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In Malaysia, Lunar New Year keeps ethnic Chinese in touch with ancient customs

For ethnic Chinese Malaysians, Lunar New year celebrations can be both raucous street festivals and private, family affairs, a time to clean the house, pay debts and start fresh.

Women burn joss sticks at the Goddess of Mercy temple in Penang, Malaysia, on Feb. 6, 2019. The old Taoist temple is one of the busiest temples in Penang, with large numbers of worshippers praying there throughout the 15 days of the Spring Festival. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

(RNS) — The Chinese Lunar New Year, also called the Spring Festival, started more than 3,000 years ago as a harvest festival in the Chinese agrarian society that observed and celebrated the cycles of nature. Throughout millennia, the festival has grown to become the biggest annual celebration in Chinese communities throughout the world.

A woman gives away “ang pow,” red envelopes containing small amounts of money, to the needy in front of a temple in Penang, Malaysia, on Feb. 5, 2019, on the first day of the Lunar New Year. People often make donations to the needy during the Spring Festival as a way of giving back to the community and bringing in more prosperity. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

One of the places that has developed unique Chinese New Year traditions is Penang, in northern Malaysia, the center of Chinese culture in a country whose population is nearly one-quarter ethnic Chinese. Their forebears arrived as traders as early as the 15th century, and their traditions, though distinctive, maintain their connection with ancient customs.

Men play mahjong, a popular game during family reunions, in front of their house in Penang, Malaysia. Families spend much of the Spring Festival time together, often visiting relatives and friends for open houses throughout the Lunar New Year. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

New year celebrations are famously raucous street festivals, with firecrackers and richly decorated costumes, but for the Malaysian Chinese they are also private, family affairs, a time to clean the house, pay debts of all kinds and start fresh. Children return to their parents’ homes and spend most of the 15 days of the Spring Festival together.

On the eve of the new year, families sit down for a reunion dinner, the centerpiece of which is yee sang, a dish traditionally made from thinly sliced fresh fish. (In Chinese, the word “fish” sounds similar to “abundance.”) In Malaysia, yee sang has evolved into a colorful mix of fish, carrot, radish and other vegetables with colors symbolizing prosperity and good luck.

Families toss the yee sang dish at the beginning of a reunion dinner on Feb. 4, 2019. “It is very important for us to be together with our families for the reunion dinner,” said Yee Vone Koy, a young Penangite. “It happens that I am working on this Chinese New Year so my family and I decided to eat out at a restaurant near my office so we can spend the reunion dinner together.” RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

Throughout the two weeks of the Spring Festival, the Malaysian Chinese observe a range of rituals and traditions meant to bring in good luck, prosperity and wealth.

People pray on the Lunar New Year morning at the Goddess of Mercy temple on Feb. 5, 2019, in Penang, Malaysia, the oldest Taoist temple in the city. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu