Five of the best places to ring in the Year of the Rooster in East Asia
Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam - where they call the holiday Tet - make for great alternatives to celebrating Lunar New Year in Hong Kong
January 28 ushers in the Year of the Rooster, and with it a fortnight filled with raucous celebrations tinged in the colour red. While Hongkongers eat their fill of egg waffles and honeyed crackers at the Lunar New Year Fair at Victoria Park and burn incense by the thousands at Wong Tai Sin temple as the clock strikes midnight on Lunar New Year’s Day, migrant workers across China will be spending a precious 15 days at home feasting and lighting firecrackers with loved ones.
Beyond China, the Lunar New Year is celebrated with fervour in Southeast Asia; if you fancy a change of scenery this year, hop on a short-haul flight to one of these destinations.
With 75 per cent of its population being ethnic Chinese, it’s no wonder Singapore throws its biggest parties during the Lunar New Year. The Year of the Rooster is no exception – celebrations began in earnest in early January, when the Chinatown Chinese New Year Light-Up transformed Eu Tong Sen Street, New Bridge Road and South Bridge Road with some 5,500 handcrafted lanterns (ends February 25). Nightly performances of Chinese opera, martial arts and lion dances began earlier in the month at Kreta Ayer Square, and continue daily from 8pm until January 27.
Count down to the new year itself on January 27 from 2pm at River Hongbao, Marina Bay, decorated with dazzling large-scale lanterns and featuring Chinese arts and crafts, street food and amusement rides (daily until February 4), or join in the Chinatown street party, with abundant food and fireworks, from 9.30pm.
Celebrations continue with the annual Chingay Parade, the largest float parade and street performance in Asia, which features Singaporean people and performers of all stripes (February 10 and 11). Expect to be dazzled by floats, stilt walkers and dancing dragons; after all, Chingay means “the art of costume and masquerade” in the Hokkien dialect.
George Town, Malaysia
One of the oldest cities in Malaysia, George Town was founded by the British East India Company in the late 18th century. Today it has a thriving Chinese community, and the atmosphere around Lunar New Year is lively. From the popular annual display of lights at the Kek Lok Si Temple (January 23 to February 24) to the giant lantern display in the vicinity of Dewan Sri Pinang (January 26 to February 26), the city is aglow with celebration for the duration of Lunar New Year and beyond.
The oldest streets of George Town, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008, play host to Penang state’s official Lunar New Year celebrations on February 3, with lion dances and traditional Chinese performing arts from 4pm until late. Also highly anticipated are the lively birthday celebrations for Chinese deity Chor Soo Kong at the nearby Penang Snake Temple (7am to 11pm on February 1), and the return of the Hot Air Balloon Fiesta at Padang Polo (February 4 and 5), with daily tethered balloon rides and night shows featuring bespoke balloons, music and entertainment.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
A four-hour drive south from George Town takes you to the Malaysian capital, another vibrant destination in which to ring in the Year of the Rooster. The popular Thean Hou Temple in the southwest of Kuala Lumpur is bathed in red lanterns to celebrate the new year, and there are lion dance performances in the temple’s shrine (10.30am and 2pm every weekend from January 28 to February 11). Unsurprisingly, the Chinatown area in the Old Town is another anchor point for festivities – Petaling Street is the perfect spot to shop for souvenirs while viewing the new year decorations and lion dance performances. Be sure to taste some yee sang – a Teochew raw fish salad that symbolises prosperity – while you are there.
If you’re after more of the traditional performing arts, Pavilion KL has a wide variety of diabolo and lion dances, drum and Chinese instrumental performances (from now until February 10) and even a Kung Fu Yoga Meet and Greet featuring Jackie Chan (6.30pm on January 21). Elaborate decorations and performances are commonly seen in Kuala Lumpur’s malls, especially during the first two days of Lunar New Year. You may also see local ministers – and some welcoming residents – arrange sumptuous open houses to encourage family, friends and neighbours to celebrate the Lunar New Year together; feel free to join in with a smile and a red packet donation if you come across one.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The Lunar New Year is celebrated in Vietnam as Tet Nguyen Dan – Vietnamese New Year – and it is the country’s most significant holiday. Ho Chi Minh City’s major thoroughfares and malls are lit up with festive lights and decorations, with particularly vibrant paraphernalia to be found in Cholon, the city’s sprawling Chinatown.
Wander the extensive Binh Tay Market for snacks and souvenirs before stopping by the Chua Quan Am Chinese Buddhist pagoda, both in Cholon; visiting pagodas during Tet to pay your respects is a long-held local tradition. Nguyen Hue Flower Street is also unmissable during this time in Ho Chi Minh City (January 25 to 31), where flowers, lights and lanterns envelop over 700 metres of a pedestrian street in exceptional displays.
Lunar New Year may not be a public holiday in Thailand, but plenty will flock to the celebrations in Bangkok’s Chinatown, Yaowarat, and beyond. The entire area comes to life, with crowds of worshippers looking to pay their respects on New Year’s Day (January 28) amid street performers, a dragon parade and explosive firecrackers.
Plan a day to wander the streets, heritage buildings, and gold shops and visit a few of the 20-plus temples – Wat Mangkon Kamalawat is the largest Chinese Buddhist temple in the capital, while the shrine at the Thien Fah Foundation is also a popular choice during the festivities.
Bangkok’s historic centre, Rattanakosin, is only a few streets away if you want to take the opportunity to visit the Grand Palace and Wat Po while you’re in town.