I celebrated Lunar New Year, which ended earlier this week, with my family for the first time in almost 20 years. I use the word “celebrated” loosely, because apart from having the immediate family together for dinner on Lunar New Year’s Eve, we hardly did anything else. We were never keen on the festivities, even pre-Covid. The exploitative prices of flights during the period meant that our reunion dinners were scheduled long before the actual day. My parents and brother also never bothered visiting any of our many relatives. One relative did visit us this year, but my mother wasn’t too happy about it because this aunt was recently widowed. In her supposedly traditional world view, individuals who are recently bereaved shouldn’t present themselves and their “aura of death” at festive occasions, in case they spread their “bad luck” to others. My mother’s displeasure had more to do with her antipathy towards this relative than any putative adherence to traditional custom. If it was someone she liked, she’d have no such qualms and the tradition would most certainly be “waived”. Similar negotiations around traditions that are inconvenient in one way or another have occurred in the past and present. Take personal bereavement for example. At different periods in China’s past, the three-year mourning period for one’s dead parents was prescribed at varying levels of strictness. At its most stringent, people whose parents had recently died couldn’t leave their houses, work or study, or entertain themselves for the next three years. Today, this tradition is obsolete because modern life does not allow such a lengthy period of unproductivity. In fact, a Chinese person today would be hard-pressed to tell you what an appropriate, let alone formal, period of grieving ought to be. From a mental health perspective, any period of more than a few months would be an issue of concern. The tale of Tang Bohu, the Ming dynasty tiger who was a poet and a painter The tweaking of traditions relates not only to changing times but geography as well. This Lunar New Year, I came across an illustrated list of festival foods and snacks in Singapore. Among the dozen or so items listed, only a few were recognisably Chinese, such as the sticky and sweet niangao (“year cakes”) and melon seeds. The rest – pineapple tarts, kuih bangkit , kuih lapis , sugee cookies, and so on – were very much the products of the ethnic and culinary diversity of Southeast Asia: Dutch, Indonesian, Malay, Eurasian, and so on. Despite their non-Chinese provenance, they’ve long been enjoyed as festival staples by Chinese Singaporeans and Malaysians. This isn’t dissimilar to how Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Kjedlsens (or “blue-tinned”) butter cookies are de rigueur Lunar New Year must-haves in Hong Kong and have been for as long as I can remember – the former probably because of its physical resemblance to gold ingots, for the acquisition of wealth, preferably a windfall, is the expressed wish of anyone who says Kung hei fat choi . I’ve never worked out the reason for the butter cookies. Traditions are never static. Even in premodern times, ancient customs were abandoned or updated. In the present day, they have acquired forms that make sense to us, and they will continue to be modified into forms that will be acceptable to future generations of Chinese people. Besides, new traditions are always being invented, both in the past and the present day. Therefore, be sceptical – and a bit careful – when people tell you that a certain custom has remained “unchanged for generations”, or that it has been done or hundreds, even thousands, of years. The only constant in traditions is change.