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Red Envelopes, Monkeys and Chinese New Year for Dummies4 min read

Chinese Lunar New Year

The Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival in China) is a centuries-old and an important traditional Chinese holiday celebrated at the turn of the Chinese calendar. The celebrations last for several days.

This year, the official celebration dates in China are from 7th till 13th February.

But in London, the big event will be on Sunday 14 February (yep, on the same day as Valentine’s).

Lanterns in China Town

The Year of the Monkey and what it means

The Chinese Zodiac calendar is made of 12 animals: mouse, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. This is the order they appear in the 12-year cycle. Each animal is related to one of the 12 Terrestrial Branches.

The monkey is ranked 9th in the cycle. It symbolizes vitality, good health, longevity as well as high social status.

In Chinese people’s eyes, a monkey is something very positive rather than the derided term used in the western world. So next time someone calls you monkey ask them to explain if they are referring to the Chinese one or the western one 🙂

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Chinese New Year parade, Charing Cross Road

How do Chinese people celebrate this event?

The way the Chinese New Year is celebrated varies from region to region in China.

However, there are a few common points:

  • the evening prior to New Year’s Day families gather for their annual reunion dinner;
  • families have cleaned their properties thoroughly to make sure that all the bad spirits and bad energy has been swept away;
  • doors and windows are decorated with red paper cuts containing positive words of wealth, happiness, good fortune etc.
  • people eat various food such as:
    • savoury: fish (as it symbolizes abundance) and roast duck
    • sweet: some white rabbit milk candy, Niu ga tang (=nougat), su tang (= crispy candy), tang nian gao (= a sweet New Year’s cake) and chocolate liqueur

The festivities also include lighting firecrackers and giving money in red envelopes.

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Traditional Red Envelope

The significance of the Red Envelopes

Red envelopes (called ‘hongbao’ in Mandarin or ‘lai see’ in Cantonese) are actually money wrapped in red paper and are given by parents or grandparents to children. The red envelopes are a very important part of the Chinese New Year. The envelopes are red because Chinese people absolutely love the colour red as it symbolizes happiness, good luck and energy.

Pitfall alert!….You need to remember the envelope needs to be red. Don’t get a white envelope!

White means death…Doh!

In London, you can buy them from several shops in Chinatown for example. How surprising!…

  • How much is given?

The amount varies depending on who the envelope is given to. A young child (below 10 years old) would get less than a teenager for example. But generally speaking, amounts vary between 100 yuan (= ca £10) and 2000 yuan (= ca. £200). But this can go up to several thousand yuan.

The amount usually finishes with an even number because odd numbers are associated with funerals.

Also, the figure ‘4’ is not used due to the fact that the Chinese word for ‘4’ sounds like the Chinese word for ‘death’. So anyone interested in 441 yuan?…No thanks!

  • Who receives them?
  • Your own children
  • Your friend’s children
  • And sometimes employees
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Dancing dragon leads the parade

How to celebrate the Chinese New Year in London?

Now you know how to celebrate a Chinese New Year like a Chinese person. Well, sort of…

Next step: The London Chinese New Year’s celebrations are the biggest outside of China so you should go there to celebrate the event. This year the parade will start from Trafalgar Square on the 14 February at 10 AM. The route will bring you to the West End (via Charing Cross) and finally to Chinatown. If you intend on eating in Chinatown, we recommend you book a table.

There are also several places that celebrate the Chinese New Year such as: the V&A Museum (workshops and celebrations for children), Chiswick House (for the Magical Lantern Festival), the National Maritime Museum (performances, music and fortune-telling), and of course the Chinese restaurants (here are some of the best ones in the capital). You are spoilt for choices for things to do!

The Chinese New Year in London has got bigger and better over the years and 2016 will be even more impressive.

So come to London and have some FUN and MAKE SOME NOISE with the firecrackers!


Happy Chinese New Year! (新年快乐 – Xīnnián kuàilè)


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