‘Niu’ Year, new beginnings?

Prior to the pandemic, neither state borders nor time zones could stop a family from reuniting with each other on the eve before 初一, the first day of the Lunar New Year and a date that typically prompts the world’s largest annual migration. 

A lineup of never-ending feasts, nosy relatives, and Angpaos aside, Chinese New Year has always been about the family reunion.

CNY festivities, food and fun as seen over the years by local designers and artists

A lineup of never-ending feasts, nosy relatives, and Angpaos aside, Chinese New Year has always been about the family reunion. Though firecrackers hissed and whistled into the quiet dark to ward away any sign of evil last night, this year feels different. Usual festivities are subdued while families remain separated due to travel restrictions and social distancing.

Prior to the pandemic, neither state borders nor time zones could stop a family from reuniting with each other on the eve before 初一, the first day of the Lunar New Year and a date that typically prompts the world’s largest annual migration

Ushering in a fresh start to a new beginning, it’s a celebration of generations-old traditions aimed towards prosperity and good fortune in which preparation can start days, sometimes weeks before the new year arrives. Prior to, we’ll spring clean the household (the act of sweeping on the day symbolises good luck being thrown away) and adorn our walls and doors with red paper cuttings and couplets bearing auspicious symbols and words. Superstitions, like not cutting your hair and wearing new red clothes head-to-toe (including underwear) on the day, are adhered by––all in the name of warding off bad luck and evil spirits, rooted in a folk legend about a terrifying beast called Nian, the word year in Chinese, who’s as terrified of the colour red as we supposedly are of him. And who can forget the food? Dishes upon dishes lined by countless jars of titbits meant for non-stop snacking and sharing. Each dish is often imbued with meaning: long noodles for long life, mandarins symbolise wealth, and the act of Lou sang/Lou hei involves tossing the ingredients as high as possible to better your prospects and fortune for the year ahead. 

While many of this year’s celebrations have moved online, the Chinese New Year spirit of joy and togetherness is important to hold on to, particularly during the solitude of the pandemic. There’s a renewed appreciation to be found in the mere act of being physically face-to-face with your loved ones, but for now, through screens and over the phone will have to do––especially if it keeps them safe. Below, local designers and artists share memories, and traditions alongside old photos and videos as they remember and reflect on CNY’s past, present, and future. 

MOTOGOU

MOTO GUO, KINDER ENG & JAY PERRY ANG

1. What does Chinese New Year mean to you? 

Due to our busy schedule season after season, Chinese New Year has become a very significant period for us to relax and spend time with our loved ones to bond over festive family traditions. 

2. How will you celebrate CNY this year? 

We will be staying home as one should right now and hibernate.

3. Could you share one memory that reminds you of Chinese New Year that you hold closely? 

The most memorable one to date would be a sunny afternoon on the second day of Chinese New Year back in 2016, when we received a call from the LVMH Prize committee informing us that we’d been selected to be one of 23 shortlisted designers. 

4. What’s a CNY tradition you/your family always stick by?

We would go back to our respective hometowns, indulge in nostalgic traditions that are very dear to our hearts, and get the best foods there! 

5. What are your hopes for 2021?

We hope that all of us can be free again without the boundaries of this pandemic, but for now, we are willing to fight together with patience and stay at home.

BEHATI

KEL WEN

1. What does Chinese New Year mean to you? 

Chinese New Year means ‘Tuan yuan’ to me. Tuan Yuan stands for reunion. A house filled with every family member reunited is the best home. It‘s when we take time to learn more about the stories in our family.

2. How will you celebrate CNY this year? 

I am meeting my siblings who are in KL to gather at my place. This is our first time celebrating CNY without our parents, so we are creating new traditions – singing karaoke, watching the old iconic Hong Kong film ‘In the Mood for Love’, and playing dress up in Behati.

3. Could you share one memory that reminds you of CNY that you hold closely? 

The family photo. This is the time of the year when everyone in the family comes back from different parts of the world and gathers at one house so it’s a very significant moment. Looking back at our family photos, there are people who come and go, these are memories that sort of story what goes on in the family tree from that specific year. 

4. What’s a CNY tradition you/your family and friends always stick by?

Writing CNY couplets has always been a tradition that my mother holds strongly to. She’s a Chinese calligraphist. Also, my uncle is a contemporary artist, he would ask each family member to design an AngPao or card for our annual family greeting card to be gifted to our friends. These are some traditions that I truly appreciate growing up, cause it makes me feel proud to be in a family where we appreciate art and culture. It plays a big part in building my interest in what I do for traditional craft today for Behati and Jadi Batek.

5. What are your hopes for 2021? 

I hope people are staying safe and carrying on their family traditions from home. Wear your Cheongsams and Samfus. I wish this year we get to see how to appreciate our Chinese tradition more, as we have kind of taken it for granted all these years.

KITTIE YIYI 

1. What does Chinese New Year mean to you? 

Reunion with all my family members, relatives, and far-away friends. And of course, looking forward to receiving more Ang Paos!

2. How will you celebrate CNY this year? 

By staying home and celebrating with family; spending quality time with family and friends online. 

3. Could you share one memory that reminds you of CNY that you hold closely? 

My family and I always travel to Kampar every CNY to visit my aunt. That house is where I got to experience a kampung lifestyle. I always enjoy the fresh breeze there while cycling around town. Eating Kampar fishball noodles together with the family is one of the greatest memories that I hold closely almost every year. 

4. What’s a CNY tradition you/your family always stick by?

We have a reunion breakfast every Chuyi (the first day of the lunar new year) and a reunion dinner the night before.

5. What are your hopes for 2021? 

World peace. COVID needs to go away!

NYK

1. What does Chinese New Year mean to you? 

CNY is, to me, a connection you have with the generations of your family before and after you. A commonplace that all gens can relate to despite some very drastic differences. And each time I see my family and relatives, I’m reminded that they’re more than the labels I give them (kong kong, ah ma, tua kor); they’re humans with fears, desires, joys, and disappointments, just like us.

2. How will you celebrate CNY this year? 

A possibly illegal inter-district trip to a Chinese restaurant with the family. 

3. Could you share one memory that reminds you of CNY that you hold closely? 

So when I was a kid we were pretty broke, and me and my cousins collectively had to share one Playstation; we’re talking like 10 of us. I remember looking forward to visiting my cousins in this really old, borderline dilapidated house in Simpang, Taiping which is pretty kampung, and playing Metal Slug. That was more than enough for me back then.

4. What’s a CNY tradition you/your family always stick by? 

We always have to buy at least one new article of clothing to wear on day one of CNY. Not complaining. 

5. What are your hopes for 2021? 

Superstitiously and somewhat ridiculously, I hope our Lunar New Year acts as some sort of symbolic shift from the darkness we’ve experienced the past year or so. 

GHOSTBOY

CYII CHENG ONG & DAVID HAN

1. What does Chinese New Year mean to you? 

Cheng: To me, Chinese New Year has always been about family. As my siblings and I grow older, being able to spend time with my family as a whole gets increasingly difficult, so having this obligation to be present during Chinese New Year is really a blessing in disguise. Meeting my extended family and going for our annual reunion dinner has also become really exciting for me. I used to think these events were boring when I was a kid, but now I really cherish those moments. 

Han: It feels like an escape, nothing matters but your family for a few days of the year. Colourful decorations everywhere I go, which gets me excited for the holidays.

2. How will you celebrate CNY this year? 

Cheng: This year will definitely be very different. For starters, I won’t be able to see my mom this CNY because she lives 30km away from me. We also won’t be able to go visit or have any visitors over. I’ve noticed that we’ve already started to have a number of relatives/family friends come to our house to exchange Ang Paos and gift bags (cookies, abalones, oranges etc.). These interactions are short and sweet, with masks on and goodies handed over above our gate/fence. My dad will do the same, driving to others’ houses to deliver blessings and gifts. For me, CNY will be spent just having dinner with my immediate family, watching Netflix, and working from home. 

Han: Staying home, having mala hotpot with my family. Getting an Angpow transfer to my e-wallet. 

3. Could you share one memory that reminds you of CNY that you hold closely? 

Cheng: The more memorable thing about CNY isn’t really the festivities, but the preparation. Before every CNY, I would spend a lot of time with my grandmother cleaning the house and running other chores. We’d have to put up red decorations on basically every wall/furniture and tie red bows on every indoor potted plant visible. I would fold hell notes with my grandmother, help her pack money into red packets, and decorate the CNY tree (I think it’s called Xue Mei?).

Han: A Chinese New Year memory that I hold closely was last year when I brought my boyfriend to meet my relatives. I came out to them and they were happy for me. Also, it turns out I had a lesbian aunt, and we talked the whole night about our experiences. 

4. What’s a CNY tradition you/your family always stick by?

Cheng: My family is super heavy on taboos and traditions. All rubbish must be thrown out on the eve, and nobody is allowed to wear black on CNY. Although we don’t have a faraway hometown to return to, my family has a very strict routine for what happens during CNY. On the first day, my uncle will buy nasi lemak and bring it to my house for breakfast. After that, we’d go visit the temple first for prayer, visit exactly two relatives’ houses, go home for a nap (everybody takes a nap), then get ready and go out for our big family reunion dinner. Day 2 of CNY we’d visit relatives on my mum’s side of the family, and Day 3 is our open house, where the majority of my relatives come to visit my grandmother. 

Han: We will always go and watch a Hong Kong film together at the cinema, but due to MCO I guess we won’t be doing that this year.

5. What are your hopes for 2021? 

Cheng: I want my family to be able to keep some traditions a constant, but more than that I want my family to stay safe and cautious this year because health is something we definitely don’t want to risk. It would be good enough to send New Years blessings over Facetime and hampers through grab delivery. I imagine a lot of us will look back on the family gatherings we took for granted in the past and appreciate them more now. I hope that this Lunar New Year will be the only Lunar New Year that we’ll have to compromise our routines and traditions. 

Han: I hope that my loved ones stay safe. I also hope to spend more time with my family.

SHELHIEL AND SHEENEY FONG

1. What does Chinese New Year mean to you?

Shelhiel: Family, food, friends, fun!

Sheeney: A season to be jolly, a season of love, having reunions with family, relatives and friends. 

2. How will you celebrate CNY this year?

Shelhiel: I think I’ll most probably have a Zoom reunion dinner with my family. My dad’s in Indonesia for work, the rest of the family is in Kedah and I’m in KL. It’s weird because this would be the first time I’d be physically skipping reunion dinner.

3. Could you share one memory that reminds you of CNY that you hold closely?

Sheeney: I’m always writing a lot of Chinese calligraphies for Chinese New Year events, competitions, decorations, and also for my friends! It’s making me contentedly joyous to be able to create happiness for people around me, especially in this festive season.

Shelhiel: The first time I learned how to play Big 2 (Cho Dai Di). My cousin was teaching me and all the cousins, brothers and sisters were playing together. The largest age gap between us was more than 10 years old. Another memory was when I shot my first CNY MV with local TV and radio station hosts during the year I joined the national song-writing competition. 

4. What’s a CNY tradition you/your family always stick by?

Sheeney: My family and I will attend the church’s Chinese New Year celebration on the first day of CNY in the morning, with hearts full of thanksgiving. 

Shelhiel: The second day consists of big family gatherings from both my mom’s and dad’s sides at my house and my grandmother’s. The third day would usually be my primary school class reunion. These traditions have been maintained for years but 2021 might be the first year things will be slightly different. 

5. What are your hopes for 2021?

Shelhiel: More love & joy in this world.

Sheeney: Even though most of us are apart from our families, dealing with uncertainties or challenges, I hope that everyone will have the warmest and happiest Lunar New Year in 2021. Appreciate the present, we’re all in this together! 

JAY WANG

1. What does Chinese New Year mean to you? 

I’ve always believed that Chinese New Year signifies a fresh start and a reminder of our heritage. As a kid, Chinese New Year was more about new clothes and Ang Paus!

2. How will you celebrate CNY this year? 

Due to the pandemic, I won’t be able to celebrate Chinese New Year with my family back in my hometown. My housemates and I, however, have planned a reunion dinner together!

3. Could you share one memory that reminds you of CNY that you hold closely? 

When I was studying in Taiwan I always had expectations that my CNY celebrations would be alone because my friends would all return to their hometown to celebrate with family. One of the memories I cherish the most is when my friend invited me to her house to celebrate with her family. I made my grandma’s famous recipe, Hainanese Chicken Rice for the reunion dinner. My friend’s mom made traditional Taiwanese dishes, then we visited all of her cousins for the holiday. Since then, I’ve spent CNY every year with her family before I came back to Malaysia. As I grew older, I realised how these celebrations have gotten less and less important and that memory reminded me of how important it is to hold onto these traditions and culture. 

4. What’s a CNY tradition you/your family always stick by?

Though I’m back in Malaysia, I rarely celebrate CNY with my family because of work. But my mom will always send pictures of the CNY decorations in my hometown to make me feel less lonely. In a way, that became a special tradition for me.

5. What are your hopes for 2021? 

I hope for this pandemic to end as soon as possible and for everyone around me to have a healthy life.

CARO CHIA 

1.  What does Chinese New Year mean to you? 

For me, Chinese New Year means a reunion with family for a moment to enjoy happiness together. I often feel quite emotional about CNY, because all my loves will be surrounded, with endless joys and laughs. Also, I feel honoured to be Chinese during CNY, the way Chinese traditions bond family members together is deeply embedded into our blood. 

2. How will you celebrate CNY this year? 

In the upcoming Chinese New Year, I will spend my time with my family and have tons of Chinese dishes.

3. Could you share one memory that reminds you of CNY that you hold closely?  

During the past few years, I wasn’t around in Malaysia to celebrate this special moment with family, but in order to make me feel I am part of that, I wore red outfits and video called my family. Even though the lens, the CNY atmosphere was still able to bond my relationship with the family. It really meant a lot since I was alone abroad at the time. 

4. What’s a CNY tradition you/your family always stick by?

Definitely a reunion dinner during CNY’s Eve. 

5. What are your hopes for 2021?

I believe 2021 is a new form for the world so even in the fashion industry, many people are starting to explore a new way to present their collections for an uncertain future and for me as well. Hopefully, COVID-19 will be solved this year, so we are able to reach outside the world again.

SHAOFEN

1. What does Chinese New Year mean to you? 

One of the few times in the year you get together with your extended families and friends, to feast and catch up with each other.

2. How will you celebrate CNY this year? 

Alone, away from home.

3. Could you share one memory that reminds you of CNY that you hold closely? 

We will always cross the borders for our reunion dinner with our relatives in Singapore.

4. What’s a CNY tradition you/your family always stick by?

Every year without fail, on the first day of Chinese New Year in the morning, we will pay a visit to the temple as a family to thank the ‘gods’ for the past year and ask for blessings for the coming year.

5. What are your hopes for 2021?

For everyone to be healthy and have an accomplished year ahead! 

WEARMASQUAD

EVAN YAP

1. What does Chinese New Year mean to you?

Chinese New Year means a celebration of happiness for being together. No matter how busy one is, Chinese New Year will always make gatherings like the reunion dinner a priority. 

2. How will you celebrate CNY this year?

I celebrate this festival at home with my family and communicate via video call with my pals. We have to adapt to the new norm due to the pandemic.

3. Could you share one memory that reminds you of CNY that you hold closely?

I will probably be celebrating my birthday with Lou Sang, as my birthday is in the middle of the Chinese New Year! I mean, hey it’s a unique way to celebrate. 

4. What’s a CNY tradition you/your family always stick by?

Dropping in at relatives and friends’ houses, bringing gifts.

5. What are your hopes for 2021?

May this year of the ox bring more happiness and most importantly, I wish everyone to be blessed with great health.

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