The pop and crackle of Chinese New Year firecrackers going off around our Siem Reap neighbourhood have punctuated the soundtrack of birdsong, motorbikes, barking dogs, crowing roosters, laughing students, and the occasional shouts of tuk tuk drivers: “Tuk tuk? You want tuk tuk, Madam?”
Gōng xǐ fā cái! Happy new year! As it is the eve of Chinese New Year’s Eve here in Siem Reap, we thought we’d share this post on the Lunar New Year and the start of the Spring Festival, first published back in 2014.
Celebrations are a bit more subdued than they were pre-pandemic, but the same rituals are underway in the Chinese Cambodian community, only this year we’re kicking off the Year of the Tiger in 2022.
Here in Cambodia, Chinese New Year, while not an official holiday, is the second most important holiday celebrated in the community after Khmer New Year, according to the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Culture, while the third most widely celebrated holiday is the universal New Year’s Eve.
First published 30 January 2014; republished 30 January 2022.
Firecrackers, Marigolds, Lucky Money: Celebrating Lunar New Year, Tet and Chinese New Year
Shops at Old Market have been selling potted marigolds and cherry blossom trees and red Chinese lanterns, but otherwise there were few signs that the Lunar New Year was approaching — until today, the eve of Chinese New Year’s Eve. Chinese New Year and the new Lunar New Year begin tomorrow, Monday 31 January, the start of the Year of the Tiger.
Today began early with the hum of monks chanting at nearby pagodas and a steadily increasing pop and crackle throughout the day until an hour ago, when proper fireworks went off a few blocks away with a bang. Now I can hear the tuk tuk drivers playing drinking games across the road and Cambodian disco music in the distance.
Cambodia’s Khmer New Year — or Chal Chnam Thmey — actually takes place over three days in April, when New Year is also celebrated in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and parts of India. Cambodia’s Khmer people, however, love a party and any chance to get together with family and friends and embrace holidays like they’re going out of style.
Everyone seems to be getting into the spirit of the holiday, even Cambodians without Chinese-Cambodian heritage, are cleaning their houses, buying new clothes, lighting incense and setting out offerings on a table outside their home, and preparing to visit family and friends.
On our universal New Year’s Eve here in Siem Reap, there are usually far more Khmer people dancing in the streets than foreigners. I read in a story today that the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Culture said that the universal New Year was the third biggest celebration in Cambodia after the Khmer New Year and the second most important, while not an official holiday, Chinese New Year.
Cambodians without Chinese ancestry also celebrate because they believe it will bring them good luck, prosperity, and, as a natural consequence of that — happiness. If you’ve been through what Cambodians have been through then you’d be setting off firecrackers at every opportunity too.
Of course, many Cambodians are of Chinese descent. The Chinese Association in Cambodia estimates there are some 700,000 Cambodian descendants of Chinese heritage, although you don’t realise it until holidays such as these when all of a sudden businesses stops answering phones, your neighbours are packing their vehicle for a road trip to visit family, and even your tuk-tuk driver is taking a holiday. Fortunately in Cambodia it’s only for a few days.
Across the border in neighbouring Vietnam, where the Lunar New Year holiday is called Tet or Tet Nguyen Dan, the Vietnamese people have been preparing for weeks. While the Tet holiday is also celebrated on the 1st February, many people begin their holidays a lot earlier, to make the trek from the city back to their hometowns and villages to help their families with preparations.
In Vietnam Tet is the most important holiday of the year. They also celebrate Vietnamese New Year Eve’s, Vietnamese New Year, and then take another five days or so off to spend time with their families and close friends before making the journey back to their place of residence and work.
Back in 2013, we observed the bustling preparations for the holiday in Hanoi, where we’d lived for a few months, then Hue for a few days, and Hoi An, where we settled into for another few months. Everywhere, shops were selling vibrant red and gold lanterns, Chinese couplets, paper-cut decorations, red envelopes (to hold gifts of money) and vibrant flowers.
People were buying new clothes and busy cleaning every centimetre of their homes until they sparkled. After, they hide their brooms and cleaning products for a few days to prevent the good luck from being swept from the house.
At nearly every eatery we ate at or shop we went to, we saw family members arrive with plastic bags full of fresh bottles of cleaning products, new cloths and sponges, and brand new brooms, ready to begin scrubbing their businesses until they were spotlessly clean. Some also had tins of paint and brushes to slap on a new coat even if it wasn’t needed.
We arrived in Hoi An two days before New Year’s Eve, to witness last minute purchases of cherry blossom and marigold trees — because the beginning of Lunar New Year also marks the start of the Spring Festival — and to see dozens of trees crammed onto ferry boat after ferry boat, along with scores of people and motorbikes.
The most incredible sight during Tet, which became the quintessential image of the holiday for me, is that of motorbikes buzzing through the streets with potted flower and orange trees strapped on behind that are so tall you can barely see the motorbike and its driver.
The quintessential smell of Tet is aromatic incense, which locals light for their ancestors at a shrine in front of their home, which they decorate more elaborately than usual with fruit, fake money, rice wine or bottles of liquor, and plates of food.
We spent New Years Eve strolling around the crammed streets of candle-lit Hoi An until an hour before midnight when we hired a boat belonging to a smiling old lady so Terence could capture the reflection of the fireworks on the water. She rowed us around for a while and it was magic — so still, just us and a handful of others on the water, while the riverbanks were jammed with people.
A short time before midnight the old lady stopped at the dock so we could dash to a toilet, which fortuitously happened to be where her family — her daughter and grandkids — were waiting to board. We didn’t mind one bit.
Just minutes before the fireworks crackled directly above us, the sky opened up and it began to rain, and it rained so hard we all got absolutely drenched.
I didn’t quite figure out whether our soaking was good luck or bad luck. I guess it must have been a good omen, as it wasn’t a bad year. Let’s hope for the same again. I’m off to give the apartment a clean, then hide the broom.
Happy Year of the Tiger!
You might also like to read Terence’s reflections on Photographing Tet Celebrations in Hoi An.