CNY customs: Take the test

A SundayLife! street poll has found that many young people are ignorant about why and how Chinese New Year is celebrated

Parents give hongbao to children to ensure that they do well in examinations. People wear red during Chinese New Year to scare away a mythical monster and the nian gao is the Chinese equivalent of a birthday cake.

A SundayLife! street poll of 100 people aged 30 and below unearthed these and more wrong answers to eight questions on the origins of common Chinese New Year customs.

Ninety failed the quiz. Most could answer only one to three questions correctly. Three people scored zero and three people got the highest score of five. (See other story for the questions and answers).

The Chinese folkloric Nian monster, which appears in primary school textbooks as a fierce creature that terrorises villagers and eats children and animals, has little to do with the origins of the eight Chinese New Year customs discussed here. Yet close to a third of those quizzed attributed many of the practices to the creature.

They said the Chinese wear red because the Nian monster is afraid of the colour. They also hang up spring couplets written on red paper to keep the monster away and eat nian gao, the sticky New Year cake, as that was what the creature was fed to keep it from eating humans.

Most young people could explain the traditions of spring cleaning and wearing new clothes, but stumbled over questions on the origins of yusheng and the practice of giving red packets and exchanging Mandarin oranges.

Student Louise Lee, 23, echoed some respondents when she said that people exchange Mandarin oranges because the fruit is in season. Others said the oranges are used to "show respect to the elderly".

As for red packets, student Hanna Koh, 17, said: "This is the way to make the younger generation visit their older relatives."

Those who failed the quiz admitted that they have never tried to find out the origins and significance of Chinese New Year customs.

About half of the respondents expressed interest in finding out the right answers. The other half, however, said it did not matter what the answers were.

Finance executive Lim Wei Li, 27, said: "My family tell me what to do. I just go through the motions every year."

National serviceman Jonah Foong, 20, added: "I'm not really interested in the answers. Chinese New Year never appealed to me apart from the chance to eat good food."

Most of the respondents who gave the right answers said they learnt about the customs in school and from their mothers.

Curator Ong Shihui, 27, one of the quiz's three top scorers, said her mother explained the various customs to her over the years. "My mother's Chinese name is Chun Lian, so when she put the spring couplets up, she would explain what they were for."

Mr Patrick Lee, 65, secretary-general of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, an umbrella body for more than 200 clan groups, was taken aback by the survey results.

"I didn't think it'd be so bad," he said.

"Perhaps schools and parents have not properly explained the origins behind such customs. Their lack of knowledge is a concern, as such traditions are important for the cohesion of family and society."

But Associate Professor I Lo-fen from the Nanyang Technological University's Division of Chinese was not surprised at the survey results.

"As far as I know, some young Singaporeans don't care about traditions. To them, Chinese New Year is just a holiday."

She suggested that adults share the origins of the customs at Chinese New Year gatherings so that the young can learn about the practices.

Mr Lee said one way of engaging young people is to emphasise the significance behind the customs that people can identify with.

For example, parents can remind their children that the reunion dinner is to encourage family bonding.

Additional reporting by Melissa Tay and Amanda See

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SundayLife! asked 100 people under the age of 30 questions on the origins of eight Chinese New Year customs


Percentage who got it right: 1%

Yusheng (raw fish salad) has been the speciality of China's Guangdong province for centuries and it is eaten there all year round.

It was brought to Singapore by Cantonese immigrants in the 1940s and was later popularised as a Chinese New Year dish by chefs from Lai Wah Restaurant in Bendemeer Road. Today's colourful version of the dish and the practice of eating it during Chinese New Year are said to be unique to Singapore and Malaysia.


Percentage who got it right: 4%

More than 1,000 years ago, parents in China gave their children 100 coins, called "ya sui qian", in the belief that they would live to 100 years old. These coins were presented on the eve of Chinese New Year so that the children could use them to buy clothes or save them.

During the Song Dynasty in the 12th century, giving money or "li shi" became a common practice. The "li shi" packets were probably made of silk or cloth.

It was in the late 19th century that people started using red packets and calling them "hongbao".


“Elders believe this will ensure that their children are healthy and happy, and score well in their exams.”

SERENA LIM, 22, student

“It is so that the young will be wealthy in the future.”

WYMER TAN, 22, student

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“Is it the Chinese equivalent of what Santa Claus does at Christmas?”

VINCENT KWONG, 20, student, on giving hongbao


Percentage who got it right: 14%

This began as a Southern Chinese custom. The Cantonese pronunciation of giving Mandarin oranges - "song gam" - is the same as "giving gold", therefore it signifies wishing prosperity upon the recipient.


“Bright orange is an auspicious colour.” 

JONATHAN LEE, 22, student


Percentage who got it right: 14%

During the Han dynasty, people pasted drawings of two gods on the front door of their house to ward off evil spirits.

The practice has evolved to the pasting of auspicious characters and couplets on doors, in the hope of ushering good fortune into the household.


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“I only know that the words must be turned upside down. Anyway, this kind of thing is my mother’s business.”

AARON ONG, 21, student, on the hanging of chun lian (spring couplets) at the front door


Percentage who got it right: 20%

Before modern and affordable forms of transportation came about, it was difficult for family members living in various parts of China to return to their hometown more than once a year.

Chinese New Year was the only time when they would make the journey home for a reunion. Today, the dinner is traditionally held on the eve of Chinese New Year and serves as a time for family bonding.


Percentage who got it right: 25%

In Mandarin, “gao” means high or tall, so people eat the cake so that they will have greater growth and success in the new year.


“It is an offering to the goddesses and gods for a good life this year.”

REX MUN, 18, student

“It’s like the Chinese equivalent of the English birthday cake.”

Joyce Lim, 22, fresh graduate

“Because nian gao is sticky, it will make luck stick.”

HANNA KOH, 19, student

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“Nian gao is sticky sticky, so it helps the family to also be sticky sticky together?”

PAMELA LAM, 21, student, on eating nian gao


Percentage who got it right: 41%

In the past, people were less affluent and bought and wore new clothes only on important occasions such as weddings and Chinese New Year.

Wearing new clothes during Chinese New Year symbolises a fresh start to the year. Red is the colour of choice as it is seen as an auspicious hue that symbolises happiness, vitality and prosperity.


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“Buying new clothes for the new year is what the shops promote. It’s an economic opportunity for them.”

CHERIE TOH, 22, student, on wearing new clothes


Percentage who got it right: 70%

Spring cleaning before the festivities is believed to remove bad luck and welcome prosperity. Some people believe that spring cleaning should stop from the eve of Chinese New Year till the end of the 15-day CNY period, or good luck and fortune will be swept away.


“People are lethargic after Chinese New Year and cannot do anything.”

LIM JIA YING, 19, customer service representative

Answers by Associate Professor I Lo-fen from the division of Chinese at the Nanyang Technological University’s School of the Humanities and Social Sciences; Associate Professor Lee Cheuk Yin from the department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore; and the National Library Board’s electronic encyclopedia, Singapore Infopedia.