If you follow my Instagram, you will have seen back in January that I was in Brunei, a little-known, tiny country on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. I was there to spend Chinese New Year with my ethnic-Chinese Bruneian boyfriend and his family, in what would be my first authentic Chinese New Year in an Asian country. It was a lot of fun, I ate a lot of food and even gambled (only a little bit – don’t worry, mum and dad). Read on to find out what celebrating Chinese New Year in Brunei is like!
Chinese New Year celebrations last for two weeks, and this year they started on the 27th of January with New Year’s Eve. I flew into Brunei with my boyfriend after spending five days in Kuala Lumpur, and NYE was spent preparing for the upcoming festivities. The family shared a large meal consisting of eight dishes – 8 is the lucky number in Chinese culture – and at midnight went outside to worship at the two shrines in front of their house – one for the sky gods and one for Tudigong, the Earth God – with incense sticks – three for the sky and five for the home – and then let off fireworks. They also light a fire and burn fake money as an offering to the gods so they will watch over them.
My favourite part of New Year’s Eve was the yu sheng, the dish consisting of 8 separate ingredients. The family then mix it all together, lifting and combining the foods, bring it as high as they can. The higher it’s lifted, the more luck and prosperity it brings you! Yu sheng is a southeast-Asian tradition, one that’s not found in mainland China. It’s a lot of fun and it tastes good too, though it’s made differently from family to family, and year to year.
Over the next fourteen days or so, people travel from house to house to visit family, friends, bosses, colleagues, eating and drinking as they go. These are called “open house“, and you are fed at every single place you visit. Every. Single. Place. I’m serious. On my first day I visited about five houses and I was stuffed to the brim after just the second one! I quickly learned how to pace myself and listen to my body…and sometimes politely decline yet more food. Beef rendang, a Malaysian dish, featured in the spread at most houses I visited, something I wasn’t unhappy about…it’s delicious!
Open houses are held both during the day and the night. The daytime and evening open houses host lion dances and the occasional dragon dance, while the nighttime open houses play host to gambling, and lots of it! I learned a few new games, including a complicated but fun (once you understand it) version of blackjack, and gambled a little bit. I’m a very careful player, but some people like to risk it and come out winning big…or losing big! It’s no surprise to see several different games going on at once, though there are limits to the amount of people at any one table to save the banker from playing himself out of house and home.
There are two parts of Chinese New Year which are integral to the culture and celebrations of the event. The first, which I have already mentioned, is the lion dances which, when celebrating Chinese New Year in Brunei, are restricted to just the first three days of the new year. They vary in size and quality, but most are run by schools or churches, and will visit your house for a fee.
The lions dance at your house, often entering and walking into each room to pray for each room. They will pray over your cars, and, most importantly, visit each shrine on your premises to pray to the Gods. Finally, they will take your gift of fruit, often a pomelo and oranges, and transform it into a beautiful display. The most amazing dance I saw involved five lions, four of which entered the house (the house was HUGE) and one that danced outside on stilts. I LOVE the lion dances – they are easily my favourite part of the celebrations.
The second integral part of Chinese New Year is the giving and receiving of ang pau, the red packets containing money. The amount varies depending on the person gifting it, but even strangers whose houses you visit (maybe your sister’s boss, or your boyfriend’s friend’s mum) will give you ang pau…if you’re young enough! You generally stop receiving ang pau from non-family members when you begin full-time employment, but people will give in-family for as long as they want.
Driving through the Chinese communities in Brunei at Chinese New Year, there is one colour covering almost every house – red! Red is thought to be the lucky colour, and will bring prosperity to you and your family. The more red you have on your house, the luckier it is, and it is customary to wear red on the first day of the new year.
While I didn’t wear red on New Year’s Day, as it was supposedly unlucky for my boyfriend and his family this year, I did wear a cheongsam, also known as a qipao – the traditional Chinese dress. You can read more about it on my post about the qipao here!
Because Brunei is officially a Muslim country, you cannot celebrate particularly openly. Since speaking to friends and my boyfriend’s family, I have learned that over the last few years, while the sultan has been applying the Muslim laws more and more, the celebrations have become ever more restricted. Lion dances, which used to happen across all fourteen days, are now restricted to the first three days. Furthermore, where in other countries you can see decorations everywhere, in Brunei there are no public displays of the typical red and gold.
I was super excited to be celebrating Chinese New Year in Brunei this year. I had a really great time learning the traditions and cultures of the celebration in a genuine setting. It is a beautiful, colourful, delicious affair – I thoroughly recommend visiting friends or family in an Asian country to see Chinese New Year for real!