5 Etiquette Tips To Navigate Chinese New Year

The Scene

February 14, 2018 | BY Chloe Pek

One of the most extravagant celebrations of every year, Chinese New Year is a time to reconnect with family and relatives, host loved ones, and pay social visits to friends. Most importantly, however, the occasion is a centuries-old tradition governed by a specific set of etiquette and rules.

To avoid any embarrassing social faux pas or becoming that annoying relative at family reunions, here are our 5 tips for navigating Chinese New Year from experienced society friends Dick Lee, Nana Au-Chua, and Susan Peh, and etiquette consultants Yvonne Anjelina and Raelene Tan.

Lilian Ong, Kara Tan, Karen Ong-Tan, and Irene Tan at the Chinese Women’s Association’s Lunar New Year luncheon last year.
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Dress for the occasion

Modern society may have become relaxed with dress codes, but make an effort to dress well in the spirit of good manners. As for wearing black, it really depends on the people you are visiting.

“Despite our increasingly modernised society, it is still essential that we remember how our actions may affect those around us. If there's a chance that donning a black dress will offend another in your presence, then it would be preferable not to wear it,” Yvonne Anjelina, director and chief etiquette coach at The Etiquette School Singapore shares.

“Older people, in particular, might not feel comfortable to see relatives and friends dressed in black which they consider appropriate for mourning purposes. If you really wish to wear black, dress your outfit up with gold jewellery or red accessories, making everyone happy,” Raelene Tan, etiquette consultant and author of Chinese Etiquette: A Matter of Course adds.

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5 Etiquette Tips To Navigate Chinese New Year
Stephanie Lee, Tan Min-Li, Marilyn Lum, Nana Au-Chua, and Tina Cheng at Nana's Chinese New Year luncheon last year.
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Mind your social graces

The same rules should always apply when visiting someone’s home, whether it is the festive season or not. “Always remember to make those around you feel comfortable—dress comfortably without being overly revealing or offensive; be tactful in your conversations; and bring a gift,” Yvonne advises. She recommends alcohol, teas, herbal tonics, or exotic food from your travels.

Don’t do anything that you would not appreciate if you were in the host’s shoes. Dick Lee recalls an encounter when guests brought their friends—who were not acquainted with the host—without notice, and overstayed their welcome. 

And since it’s Chinese New Year, don’t forget your traditions. “Present a pair of mandarins to your host or hostess, using two hands, while espousing good wishes. For married persons, prepare angbaos (containing an even amount of money) for the children. It is also impolite to refuse food or drink at this auspicious time of year,” Raelene says.

Susan Peh, Laura Hwang and Linda Soo-Tan at Adrian and Susan Peh's Lunar New Year dinner last year.
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Be a gracious host

As for hosts inviting guests into your homes for Chinese New Year, your main priority is to make them feel welcome and make sure they are having fun, of course. Susan Peh believes that the visit to your home should be comfortable and memorable for your guests.

“Always give your guests ample notice, stating the venue, time and dress code for the event, so that they can schedule ahead. You should also provide directions (with a road map) to your residence, with parking options. If you anticipate that parking would be a problem, consider providing valet services where there is a larger crowd.”

For Nana Au-Chua, hospitality means accommodating to your visitors’ tastes. “Plan the menu according to the different tastes and preferences of the invited guests. It is also advisable to note any dietary restrictions.” And for Chinese New Year, she cites that adding Asian-infused dishes is a must, alongside traditional festive staples.

Running out of food is a faux pas, so “it is best to space out the serving as some of the guests come at different timings,” Nana advises. “Never force a guest to eat or drink when they refuse.  Just make them feel at home and let them help themselves.”

Dick Lee’s top tips for a successful festive celebration? “Make sure there’s enough to drink, with a bartender on duty. Provide adequate food if the invitation crosses into mealtimes, and prepare enough small change for social gambling.” 

The one thing he thinks a host should never do—get drunk. “A host should always be too busy greeting and introducing guests to each other and seeing to the service to even make small talk.”

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5 Etiquette Tips To Navigate Chinese New Year
Peggy Jeffs at Nana Au-Chua's Chinese New Year luncheon last year.
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Make small talk

Family gatherings can be awkward, especially if you only see each other once a year. And with unfamiliar, newly-minted spouses in the mix, it is best to make small talk with tact and avoid the taboos like plague. 

“Commenting on the decorations in the home is good, as is remarking favourably on the attire that the relative or acquaintance is wearing,” Raelene shares. 

“Food has always been a conversation starter. It is good to have snacks in different areas readily available for guests,” says Nana. 

Questions pertaining to marital status, age, religion, weight are taboo. “Avoid unhappy topics that associate with death, separation, bad news or catastrophe as far as possible, if only because you wish that everyone is having a happy and memorable time at your home during this special festive season,” Susan advises.

Florence Neo, Tan Khar Nai, Susan Peh, Olga Iserlis, and Ho Ching Lin at Adrian and Susan Peh's Lunar New Year dinner last year.
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Never lose your cool

Getting questions about your love life and career can be provoking, but that doesn't mean you should lose your cool. Instead, pick up the art of deflecting questions. Yvonne recommends shining the spotlight on your conversation partner. “You could be upfront and say, ‘Honestly, I'd rather not talk about this at the moment. Let's talk about something more fun like your recent trip to the Netherlands. How was it?’”

If you do find yourself wanting to exit the conversation however, do it with tact and grace. “Excuse yourself to greet an older person—and genuinely do so—or offer to top up the drink of the person with whom you are conversing and, after doing so, move away and top up drinks for other guests,” Raelene suggests.

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