Chinese New Year in Cambodia.

Ok, so New Year is always both great fun and a great opportunity for a new start right? Of course, which is why here in Cambodia we have three of them, yes three. We have the international New Year in January 31, the Chinese New Year in the middle of February, it is lunar so it changes and the Khmer New Year around Easter time.

So what happens here on the Chinese New Year and why?

Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival (simplified Chinese: 春节; traditional Chinese: 春節; pinyin: Chūn Jié) in modern China, often called the Lunar New Year in Asia, is an important Chinese festival celebrated at the turn of the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar. Celebrations traditionally run from the evening preceding the first day, to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first calendar month. The first day of the New Year falls on the new moon between 21 Jan and 20 Feb.

The upcoming year of the Dog commences on Friday, 16 February 2018.

Here in Cambodia we have a lot of Chinese heritage. Chinese Cambodians are Cambodian people of Chinese or partial Chinese descent. The Khmer term Khmer kat Chen (ខ្មែរកាត់ចិន) is used for people of mixed Cambodian and Chinese descent while Khmer Chen (ខ្មែរចិន) can mean Cambodian-born citizens of Chinese ancestry (Khmer is the majority ethnic group of Cambodia and Chen means “Chinese” in the Khmer language). During the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were the largest ethnic minority in Cambodia; there were an estimated 425,000. However, by 1984, there were only 61,400 Cambodians of Chinese ancestry left. That has been attributed to a combination of warfare, economic stagnation, the Khmer Rouge, and emigration. There are, however, tens of thousands of mixed Chinese and Khmer ancestry.

Chinese Cambodians are a well established middle class ethnic group and are well represented in all levels of Cambodian society. Chinese Cambodians also play a leading role in Cambodia’s business sector and dominate the Cambodian economy today. In addition, Chinese Cambodians have a strong presence in Cambodia’s political scene with many high ranking government officials and much of the political elite being of partial Chinese descent.

So this weekend we will see plenty of small fires by the roadside where the ghost money is burnt along with doll houses and cars as an offering to ancestors, and to bring prosperity.

There will be plenty a suckling pig eaten in fine homes around the country and we will see red clothing everywhere, if we are lucky we will see the Dragon Dance from the temple down by the river as they travel around the city dancing outside of the many Chinese owned businesses.

Why the red clothes? Well according to

Long ago in the mountains, there lived a horrible demon creature named Nian. Every year, on the first day of the year, the creature would awaken and descend upon the village. He would eat all the grain and livestock. And if there were any unfortunately children stuck outside, they would disappear.

The villagers lived in fear of this beast and boarded up their houses on this night to protect their families. One year, right before this event was to occur, an old man visited the village. He turned to the villagers and asked, “Why do you fear this creature such? You are many and he is but one. Surely he could not swallow all of you.”

But the villagers remained skeptical and locked themselves up anyway. That night, Nian did not come. The old man had ridden him until dawn and the creature went back to its cave hungry. This went on for several nights until the old man revealed, “I cannot protect you forever.”

He turned out to be a god and had to return to his duties elsewhere. The villagers were terrified that once the old man left, they would once again see Nian return.

So the old man informed them, “The beast is easily scared. He does not like the color red. He fears loud noises and strange creatures. So tonight, spread red across the village. Hang red signs on every door. Make loud noises with drums, music, and fireworks. And to protect your children, give them face masks and lanterns to protect them.”

The villagers did as the old man instructed and Nian never returned again.

In Chinese, the word for New Years is Guo Nian. Literally translated it means to “pass over Nian” or “overcome Nian”. That is exactly what the villagers did.

It has become a tradition that part of New Years celebration is to hang lots of red decoration in your house. Streets are filled with music, loud drums, and fireworks all day long. And special paper lanterns are made in a variety of shapes and sizes, paraded through the streets to scare off any demons that might come.

Thus ends the story of Chinese New Years or Guo Nian.

So keep your eyes open around the country this weekend and do not forget that there is always another new year in a couple of months.

Lucien Grey 

Categories: Articles

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