The Lunar New Year holiday – known to many as “Chinese New Year” and in Vietnam as “Tet”– is widely celebrated throughout much of East and Southeast Asia, with cultural practices for the occasion that are often distinct to each nation or ethnicity – though many of them do reflect a certain degree of Chinese cultural influence, according to that country’s particular history or demographics.
Whether you call it Lunar New Year, Chinese New Year, Tet, Spring Festival or one of its many other names, the dates for the holiday are fixed by the lunar calendar each year and in 2022 that means the lunar New Year’s Eve landed on January 31 with lunar New Year’s Day being February 1, but the celebrations surrounding these holidays often run for several days or even a week depending on the country or the culture and some of them culminate in a Lantern Festival which this year will be held on February 15.
Cambodia’s strong connections to Lunar New Year are no different than other nations in the region in these regards and the ethnic Chinese-Cambodian or Sino-Khmer community has a long history here in the Kingdom dating back to at least the 13th century, which has always included their local customs for Lunar New Year practices and beliefs.
Of course, Cambodia also has its traditional Khmer New Year which falls in April and marks the end of the rice harvesting season as well as the international New Year Day and New Year’s Eve derived from the Gregorian calendar’s new year that begins on January 1st and these have become globally observed holidays even in places with their own traditional new year practices.
Cambodia’s long history with China has seen periods of harmonious and friendly cultural and economic exchange as well as periods of tension and conflict, which is only natural when you’re talking about a relationship that has developed over the course of many centuries of interaction under different governments, rulers, cultures and conditions.
China’s influence on Cambodia is both overt and subtle at the same time but many elements of Cambodian traditions, celebrations and even superstitions like beliefs related to good or bad luck have their roots in Chinese customs.
Lunar New Year is widely celebrated in Cambodia by both ethnic Sino-Khmer as well as Cambodians with no Chinese heritage in their personal ancestry. It isn’t an official public holiday with mandated days off from work but people still find ways to partake in the festivities and perform rituals that are unique to Cambodia’s version of the holiday.
One such local ritual takes place every January at Wat Phnom’s Vihear Chen Kla Sor temple – translated to English as the White Tiger Chinese temple – and the large crowds of believers who gather for it annually believe that it will ward off misfortune for the coming year.
Under the Chinese Zodiac, 2022 is a year of the tiger and that’s actually bad news for people born under certain other zodiac signs that are considered in opposition to the tiger. Folks born in those years come to make offerings such as pork bellies, eggs and dried squid by placing them in the mouths of the tiger statutes at the temple.
With nearly two decades of experience practicing the art of Chinese fortune telling and performing other related traditional ritual practices, Grandpa La is the man who is de facto in charge of running the festivities at the temple and managing the crowds of believers who arrive to make offerings there each year.
“In order to understand the ritual you need to understand the concept of ‘chhong’ which in English means something like ill-fated or unlucky. For instance, if whatever you do or say brings you into conflict and arguments with other people despite the fact that you mean no harm, yet they always take serious offense to your words, and trouble follows you wherever you go then you must remove this affliction by appealing to the spirit of the white tiger – represented here by the statues – and by making an offering and praying that the tiger spirit will free you from these woes and cast out the troubles and bad luck and bring solutions to your problems,” Grandpa La explains.
Grandpa La – who has both Khmer and Chinese ancestry – says the ritual isn’t very complicated and those wishing to turn their fortunes around can do so by offering three pieces of pork belly, three eggs and three dried squids by placing them inside the tiger statues mouth.
However, he says that if people cannot afford those items they can offer just one piece of each item and they may still receive the tiger spirit’s blessings and happiness if they are truly living in poverty but are sincere in their prayers and the spirit takes pity on them.
“But you must remember it is the tiger spirit that brings you fortune, not Grandpa La, so who am I to say what will always please him? If someone is strictly against partaking in the eating of flesh and instead wishes to offer fruits instead, perhaps the tiger will accept their gift and smile on them all the same,” he says.
The schedule for making offerings to the tigers at the temple doesn’t follow any particular dates or times. People arrive when they are able and come when they please but the busiest period is from February 1 to February 15 and after that many believe the efficacy of the ritual fades.
“Lokta Pras Chav Krong Kampuchea also dwells here, the one who is known as the supreme master of land and master of waters for all Cambodia, and people come here to make offerings to him. After they do that, if they also have bad luck stalking them then they could also go to the tiger,” he says.
Grandpa La has studied the Chinese zodiac for most of his life and he says that the year of the tiger is the fiercest of all of the 12 years. The year that is 100 per cent in opposition to the year of the tiger is the year of the monkey and Grandpa La says that those born in monkey years must not attend any funerals during the entirety of a tiger year.
Grandpa La is no missionary or proselytizer for his beliefs and he demurs when questioned about the effectiveness of the offerings or when asked for proof of their power or examples of people whose lives have been turned around by these practices.
“I do hear such tales from those who visit here almost daily, but spirits have a slippery nature and are not well pleased when we try to take hold of them. I do not want to speak on behalf of others on such matters. What they believe is what they themselves have lived and known and their stories are their own to tell,” he says.
The Post was able to contact one such believer, Ouch Saly, and interview them by telephone about their experiences making Lunar New Year offerings at the Wat Phnom Vihear tiger statues.
“I have always gone there when any of my family members start a new year that is in opposition to our birth years. Or this year I took my child – who was born in a year of the tiger – to do the ritual.
“In my experience, whenever I come here – especially when I’m starting a year that is in total opposition to my birth year – I find that my bad luck isn’t totally eliminated always, but it is reduced by up to half or more and that’s why I always return,” she tells The Post.
Grandpa La says he is not sure when the White Tiger Temple was built but he knows it is very ancient and though his estimate is somewhat imprecise it’s not wrong per se – according to historians, construction of Wat Phnom was completed in 1373 though additions and renovations took place over the centuries, some as recently as 1926.
Vihear Chen Kla Sor’s popularity around Lunar New Year has taken off in recent years due to the attention the rituals there have been getting on social media. Grandpa La says that these days because of Facebook and to some extent television coverage there are a lot more visitors to the temple each year who want to participate in these ancient practices with the hope that they too will have good luck in the coming year.
“My advice is that if you were born in a year that is opposed to the tiger but you are unable to come here to the White Tiger temple at the old Wat Phnom then you could also go to other temples for ablution all depending on your own beliefs.
“You must go to where you belong. If you are a follower of Buddha, look to Buddha for your salvation. If you follow the Christian god, then you must ask him to show you the path to good fortune. It must come from your own heart, your own beliefs, and whatever those are I wish you a year full of prosperity and happiness,” says Grandpa La.