Chinese New Year falls on Feb. 19, and the important Chinese holiday is celebrated throughout Cambodia. Steve Noble explores what’s involved and how to join in with the festivities.

The streets of Phnom Penh are brought to life by lion dancers, thought to bring good luck, as two manned costumes mimic a lion’s movement to the sounds of the live beating of drums, cymbals and gongs synchronised to the lion dance, while greetings of “Gong Xi Fa Cai”, or “Happy New Year”, ring out.

Nestled between the Western New Year’s Eve of Dec. 31 and the domestic Khmer New Year festivities in April is Chinese New Year. In China, the holiday is also known as the Spring Festival and although it is not one of the numerous legal public holidays littering the Cambodian calendar, many locals and visitors celebrate Chinese New Year in the Kingdom. This year the animal sign celebrated is that of the sheep (or goat/ram).

Public burnings of fake gold, offered in return of wealth, fortune and luck, fake passports to encourage travel fortunes, and paper cars and villas are carried out to encourage material wishes of prosperity in the coming year. And prepare for a visual and culinary treat as roasted suckling pig, fruits such as mandarins and desserts including sticky rice pudding are offered up. The festivities also mark a rise in prices of pork, beef and fruits, at Cambodia’s markets as demand rises.

If you want to throw yourself into the thick of the action, Wat Phnom remains one of the busiest pagodas in the capital, especially on Chinese New Year’s Eve at midnight.

In the days leading up to New Year, traditionally families buy presents, decorations, food, and new clothes and houses are cleaned thoroughly to sweep out bad luck from the old year and pave the way for good fortune.

Chan Soly is a Cambodian living in Phnom Penh, and her Chinese heritage stems from her grandparents, who hail from Guang Dong. They brought with them cultural values and a traditional way of living when they moved to Cambodia, where they now live.

Chinese New Year means a lot to her family, as it’s a day when relatives gather and celebrate together. Soly says her family celebrates for three days. “On the first day, we all dress up nicely in red because red represents good luck, and from early morning we go to Ma Chou (a Chinese Church) to pray for good luck and prosperity, then the elders will give Red Pockets to youngsters,” the 24-year-old says.

“Only those who are older than you and are married hand out the red packets, which are red envelopes with money inside and it is also believed that the money inside will suppress the evil from the children and keep them healthy. We can happily enjoy the party and invite our relatives to come along and celebrate it together.”

On New Year’s Eve, decorations made from red and gold paper are hung from doors to bring good luck and marked with messages of good fortune such as wishes of happiness, known as Spring Couplets. These mostly have four Chinese characters, which are called Hui Chun.

Another Chinese-Cambodian living in the capital is Vannary Khun, 19, whose family are Chinese Teo Chew descendants, born and raised in Cambodia. “Chinese New Year is an important day for Chinese families. Our family takes time off from our busy schedule to spend quality time together,” he says. “We would go to my grandfather’s house and spend time to bond as a family. We would play some cards and eat watermelon seeds while the elders reminisce about the old times. We would also receive red pockets from our parents, aunties, uncles and grandparents.”

In terms of food, dumplings and fish are traditional festive eats. Soly says, “There are a lot of traditional meals which will be cooked during Chinese New Year, and one of the most famous is Chap Chai. This food is a mixture of vegetables and meat, and every member of the family gathers around and enjoys it together.”

Khun adds that in terms of food, “We would have hot pot and any food that was used as an offering, it was a sign of being blessed by God or our ancestors. Watermelon seeds were optional, usually we eat them as a snack.” 

RESTAURANTS – Soly recommends Asian Kitchen & Phnom Penh Bie Jing as two top eateries to “experience the taste of Chinese food and the sense of Chinese New Year”. Khun suggests: Lao Di Fang. “It is one of the most well-known Chinese restaurants in Phnom Penh,” she adds.
Asian Kitchen 335 Monivong Blvd, Phnom Penh. Tel. 023 222 266.
Phnom Penh Bie Jing 93, Sangkhak Neayork Souk, Street 136, Phnom Penh. Tel. 011 909 5480.
Lao Di Fang 113C-D, Mao Tse Toung Blvd, Phnom Penh. Tel. 023 226 683.