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A look back at how Chinese New Year was celebrated in Sarawak in 1922

Chinese New Year is the festival that celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional Chinese calendar.

Besides China, the festival is widely celebrated in other countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand.

Traditionally, it is a time to honour their respective deities as well as ancestors.

It is also a celebration associated with several myths and customs. Over the years, the celebration has changed here and there especially in terms of customs.

A writer who wrote under the pseudonym ‘M.M’ in The Sarawak Gazette (Mar 1, 1922) shared how the Chinese New Year celebration took place in Sarawak.

According to the article, even in 1922, there were many who were not aware of some of the most outstanding features of the Chinese New Year.

To see these features, one must “peep into the home of an old fashioned orthodox Chinese”.

Here are some of the significance and customs of Chinese New Year in 1922:

1.Chinese New Year’s Eve

This is the day for the settling of accounts. This task is more or less arduous according to the means and business dealings of the head of the house.

After the accounts have been settled, the house is thoroughly washed, cleaned and decorated.

Then two sugar canes with leaves and roots are wrapped in Chinese red paper then kept on either side of the door. This is an emblem of the authority vested in the headman of the house over the other members of the family.

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At 2pm the same afternoon, the family members gather to pay their respects to their ancestors and worship the household gods.

In the evening there is a regular feast and a large round table loaded with the most varied Chinese delicacies is laid for dinner.

According to the writer, this dinner is called the “ooi lor” which means round the world. The writer stated, “The god of the family hearth is dispatched to heaven on the twenty-fourth day of the twelfth moon of each year. This god, it is generally believed, will report on the good and bad acts of the family. After making this report, the god of the hearth is expected to resume his place in the family hearth on the morning of the New Year Day.

At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve the doors are opened, lamps and candles are lighted and all preparations are made for worshipping the various household gods.

The father then takes three largest joss sticks, lights them and prays for health, longevity, wealth, happiness and tranquillity in the family.

After that, the children follow the father’s example but with smaller joss sticks.

Once the worship is over, they wish each other a happy New Year and this concludes the New Year’s Eve ceremony.

2.First day of Chinese New Year

Nothing has changed since 100 years ago on New Year’s morning when the whole family put on the best garments for the purpose of visiting or in waiting for visitors.

However, there is one difference in giving angpau. The writer pointed out, “Red papers, four inches by nine inches, with one’s named printed on them are exchanged during visits, and gifts, of silver coins, wrapped in red paper, are given to children when they visit. The day is devoted to much conviviality.”

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Today’s angpao or red packets can be found in so many shapes and designs.

3.The second day of Chinese New Year

This day is the Chinese have what is called the “First Luncheon” in the year.

“Pigs, goats and fowls are slaughtered and form various dishes. After the luncheon is over shop hands and servants in private cease work until the sixth hands,” the article stated.

4.The third day of Chinese New Year

Meanwhile, the Chinese called the third day the day for the “sending away of the poor”.

It is one Chinese New Year’s custom that is no longer practiced which is probably a good thing for the environment.

The writer wrote, “All the rubbish which had accumulated in the house from the first day of the New Year is swept and put into a vessel. This vessel is taken to a river or any running stream. Joss sticks and candles are lighted and after prayers, the rubbish is thrown into the running stream.

“Thus the poor are ceremoniously sent away. The orthodox Chinese never call nor visit on this day.”

5.The seventh day of Chinese New Year

Fast forward to the seventh day which is the creation day, raw and uncooked fish the highlight of on this day.

“Ikan parang and ikan haruan are dressed, sliced then soaked in vinegar mixed with chilies and are eaten with salad, cucumber, celery, radish and other vegetables,” the writer wrote.

6.The ninth day of Chinese New Year

This is the day regarded as God’s birthday, God as in the God creator according to Confucius, not the household gods.

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According to the writer, this is a day of worship more or less and commences at midnight the previous day.

The writer explained, “An improvised ‘altar’ illuminated with candles and joss sticks and loaded with sweat meats, roast pig, boiled capon, tea, brandy, flowers and fruits is placed in the street by the house and firing of crackers continued for some time. No image or idol is used.

This day is said to have been chosen as God’s birthday -although the Chinese realise that the infinite can have no beginning and no end because it is the ninth day of the first moon.”

Furthermore, the number 9 and 1 are regarded as the two most important numerals.

7.Chap Goh Meh

According to the writer, the fifteenth day or Chap Goh Meh is the most picturesque and the culminating festival.

“On this night Chinese ladies, young and old all parade the street in vehicles and almost invariably bright moonlight favours them.”

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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