Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Or Happy Chinese New Year! There is simply no way to overlook the arrival of the Chinese New Year when you live in a country where a large proportion of the community are Chinese.  With around 15% of Brunei’s population being Chinese, Chinese New Year is a big thing here.  And by big, I mean loud!

When it comes to celebratory fireworks, the Chinese pull out all the stops.  Two hours of fireworks and firecrackers going off all around is not uncommon, as each individual family ushers in the New Year.  But, although there is a lot of noise, the actual displays are not always that spectacular to look at.  This is because, in keeping with Chinese superstition, it is the noise that is the important part.  The idea is that the noise scares away the evil spirits and bad mythical beasts.  Individual households will often have strings of firecrackers hung on their gates which, once lit, crackle deafeningly inside their self-made smoke screen like rapid gun fire for minutes at a time.  The firecrackers also spit out tiny bits of red paper as they burn, red being regarded as an auspicious colour.

Another highly symbolic, noisy tradition is the lion dance.  Chinese New Year Lion DancePerformed by a lion dance troupe, it is an energetic and complicated dance which brings prosperity and luck and banished evil spirits.  In Brunei these troupes are often based within high schools or martial arts groups, and practices take place for months in advance to perfect the moves required.  Two dancers work in partnership inside each lion, with one as the head and one at the tail.  The lion moves to the sound of accompanying drums, cymbals and gongs, which have to be carefully paced to convey the right amount of energy, keeping time with the movement of the lion.

There are Northern Lions and Southern Lions, from the respective parts of mainland China. In Brunei the Southern Lion is customary.  With a big wide head and expressive grinning face, people unfamiliar with Chinese New Year often mistakenly identify the lion as a dragon.  In fact, dragon dances are also performed at Chinese New Year, although I have never seen one in Brunei.  As with the lion dance, they are performed to bring good luck and scare away the evil spirits.  Whilst the lion is represented by two people hidden under one costume, the dragon can be of varying lengths and is a figure held over head on poles.  A dragon can be sometimes by fluttering above the heads of thirty or forty dancers, which must be a truly amazing sight.  Although considerably smaller, even the movement of the lion can be quite mesmerising.

Watching for the first time it can be hard to absorb all the symbolism, there is so much going on at once.  Often there will be more than one lion, and they will usually be different colours, as colour is used to represent age and character.  White lions are the oldest, whilst black lions are the youngest, and lions with golden yellow fur are the middle child.  The pace and style of the music and dance should shift to suit each lion, so would be at its fastest and most energised for the black lion.  There are also other colour lions, including the red lion which represents courage and the green lion for friendship.  Every lion has a mirror attached to their head as these symbolically reflect negative energy back on evil spirits and frightening them away.  Lion dances are also very active, with constant movement of the head and mouth to represent the lion’s vitality and longevity, and vigorous tail movement to symbolise the sweeping away of last years’ bad fortune.Chinese Lion

The dance is usually paid for by businesses, families or communities as a way of bestowing good luck and fortune for the coming year.  The dance conveys the lion plucking the greens – ‘cai qing’ in Chinese.  The lion is provided with auspicious vegetables and also auspicious fruit such as pomelos and oranges, which are thought to bring prosperity.  Auspicious oranges and pomelosThere will usually be a red envelope, containing money, with the fruit.  The lion dances around the property, banishing the evil spirits as he goes.  Finally he approaches the offering of greens and fruit, curious about them.  The music calms as he lies down to chew the food and contemplate.  Then suddenly the music will explode back into life as the lion jumps up and starts energetically dancing about, spitting out everything but the red envelope.  By spitting out the greens the lion is blessing the property or business with abundance for the coming year.

Seeing a lion dance is quite an amazing experience.  I love talking to Chinese friends and neighbours about the symbolism and customs behind the lion dance and other Chinese New Year customs.  There is a lot I don’t understand yet, and a lot that I just don’t get, from my own specific cultural standpoint.  So I’ll admit that it seems like an immense waste of beautiful fireworks (and money!) to set them off in the middle of the day in brilliant sunshine.  But, with Chinese New Year celebrations lasting over a week, neither am I super chuffed when they are going off for hours night after night whilst I fret about them waking my sleeping baby!  I guess the plus side is that, if she can learn to sleep through them from an early age, she’s going to be a good sleeper in years to come!  I’ll be taking her to see her first lion dance in the next few days.  I’m sure she will love it as much as I do, with all the music and activity going on around her, and the brightly coloured costumes to look at.

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