Ning Jing has been living in Brunei for the past 15 years. She is married to a Bruneian and has two children, the eldest of whom is now 14 years old. She frankly admitted that when she initially moved to Brunei, she felt terribly homesick especially during the Chinese New Year (CNY) season. But over the years this feeling faded away as she began to see Brunei as her second home. This, together with “technologies like Skype and the internet means that the distance has been removed” now making it a lot easier to also stay connected with the place of her birth.
Ning Jing works at RTB as a part time Chinese radio DJ. You can listen to her show twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9.00 am.
We prepared a few questions to discuss with Ning Jing on her view about Chinese New Year. Little did we anticipate that our first question, “How does Chinese New Year in Taiwan differ from CNY in Brunei?”- would dominate the entire conversation.
Throughout our discussion, we got a glimpse into Ning Jing’s fascinating personal and cultural stories and were able to conjure up magical images of Taiwan, a faraway land which we see a lot of on television.
We hope that you will enjoy this extract from our interview.
How does CNY in Taiwan differ from the celebration in Brunei?
There is an obvious and huge difference in the CNY celebrations in Taiwan and Brunei. First of all, the majority of the population in Taiwan is Chinese, therefore, CNY is a national celebration. You could feel the festive atmosphere on the streets and in shopping malls almost immediately after Christmas.
During CNY in Taiwan, the entire country comes to a standstill. Due to the closure of the fresh markets many restaurants and eating places are closed during CNY because they cannot get their supplies. However, you can still find food and dine out during CNY, if you head out to the huge conglomerates in the shopping malls and make advance bookings – but do expect those restaurants to be packed. Alternatively, you could always get fast food. In Taiwan, a majority of businesses close for about four days and factory workers take up to two weeks holiday, because it is the only time of the year they can take a break.
I am from the capital city of Taipei. Within Taiwan itself, the way we celebrate CNY is different from the way that it is celebrated in other parts of the island. On the actual CNY, the capital city slows down, as people return home to the countryside to celebrate CNY. Hence, the further south into the country you go, the more atmospheric it gets for CNY.
So, you wouldn’t recommend that tourists visit Taiwan during CNY?
Depending on what your goal is. If you are an avid shopper wanting to shop in Taipei, the first four days of CNY wouldn’t be ideal for you. However, if you are there on a cultural visit, it is possibly the best time to go. And I would recommend that you head south into the villages to experience the festivity. Taiwanese are extremely welcoming towards foreigners, so you would find it a real treat visiting during this period. For a shopping holiday, you should go to Taipei after the fourth day of CNY, when most businesses resume. As CNY is celebrated for two weeks, you’ll be able experience the festivity and enjoy the decorations even after the first couple of days. You will be able to see plenty of lion dances in the streets throughout the New Year which makes it a lot of fun.
So how do the CNY celebrations that take place in the home differ in the two countries?
There is quite a distinct difference in culture. In Brunei, you will often get Open House invitations, where the houses are packed with family, friends and strangers alike, who visit throughout the day. Most people also get caterers to provide food and this is arranged in a buffet setting. The big feast and the amount of foot traffic in a home makes it quite atmospheric in its own unique way.
In this regard, it is not quite the same in Taiwan. First of all, you will not be able to get any catering due to the fact that most restaurants cease operation during CNY. As a result, CNY becomes a very busy time for the women in the household. They have to cook up a feast, continuously for several days. As the majority of the households do not have a maid, you could imagine the additional amount of housework and stress that happens, even though it is a happy festive season.
As such, the kind of “open house” that takes place in Taiwan is usually more subdued, with only close friends or family invited for a nice meal. As CNY may be the only time that the family members get to see each other during the whole year, it is more about the precious quality time spent in catching up with each other on a deeper level.
So, is CNY a serious family affair for Taiwanese?
Yes, and I guess it’s the same with Chinese all over the world. People really make it a point to unite with their family. For example, it normally takes four hours to travel from Taipei to the southern part of Taiwan by car. During CNY, this same journey it will take more than 12 hours. With this in mind, you would expect that most people would give up the notion of going home, but no – they happily make the sacrifice and pay the price. For those who need to get to the east coast, the only convenient way to reach there is by train. People are prepared to line up for two days to buy their train ticket and are also willing to stand in a jam packed train for a full eight hours, in order to get home for the most important meal of the year which takes place on the eve of Chinese New Year.