A New Year in the East


Wood roosters and lions dance on Petaling Street. It is the annual dawning of a new Chinese Year and the cock crows in celebration as it is his year.  A particularly auspicious year lies ahead for oxes, snakes and dragons. Not so good for us rabbits though.

The Chinese New Year Celebrations start on the second new moon after the winter solstice. This year it is on February 9th and the celebrations continue for fifteen days after that date. Most of the celebrations in Kuala Lumpur (KL), the Malaysian capital, are centred on Petaling Street, which is in the traditional Chinatown area of the city.

A few years ago they had to close one of the Malaysian airports as thousands of rising small, bright, red-coloured Chinese lanterns floated upwards and filled the sky with light. The brightly lit and kerosene soaked sky lanterns remained undetected by airtraffic control radar and were a danger to incoming planes. The Malaysian Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year (Yuan Tan) with many traditional customs that hark back to their Chinese past, but their ancient culture clashes with modernity. The sky lanterns are likely to have had their day and will soon be banned. Traditional firecrackers, although illegal, are still set off and challenge the tolerance and eardrums of the authorities.

The Lion Dance performances are the major highlight of Chinese New Year celebrations anywhere in the world, including Ireland in recent years. The Lion dance dates back to the Han Dynasty about 200 years before the birth of Christ and has its origin in myth. It represents a legendary battle between the lion and a mythical monster called a ‘nien’. The ‘nien’ was an evil spirit creature that used to gobble up humans and animals on New Years Eve. The lion was the only animal that scared the ‘nien’ away. But the monster vowed to return. When it did the lion was otherwise engaged guarding the emperor’s palace and couldn’t help. So the people made brightly coloured paper mache lions and danced about to scare the ‘nien’ away again. The ‘nien’ disliked bright colours, especially red, and noise, so the lions were painted brightly and firecrackers exploded. The tradition is continued to this day to scare off evil spirits of the old year at the start of the New Year. Two dancers operate the lion and they are usually trained in martial arts, as the dance movements are highly acrobatic. The head dancer can move the lion’s eyes, mouth and ears for expressions and to signify moods. Three musicians accompany the lion dancers (playing the gong, symbols or drum). A little Buddha or rubber ball teases the lion as it dances. The dramatic climax of the dance is  “picking the green” or choi cheng when the lion eats a piece of vegetable attached to string in front of restaurants. In front of other businesses there will be a small red packet of money called ang pow.  Lion dances are also performed at weddings and if well performed are believed to bring the bride and groom luck and happiness.

On the last day of Chinese New Year celebrations is the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s night. It is celebrated with prayers and offerings to the gods at the temples. According to legend, young unmarried woman would throw themselves into the sea in the hope of finding good husbands, although this sounds like something they might have done if they feared being left on the shelf. Nowadays they throw lucky mandarin oranges into the waves. Children and single people look forward to this day, as their elders will give them red packets with money inside (the ang pow). The most auspicious ang pow contain three gold coins, which represent the three principles of Feng Shui of heaven, earth and man.

The Malaysian Chinese have a special celebration called Open House and this is to help create racial harmony between the different ethnicities that live together in the country. For each major festival of a specific cultural group, there is also an associated festival event open to all of the racial groups in the country. In Malaysia, there are three main ethnic groups – the Malays (nearly 60%), the Chinese (30%) and the Indians (10%). There are a lot of minor ethnic indigenous groups (most live on Borneo) that only make up a small percentage of the population. Balancing power and keeping racial harmony in this multiethnic culture is a tall order. The existing ruling party is predominantly Malay and there have been criticisms that the Malays have received unfair advantage and positive bias in positions of power. But so far ethnic conflict has been kept to a minimum and it seems that the Malaysians just get on with their lives and with living together. It is this ethnic diversity that is one of the major attractions of a visit to Malaysia and KL in particular.

The great gothic Petronas Towers dominate the skyline of KL and look like something out of a Flash Gordon movie. Until last year they formed the highest building in the world. Now the Taiwan 100 building in Taiwan has usurped the Towers and holds that honour at over 500 metres high. Designed by the Argentinean born American National Cesar Pelli the Petronas Towers cost a whopping $1.2 billion US dollars to build. Pelli’s genius, apart from getting someone to pay him a fortune for a few drawings, was manifest in the use of a design that combined the Western elements of skyscraper design with the use of repetitive geometric eight-pointed polygonal star patterns typical of art inspired by the Islamic tradition. The spires glisten with modern stainless steel cladding combined with traditional concrete construction used by the local contractors.

The Malays cleverly used two different contractors to build the towers and the competition between the two meant the building went up quite quickly (perhaps we could consider that for some of our major constructions). The Petronas Towers are a symbol of pride and nationalism to the Malays. When they were opened the national poet laureate waxed lyrical about them in an epic

“a thousand race horses once spurred,

forest winds once rustled,

now stands sublime the nation’s summit,

the twin towers blossoms of the sky.”

Granted yer man took some poetic license about what he saw but there is no denying the magnificence of these buildings when you crane your neck backwards and look to the heavens, as the towers seem to stretch interminably towards heaven. The vista from the viewing platform on the bridge that straddles the Towers is stupendous on a clear day.

Other attractions in KL are the National Mosque (Masjid Negara) and the Federal and High Courts Building with its famous clocktower and copper domes. On the green in front of this building with hints of colonial design in its architecture they still play cricket. From KL you can make trips to the Batu Caves with its host of Hindu God statues and to Putrajaya, which will soon be the new capital. A totally new city constructed from scratch in the jungle it was like a ghost town before the people arrived when I visited.

Food is extremely important in Chinese culture and plays a crucial part in the Chinese New Year Celebrations. The Kitchen God is appeased before the end of the year with gifts of sweets, honey and sticky ricecakes. On New Years Eve, a large family meal is held in the house. Traditional food for this meal consists of waxed duck, seafood (prawns for liveliness and happiness, raw fish salad brings good luck and prosperity and dried oysters for all things good) and dumplings. The dumplings boiled in water will bring a long lost good wish for the family.

Written in 2005. Conor Caffrey is a travel writer and photographer.

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2 Responses to “A New Year in the East”

  1. You’re confusing Malays with Malaysians. The former is an ethnic group while the latter refers to citizens of Malaysia. For example, it’s Malaysian Chinese (not Malay Chinese which instead is the juxtaposition of two races).

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