6 Basic Tips for Foreigners and Expats spending Traditional Chinese New Year in Singapore

As of right now, every Chinese family in Singapore is preparing for their traditional reunion dinner tonight.

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Yes, I know you think we Chinese girls look cute in our traditional Chinese cheongsams!

It’s no secret that this little Singaporean has many expat and foreigner friends. I wish to include everyone in our traditional festivities, and answer some questions that I usually get. If you’re a foreigner experiencing Chinese New Year in Singapore, here’s a few quick tips of the tradition that goes on behind closed doors for “open house”, and how to prepare if you’re visiting one.

1) SORRY, IT’S NOT A PARTY. My parents probably have too many friends (you can see where I pick up my personality from!) and love to have people over at ours, but please don’t be offended if your Chinese friends haven’t invited you over to their home. Traditionally, no members outside the family are usually invited to reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

After which, the first two days of Chinese New Year is traditionally reserved for visiting or inviting over relatives and members of the extended family. As homes in Singapore tend to be small and families here are a bit more private than Western cultures, not every family holds an “open house” and invites friends over to their home as well.

2) YOU’RE INVITED ANYWAY! WHAT TO BRING? If you’re visiting my home for Chinese New Year, I would probably suggest giving my Dad a bottle of wine, but gifts are optional and most Chinese families are happy for you to bring over two oranges. You need to bring TWO – not one orange – as there’s something about odd numbers symbolizing unhappy occasions and even numbers for a happy occasion. You are also expected to take home two DIFFERENT oranges from the ones that you brought – so the tradition of giving oranges is really more of a swap.

Don’t take home anything else that isn’t yours!

3) TRYING TO IMPRESS A LOCAL GIRL’S FAMILY? YOU BETTER BRING EXTRA AMMO. If you’re feeling generous or want to show some extra effort, bring a bottle of Chinese New Year snacks (Bee Cheng Hiang bak kwa, prawn cracker roll, pineapple tarts, peanut cookies etc), or even better – a pot of plants. Don’t buy us Cactuses, for not any flowers will do – Chinese New Year themed plants are most meaningful.

These are the fortunes specific plants signify:
Peach blossom symbolizes luck.
Kumquat symbolizes prosperity.
Narcissus symbolizes prosperity.
Chrysanthemum symbolizes longevity.
Bamboo is a plant good for any time of year.
Sunflower means to have a good year.

4) I HEARD ABOUT ANG PAOS. SHOW ME THE MONEY. People don’t usually give out red packets or “ang paos” in the office, because that’s just kind of awkward – and expensive. However, if you visit a married colleague at his or her home, you might be lucky to receive one!

Generally for Chinese New Year, number significances and amounts in the red packets will avoid the number ‘4’ (pronounced ‘si’ in Mandarin which means death), and celebrate the number ‘8’, including denominations of it (which is pronounced ‘ba’ and usually also referred to as ‘fatt’).

5) RESPECT AND WELL WISHES. With oranges and red packets, always give and receive with two hands and eye contact. You should also insert enthusiasm and a traditional well wishing – “gong xi fa cai”, which literally translates to celebrate (‘gong xi’), and prosper (‘fa cai’).

6) COLOUR CODED. Red is an auspicious colour, and will be the most overused colour of this occasion. Don’t wear black, which symbolizes death – even if your hosts aren’t superstitious, its just rude.
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Here are some pictures from previous celebrations over Chinese New Year – I never live in the past, but I do like looking back at these memories! These pictures are with family and friends from 2010, including an induction for some foreign friends around Chinatown and River Hongbao (a gorgeous carnival we have in Singapore every Chinese New Year period). I look like a baby! Happy Chinese New Year everyone.

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