This week welcomes in the Chinese New Year. If you live somewhere – as I do, in Brunei – with a large Chinese population, you can’t help but be aware of the New Year coming in. Fire crackers and fireworks are let off riotously at the stroke of midnight; a real time for celebrating! As a mother with two sleeping children I can’t help but wince at every single one, as I hope and pray that they continue their slumbers undisturbed! Even so, I find the cultural significance and complex symbolism of Chinese New Year endlessly fascinating.
Chinese astrology revolves around twelve animal zodiac signs, each of which is associated with a year in turn. Each animal zodiac sign has their own set of characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, which they bring to bear over the year. Each year is also dominated by one element – earth, fire, metal, water or wood. The Chinese believe that your personality and your destiny are determined by the zodiac sign and the element that you are born under. So for example, a child born in 2016 will be a Fire Monkey. These are the most adventurous and ambitious of the five elemental monkeys, but they are also the most irritable!
Another big part of the symbolism of Chinese New Year is in gift-giving and receiving. We went out for lunch the day before and were given oranges wrapped in red paper as we left, to bring us luck and prosperity during the coming year. There are also some gifts that you should never give because they are believed to bring bad luck in some way. Time-pieces such as clocks and watches are amongst the list of taboo gifts, as the recipient would perceive it as an indication that their time is running out.
If I was Chinese I think I might be tempted to take it as a really auspicious omen that on the first day of Chinese New Year I saw a whole troupe of these beautiful Silvered Leaf monkeys. I have been in Brunei four and a half years, and I have seen hundreds of macaques, but not a single one of these gorgeous, gentle monkeys. So I was practically holding my breath and trying not to jump for joy when I came across this alpha male and his troupe of female and baby monkeys. They were a delight, and more than happy for me to get within metres of them, snapping away. I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to finally see them, having hoped for an encounter since we first arrived. They took their time, but the wait was well worth it! And if they were a sign of a good year to come, then that’s even better.