Chap Goh Mei basically means the 15th night of the Chinese New Year in the Hokkien dialect, although it’s also known as the Lantern Festival or even Chinese Valentine’s Day. It’s celebrated widely in Singapore and Malaysia to honour the end of Lunar New Year festivities with a number of customs.
In addition to having a reunion dinner and praying at a temple, here are some other activities that anyone can participate in:
Hanging of red lanterns
It’s known as the Lantern Festival because this is when CNY decorations are replaced with lanterns to commemorate the first full moon of the year. Just look up at the sky tonight, and you’ll actually see a full moon.
Traditionally, this is when Chinese homes and temples are decorated with red lanterns – red is for good fortune – which can symbolise letting go of past selves and getting new ones. As with any tradition, there’s a lot of different legends surrounding the origin, but the celebrations began around 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). These days, the lanterns aren’t just the usual round red ones, but come in my patterns, colours, and sizes.
Eating tang yuan
As with every Chinese celebration, it’s celebrated with food. Another Chap Goh Mei tradition is eating tang yuan – glutinous rice balls filled with sweet paste (ie. peanuts and sesame) in hot broth – which is a traditional Chinese dessert that symbolises harmony and happiness. This means now’s a great time to savour your favourite Ah Balling snacks.
Tang yuan can also be eaten with no filling, and many people make them at home. These come in all sorts of different colours, with the most common being pink and white.
Tossing oranges into the water
For the young, Chap Goh Mei is also a Chinese version of Valentine’s Day (sort of). On the last night of the Lunar New Year, single women would toss mandarin oranges, with their contact details, into a river, lake, sea or any body of water (even a pool) in the hopes that Mr Right would pick it up. Supposedly, this would lead to a happy marriage.
The modern way is for women to write their social media handles – whichever one they use to screen out weirdos – on these oranges!
Many people think that this love-matching custom originated in China – it’s true that the Lantern Festival was the only time women can leave their homes due to ancient curfews – but the practice actually started in Penang in the 19th century. These days, it’s widely practised in Malaysia (albeit not during the pandemic); in Singapore, you’d probably be fined for littering.
So go forth and have fun this Chap Goh Mei!