Depending on where you are of course, the goat may in fact be a sheep. Or even a ram. All this talk of farmyard animals! What’s it all about? Not a reference to a line from a children’s book or a trip to the local farm. I am of course referring to Chinese New Year symbolism, with 2014 being the year of the horse and 215 being the year of the goat. They are two animals belonging to the twelve year cycle of Sheng Xiao, attached to the Chinese lunar calendar.
Chinese New Year has just echoed around the world to the deafening sound of thousands of firecrackers, the musical score and whirling glory of the ever impressive lion and dragon dances, and a riotous blaze of New Year fire works. I really love experiencing Chinese New Year. It is one of my favourite things about being in South East Asia.
Having not really fully realised the complexities of the demographic make up of Brunei before we arrived, it wasn’t one of the cultural experiences I was anticipating. But with around 20% of the population being Chinese, it is a big part of the annual calendar of events and celebrations. Or rather, it has been until now.
Since Brunei’s implementation of Shariah Law in May 2014, there have been growing efforts by the Bruneian Government to limit or even eradicate non-muslim social and cultural events. Christmas 2014 was the first serious example of this in practice, with shopping centres, restaurants and hotels prohibited from displaying Christmas decorations or acknowledging the Christmas period in any way. Following hot on its heals, Chinese New Year celebrations have also been severely restricted this year.
For many of us expats who have made Brunei our temporary home, the restrictions placed on Christmas were saddening, but most people were fairly understanding. After all, although Christmas may be a big part of our cultural heritage, it isn’t and never has been part of the local or indigenous culture or faith.
More upsetting and shocking are the limitations forced on the Chinese Bruneian community, many of whom have lived here for generations. Having seen Brunei with the eyes of someone from outside, looking in, one of the loveliest things about it was the interesting melting pot of cultures and faiths, and the peaceful way that people and communities with different beliefs lived side by side so happily.
In the past, Chinese New Year provided an opportunity for the Chinese community to celebrate, and allowed other interested local and expat observers to get a real insight into the cultural complexities, symbolism and joyous celebration involved in welcoming in the new year.
This year, restrictions placed on the Chinese community meant that they were no longer permitted to use firecrackers and fireworks, which are highly symbolic in the context of Chinese New Year. The performance of Lion and Dragon dances was severely restricted to a handful of venues and times across the entire country, and non-Chinese observers were forbidden from participating in Chinese New Year celebrations. An altogether quieter and less conspicuous way to usher in the new year.
Last year when our little girl was still only months old we took her to a lion dance being conducted at a local business premises to ward off evil, and bring luck and good fortune for the coming year. She loved all the music, whirling colours and dancing. I am so sad that she hasn’t had the opportunity to go this year, and won’t again whilst we live in this country.
More than that, I am sad that a country that used to seem like such a friendly, welcoming and happily culturally diverse place now seems divided, secretive, and unhappy.
Although I’ve seen no official source or confirmation of this, I have heard rumours that this limited celebration of Chinese New Year will be the last time it is permitted in any form in Brunei, and that as from next year it will be entirely banned. A lot has changed since last Chinese New Year, but I sincerely hope that we do not see an even more radical difference this time next year. Even just as an expat bystander, a Brunei without Chinese New Year will seem a disappointingly more anodyne, hollowed out place to be.