Gongxi facai! It’s Chinese New Year, otherwise known as the spring festival. In Cambodia, nearly one million Cambodians of Chinese heritage actively celebrate the annual festival to bring good luck for the year ahead.
According to various Cambodian-Chinese associations, there are at least 13 “big” Chinese-Cambodian family names. These include Lim, Ung, Chea and Taing. Further more, at least 700,000 Cambodians are of Chinese descent. Traditionally, Chinese-Cambodians have congregated in cities and townships – in particular the Kingdom’s economic and commercial hubs.
Heng Chou Ly, 64, a member of the Executive Committee of Sam Oung Pagoda in Mean Chey district’s Chba Ampov commune, calls Chinese New Year “the biggest event and most important celebration of the entire year” for Chinese-Cambodians.
“We celebrate Chinese New Year in the tradition of our parents and grandparents,” he says. “The season starts more than 10 days before the end of Bos [the last month of the Khmer lunar year]. That’s when Chinese-Cambodians begin to buy incense, festive home decorations, new clothes, fruit, flowers and cookies, while also making the home spotlessly clean to welcome in the new year.”
Chinese New Year celebrations run from the 30th day of the last Khmer lunar month until the second week of Meakh, the first month of the Khmer lunar year. Even though the celebrations cover a relatively long period, strictly speaking, in 2014, the festival proper runs from Chinese New Year’s Eve on January 30 to February 1.
“According to tradition, in the lead-up to Chinese New Year, Chinese-Cambodian shops offer great discounts,” says Huang Quisong, who is a traditional Chinese musician at Sam Oung Pagoda and assistant to the CEO of Bacarni, a company that sells cooking equipment for restaurant-scale kitchens.
“Discounting is the Chinese-Cambodian way of contributing to the New Year celebrations, making it possible for people to spend less and buy more. It brings happiness to everyone – to the sellers, buyers, and to the recipients of gifts, bringing cheerfulness to the New Year celebrations.”
Cambodian-Chinese Chou Ly says, “Chinese New Year is a time for family members, both young and old, to come together and be happy. Cheerful celebrations bring good luck for the entire year ahead.”
Chou Ly says that for some Cambodian Chinese, the celebrations start six days before the start of Chinese New Year, on the 24th day of Bos.
“We burn incense, or nakta, sending prayers for good fortune to the heavens,” he says, adding that incense is not burned until Chinese New Year gets under way in earnest.
“The purpose is to cast off all the bad luck of the previous year and to call on the heavens to bring prosperity, luck and happiness for all family members in the year ahead,” Chou Ly says.
“Traditionally, families load their tables with a variety of fruits, but the most important of them is a variety of orange known as khwik.”
Other dishes include soup, fried dishes, chicken or duck, cured pork, dried squid and boiled eggs, accompanied by rice wine and other drinks. After prayers, the entire family feasts on the delicacies.
According to Ngor Thou, ex-president of the Association of Teo Chew in Cambodia, another interesting Chinese New Year tradition is that after homes have been made spotlessly clean, brooms and dust pans are stored out of sight for three days from the first day of the Chinese New Year to avoid good luck being swept away.
“Most Chinese decorate their homes, doors, and window panes with a new coat of red paint,” he adds.
Meanwhile, according to Thou – and in a tradition rarely followed in China itself – many Buddhist Cambodian-Chinese abstain from eating meat on the first day of Chinese New Year in the belief that it promotes longevity.
“Most importantly, though, the first day of Chinese New Year is a time for families – including grandparents and great-grandparents – to spend time together at home,” he says.
“On the second and third day, families visit members of their extended family, or go on sightseeing trips.”
Khiev Sambath, committee member of a Chinese Pagoda in Phhsa Kandal, says: “Traditionally ang-pow [red envelopes, or hongbao in Mandarin], which hold gifts of money, are passed out during the celebrations. Couples and elderly family members give them to unmarried youth.”
Among the other traditions observed by Chinese worldwide during Chinese New Year are incendiary firecracker celebrations from midnight of New Year’s Eve, along with performances by dragon dance troupes, which frighten away evil spirits and expel any bad luck from family homes and businesses.