and spread to Vietnam through China’s historical cultural influence. Tet has retained many similar cultural practices and traditions as Chinese New Year in other places such as offerings to ancestors, street performances, purchasing new clothes, and sweeping the house clean to welcome in new luck from the New Year.
Tet celebrations span three days around the Lunar New Year, and while most countries treat only the first day of the holiday as a day for visiting others, Vietnamese culture calls for not one but three days of visits. The first day reserved for family relatives on the father’s side, the second for friends and relatives from the mother’s family, and the third for teachers, who hold a very well-respected position in Vietnamese society. Children and young people also play special Vietnamese gambling games resembling poker and bingo on New Year’s Day to relax and spend some of their New Year’s cash gifts. The holiday is uniquely significant in Vietnam because Vietnamese culture does not celebrate the exact day a child was born as a person’s birthday; rather, people are considered to be one year older with each passing Tet holiday, meaning that all Vietnamese people share the same birthday on this date.
11. South Korea
Like Vietnam, South Korea has its own national holiday based on the lunar calendar, Seollal, which Chinese New Year celebrations coincide and combine with. Seollal lasts for the three days before, on and after the New Year. The occasion is usually marked by performing three types of ancestral rituals and charye tea rites, wearing traditional hanbok clothing, playing folk games with family, and preparing a feast with many special foods including tteokguk rice cake soup, which Koreans believe marks the New Year and makes a person one year older when eaten. The festival also incorporates Confucian beliefs in the practice of children bowing deeply to their elders to show respect, and the parents and grandparents in turn give children packets of lucky New Year’s money similar to Chinese red hongbao envelopes.
The Chinese New Year celebrations in Sydney attract over 600,000 attendees annually to the city’s Chinatown, where parades, floats, and lanterns publicly mark the occasion. With February bringing warmer temperatures for the Southern Hemisphere, Australia’s festivities for the New Year also incorporate traditional dragon boat races, which are typically held in June instead for many Asian countries.
13. The United Kingdom
Chinese New Year has made its way to Western cities as well, with London claiming to host the largest holiday celebrations outside of Asia. Over 600,000 people come to the West End, Chinatown, and Trafalgar Square throughout the day of festivities to watch the morning parade followed by performances from Chinese artists, musicians and dancers, then lanterns and firework displays in the evening.
Canada’s sizeable Chinese populations in Vancouver and Toronto host large festivals for Chinese New year, including street parades and lion or dragon dancing, and even traditional music concerts, food stalls, culture fairs and arts exhibits. About 18 percent of residents along Canada’s West Coast are ethnically Chinese, which has helped the Chinese New Year activities there flourish into a popular annual parade and official Chinatown spring festival in Vancouver with over 175,000 attendees each year.
How are you celebrating Chinese New Year, Pengyous? Share with us by leaving a comment below, or find out how you can join Project Pengyou chapters in the US in celebrating Chinese New Year through service!
Pengyous around the country will be “Paying it Forward on Chinese New Year” (PIFOCNY for short) by visiting elementary schools in their communities to share their knowledge of Chinese language and culture and engage younger kids in cultural discovery through the holiday celebrations. Follow the link above to find out how you can get involved!
(Happy Chinese New Year!)
Sources: Images from New York Daily News, Guilin CTS, Pacific Asia Travel Association, Four Seasons Magazine, Taipei Times, Eng.taiwan.net.tw, Asia One News, Otago Daily Times, BBC News Europa, The Guardian, Indonesia Travel, BBC News Asia, Look East Magazine, Vietnam Visa, The Flame, The Korea Herald, KCS MMU, Business Insider, Xinhua News, Alegoo, Inside Vancouver, Democratic Underground, Daily Mail, Thien Hau Temple.