THE Lunar New Year is one of the highlights of the global calendar. It is a ubiquitous annual festival that can be found wherever substantial populations of East Asians reside.
In actuality, the East Asian Lunar New Year is an umbrella festival that was the cultural and historical cornerstone of the Chinese, Japanese (Shõgatsu), Korean (Seollal), Vietnamese (Tét), Mongolian (Tsagaan Sar) and Tibetan (Losar) new years.
The Chinese New Year possesses special prominence as the preceding festival that influenced all other East Asian New Year festivals as part of early Chinese influence in the East Asian cultural sphere. But most importantly, the Chinese New Year is also one of the most important festivals in Southeast Asia where significant populations of Chinese heritage people live today.
Part of a cultural trifecta
In Malaysia, the Chinese New Year is celebrated by more than a quarter of its population. However, since the government regards Chinese New Year as a central pillar of Malaysia’s cultural identity, the once humble festival was propelled into the national preeminence. This can be seen most visibly as the festival paints the country red, quite literally.
Typically, red lanterns and other ornaments can be seen sprucing up local neighbourhoods to private offices a few weeks before the actual festivities themselves. Chinese New Year tunes sung in Mandarin and various dialects can be heard in shopping malls along with festive food items displayed en masse.
The whole nation seems to be revving up towards this cultural climax. The Chinese New Year is by no means mutually exclusive to ethnic Chinese but has transcended cultural and ethnic barriers in becoming more aptly a Malaysian New Year. The other members of the Malaysian festival Holy Trinity – Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Deepavali – have similarly evolved into trans-ethnic celebrations. The modern Malaysian iterations of these festivals serve as testaments to the enduring spirit of multiculturalism in the Malaysian psyche.
Lay down your arms
To say racial and religious tensions are visibly flaring in today’s Malaysia would be an exercise in understatement. Modern Malaysia is not just segregated along ethnic and religious lines but also being slowly but surely torn apart ideological and politically. For instance, the past decades or so have seen the emergence of more conservative tones of Islam that are consistently at loggerheads with liberal and moderate Malaysia.
Additionally, the dominos thrown down by Anwar Ibrahim and his ‘reformasi’ crusaders in the 2000’s are still being felt today as political awareness came at the price of societal unity. When a nation is propelled through pivotal stages of change and evolution, it will splinter as multiple interest groups vie for the podium of relevance.
To compound national tensions, multiple culture wars are also being fought within ethnic groups. The so-called “liberal and westernised” members of respective ethnic groups are pitted against diehard racial conservatives and chauvinists. Malaysia is becoming increasingly complex and multi-faceted through differing education choices, spoken language, and culture adoption.
In the most cellular of societal units – the family – these divides are evident and best illustrated through the often overused but perennially accurate troupe of the Western-educated millennials attempting to connect with vernacularly-educated relatives who cling on to Asian traditions and values.
Despite all these differences, the Chinese New Year and the other aforementioned festivals provide the ideal forum and platform for warring factions to parley and meet each other halfway. Differences and bones mutually picked are temporarily set aside as family and friends gather to usher in the New Year. This communal soothing effect also extends to faraway acquaintances and strangers as the cordial vibe of the Chinese New Year through its bazaars, open houses and public performances acting as a common ground for people who couldn’t be more different.
Keeping families alive
Hectic work schedules and global opportunities mean many families are scattered and fragmented. Many families might live in the same house but lack the opportunity to spend quality bonding time. Each family member is so utterly engrossed by his or her own insular life that only family traditions and rituals can hold them together. Simple traditions like Sunday brunch are instrumental in keeping the unit together but special occasions like the Chinese New Year revitalise family bonds.
It is not an accident that a central theme of the Chinese New Year is the “reunion” of families. Family working and residing overseas, estranged relatives and new additions convene annually as a celebration of the family unit. As Desmond Tutu once quipped: “You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you as you are to them.”
Family members must find common space, be it through simple regular traditions or grandiose annual events. – Happy Chinese New Year.
This concludes my reflections on the Chinese New Year this time around. It is my personal hope that the ever-relevant themes of prosperity and unity are able to bless our nation with glad tidings in 2017. Aptly so, prosperity and unity are exactly what Malaysia needs this year and the years ahead.