CNY customs: Take the test

A SundayLife! street poll has found that many young people are ignorant about why and how Chinese New Year is celebrated.

Parents give hongbao to children to ensure that they do well in examinations. People wear red during Chinese New Year to scare away a mythical monster and the nian gao is the Chinese equivalent of a birthday cake.

A SundayLife! street poll of 100 people aged 30 and below unearthed these and more wrong answers to eight questions on the origins of common Chinese New Year customs.

Ninety failed the quiz. Most could answer only one to three questions correctly. Three people scored zero and three people got the highest score of five. (See other story for the questions and answers).

The Chinese folkloric Nian monster, which appears in primary school textbooks as a fierce creature that terrorises villagers and eats children and animals, has little to do with the origins of the eight Chinese New Year customs discussed here. Yet close to a third of those quizzed attributed many of the practices to the creature.

They said the Chinese wear red because the Nian monster is afraid of the colour. They also hang up spring couplets written on red paper to keep the monster away and eat nian gao, the sticky New Year cake, as that was what the creature was fed to keep it from eating humans.

Most young people could explain the traditions of spring cleaning and wearing new clothes, but stumbled over questions on the origins of yusheng and the practice of giving red packets and exchanging Mandarin oranges.

Student Louise Lee, 23, echoed some respondents when she said that people exchange Mandarin oranges because the fruit is in season. Others said the oranges are used to "show respect to the elderly".

As for red packets, student Hanna Koh, 17, said: "This is the way to make the younger generation visit their older relatives."

Those who failed the quiz admitted that they have never tried to find out the origins and significance of Chinese New Year customs.

About half of the respondents expressed interest in finding out the right answers. The other half, however, said it did not matter what the answers were.

Finance executive Lim Wei Li, 27, said: "My family tell me what to do. I just go through the motions every year."

National serviceman Jonah Foong, 20, added: "I'm not really interested in the answers. Chinese New Year never appealed to me apart from the chance to eat good food."

Most of the respondents who gave the right answers said they learnt about the customs in school and from their mothers.

Curator Ong Shihui, 27, one of the quiz's three top scorers, said her mother explained the various customs to her over the years. "My mother's Chinese name is Chun Lian, so when she put the spring couplets up, she would explain what they were for."

Mr Patrick Lee, 65, secretary-general of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, an umbrella body for more than 200 clan groups, was taken aback by the survey results.

"I didn't think it'd be so bad," he said.

"Perhaps schools and parents have not properly explained the origins behind such customs. Their lack of knowledge is a concern, as such traditions are important for the cohesion of family and society."

But Associate Professor I Lo-fen from the Nanyang Technological University's Division of Chinese was not surprised at the survey results.

"As far as I know, some young Singaporeans don't care about traditions. To them, Chinese New Year is just a holiday."

She suggested that adults share the origins of the customs at Chinese New Year gatherings so that the young can learn about the practices.

Mr Lee said one way of engaging young people is to emphasise the significance behind the customs that people can identify with.

For example, parents can remind their children that the reunion dinner is to encourage family bonding.


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