Celebrating Lunar New Year in Taipei: A Guide to Proper Etiquette
One of the most important customs during Lunar New Year is to give out red envelopes to young kids in the family.
WORDS BY Jenna Lynn Cody
PHOTOS BY yongtick, MIA Studio, olindana, jyugem, yaophotograph, Tom Wang, vixenkristy
When the music in the stores changes, you know it's coming. When the red and gold decorations go up and entire storefronts in Taipei turn glittering and crimson, it's getting closer. Then the Dihua Street neighborhood turns into a massive holiday market — there are others but Dihua Street is the most crowded and famous — and you know it's only a week or two away. Of course, this is Taipei, so it's not Christmas that's drawing closer, it's Lunar New Year.
If you are in Taipei for Lunar New Year, you might find the smaller towns and cities more renao (熱鬧, hot and noisy, which sometimes means fun, exciting and crowded too) as many locals return to their hometowns for the holiday. In contrast to the weeks leading up to the long holiday, Taipei itself is much quieter, and those who want to walk around the city without urban crowds might enjoy it more. Although some foreign residents prefer to leave town for the holiday, it can be a fine time to travel around the country (just don't try to travel on the roads or long-distance public transit on Lunar New Year's Eve or New Year's Day). If you're very lucky, you might be invited to celebrate the holiday with a friend, meet their family and partake in their reunion dinner, which is not unlike a family holiday dinner in the West.
If you are invited to a Lunar New Year celebration, here are some etiquette guidelines around giftgiving to various family members that will ensure you're always welcome back next year.
A common joke in Taiwan is to reply to the standard New Year greeting of "gong xi fa cai (恭喜發財, have a happy and prosperous new year) with "hongbao na lai (紅包拿來, Give me red envelopes). It makes sense when you consider the literal translation of gong xi fa cai: "congratulations, and get rich!" The joke is somewhat sarcastic as those who make it are often the ones giving — not receiving — red envelopes! But in fact, there are a number of rules about how to give and receive them.
Parents, grandparents and older relatives typically all give red envelopes to younger children. Adult children who are not yet working or married may still receive them from parents (and possibly grandparents, depending on the family). Once "settled" — often, though not always, defined by family members as married and gainfully employed — adult children are then expected to give red envelopes to their elders as well as children in their family, which may include nieces and nephews as well as their own children. Some complain about this while others say it's a blessing, as giving out red envelopes means you are financially independent, and able to take care of your family.
Lunar New Year is also the time when companies pay out employee bonuses, which are often equivalent to one or even several months' salary. These occasionally come in red envelopes. Some extra bonuses might be used as prizes in the games and contests played at weiya (尾牙, year-end parties) and are put in red envelopes as a symbol of prosperity.
Just as with red envelopes given at weddings, the amount of money matters. Avoid amounts with the number "4" in them as it's a homophone for death, and stick to auspicious or safe numbers. Anything starting with or including a "6" (a homophone for smoothness) is a good bet.
If you are invited to a friend's home for Lunar New Year, it's a good idea to bring the oldest relatives and any children red envelopes. As a guest rather than a family member, the amount needn't be large — perhaps a few hundred New Taiwan dollars each for the children, and a bit more for the older relatives. The point is to offer your good wishes, not enrich the recipient. Your friend might even insist on preparing these themselves for you to give their family. It's polite to insist that you are happy to do it with your own money, but if your friend has already decided to do this for you, don't expect to succeed!
In the weeks leading up to New Year, stationery and all-purpose stores as well as pop-up businesses across Taipei sell red envelopes for this purpose. If you know you'll visit a family over the holiday, it's a good idea to stock up. The envelopes no longer specifically need to be red (or even red and gold). Envelopes decorated with Japanese-style patterns have become popular, while rainbow envelopes flecked with gold can also be found everywhere recently. However, if giving an envelope to a very senior family member, traditional red is the way to go.
Although red envelopes are the most standard Lunar New Year gift, other gifts may be given as well, especially to co-workers, friends and acquaintances. They're appropriate for anyone you would not traditionally give a red envelope to. Some bring their building janitors a small gift instead of a red envelope, as the latter implies that he/she is your employee.
If you are invited to a Lunar New Year celebration, it's a good idea to bring a gift and present it to the parents (the grandparents would get red envelopes). Large gift boxes of cookies, cakes, candies and most kinds of fruit, which are widely available for sale at grocery and convenience stores, are always good choices and are securely and attractively packaged. Grapes, plums, pineapples, and jujubes — the tart green dates that look like oblong apples — are always a good choice as well, as they have positive connotations of prosperity. Jujubes from Dashe (大社) in Kaohsiung are especially well-known in Taiwan and make great gifts. Kumquats and oranges are probably the most popular choices as their golden orange color is reminiscent of, well, gold. Apples are also a strong choice, for their name, which is pronounced as pingguo in Mandarin, is a homophone for harmony (ping, 平) in the Chinese speaking world. Try to buy fruits that are attractively packaged in red and gold specifically for gift-giving.
Just as with wedding presents, there are some things you should never give as a Lunar New Year gift. Interestingly, most of these are based on negative homophones: items whose names sound like some form of bad luck or ill will.
Avoid pears, as the word for pear (li, 梨) is a homophone for the "li" in fen li (分離), which means "separation." Avoid clocks of any kind, including watches, because the clock (zhong, 鐘) in Mandarin sounds like the zhong of zhongjie (終結), which means "the end." Such a gift — a ticking clock — recalls counting down the days until death, just as the phrase "the clock is ticking" implies in English. Books are also a bad choice, as the word for book (shu, 書) sounds like the word for "lose" (shu, 輸). Knives are on the banned list as well, as they imply the severing of a relationship or even a life. Although it's unlikely that you'd choose to give an umbrella as a gift, avoid these as well, as the word for umbrella (the san in yusan, 雨 傘) is a homophone for another way of saying separation or scattering: li san (離散).
Lunar New Year, not January 1, is when the Chinese Zodiac changes over, and the new year is represented by one of the 12 animals. That means that every Lunar New Year, there are greetings specific to the upcoming year's animal. You may remember da ji da li (大雞大利, big chicken, big profit), which is a play on 大吉大利 — with almost the same pronunciation — which simply means "great luck," a few years ago for the year of the rooster. 2020 is the year of the rat, so the greeting for the upcoming New Year is 鼠年行大運, pronounced shu nian xing da yun or "the year of rat brings great luck." It's a play on 數年行大運, which means "years of luck." Another greeting for 2020 is 鼠來報吉祥, pronounced shu lai bao ji xiang, or "rats bring auspicious times."
THE LUNAR NEW YEAR DINNER
There are a few rules for the big dinner on Lunar New Year as well. Younger people will typically serve tea to their elders, for one, and it's generally polite to never serve yourself tea. While there should always be leftovers of the meal itself implying prosperity and abundance by being able to afford more than enough food — it's polite to finish all of your rice. Don't over-season your food. Doing so is akin to telling the chef they didn't do a good job. Always compliment the food, especially if it's homemade. Never turn over a fish, even if the side facing up is picked clean: doing so recalls a capsized boat, which of course is bad luck. This is an old fisherman's tale, but Taiwan is an island nation with a deep and historic connection to the sea. Sea-based folk tales carry a lot of weight here.
Taipei can be a lovely place to spend Lunar New Year, especially if you have friends who bring you home to spend time with their family to have a wonderful dinner. If you live in Taipei, you might want to join everyone else in doing a deep clean of your apartment as one of the customs is to "sweep" away bad luck before new year. Doing so during or after the period is considered bad luck (or rather, as sweeping away good luck), and stock up on books to read in advance. If you have some lucky scrolls hung up around your door, this is the time to change them (you can get new ones all over the city).
If you do join a friend's family for the holiday, put on some red clothing and follow the etiquette guide above. It will serve you well in terms of being a good guest.