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How to celebrate Chinese New Year: Guide to traditions in Singapore

Chinese New Year in Singapore is right around the corner, but us expats are often unsure about what to do (or what to expect) during what is the biggest holiday on Singapore’s calendar. Before you get left out in the cold – empty handed – check out our handy expat guide to Chinese New Year traditions, symbols and festivals in Singapore.

Plus! To keep up with all the CNY events around Singapore between now and February 19th, head here. And to see what’s up with the special CNY snacks, head here.

Chinatown CNY light-up
Drive or stroll through Chinatown and admire the festive lights


Giving hong bao packets
Generally, a senior gives hong bao to a junior; bosses to staff, parents to children, married couples to single friends. Lai see packets are red and gold for prosperity and good luck. Make sure you get to the bank early to get your glad hands on new notes to give. Never give any amount with 4 in it (in Chinese, this sounds like “death”) or odd numbers, as these are considered bad luck. Try to avoid giving multiple notes – one is fine. Proper amounts for children are $20, and for doormen/waiters/service staff, $100 is a kind gesture (unless they’re your helper – you might want to pitch in more!)

Wishing trees
During Chinese New Year, write your New Year’s wishes on a piece of paper tied to a string that’s attached to an orange. Toss this over the tree so that it can collect on the branches, remaining there for your wish to come true. Chinatown Point has a lucky banyan tree for fortune-seekers.

Lion dances
You will inevitably experience at least one lion dance during Chinese New Year! Lion dance troupes dance away for the two weeks of Chinese New Year, accompanied by a cacophony of drums and firecrackers. These are to scare away the bad spirits of the past year, ensuring luck and prosperity for the coming year.

Get a haircut, manicure and pedicure before CNY
It is considered bad luck to cut anything (or even wash your hair) during Chinese New Year, so getting a haircut beforehand is a must. Local salons usually charge a premium for services during this period, so if you haven’t already, get thee to the barber, stat!


Clean your home
Before Chinese New Year, thoroughly clean your home of all the accumulated bad luck from the previous year, clearing space for the good fortune of the upcoming year. This ensures a fresh start on the new lunar new year. Cleaning and clearing away during Chinese New Year is a no-no, so don’t get these mixed up!

Then, decorate your home
Choose themes in red and gold to signify happiness, good luck and prosperity. Fill your home with lucky plants, mystic knots (good luck, protection), goldfish (abundance, prosperity), pineapples (wealth, fortune, prosperity; sounds like “good luck coming your way” in Chinese), couplets (safe and smooth year) and place nine oranges in the lounge or kitchen (good luck, prosperity; citrus guards against bad luck).


Giving and receiving oranges during home visits –
Visits to homes during Chinese New Year are usually accompanied by the exchange of Mandarin oranges. The Chinese words for orange sounds like “luck” and “wealth”, and it is considered rude to ring up at anyone’s home during CNY empty handed. When you arrive at someone’s home during this time, present a pair of oranges (or pairs) to the head of household. They will then exchange these as a gesture of good will during the festive period.

Tossing yu sheng
Also known as lo hei in Cantonese, the traditional raw fish salad signifies abundance, vigor and prosperity (yu sheng sounds like ‘abundance’ in Mandarin). Every ingredient in the dish – raw fish, pomelo, pepper, oil, carrots, shredded green radish, white radish, peanut crumbs, sesame seeds, plum sauce and deep-fried flour crackers – represent a different auspicious wish, and it’s a custom to say these aloud while adding each component one by one. With chopsticks ready, diners toss the ingredients as high as possible while yelling ‘huat ah!‘ (‘to prosper’ in hokkien). It is believed that the higher you toss, the greater your luck will be.

There you go. Now you’re ready to celebrate Chinese New Year traditions in Singapore without bumbling around. Head here for your guide to CNY events in Singapore to get involved. Gong Xi Fa Cai!

For more helpful tips head to our living in Singapore section.