Samui Wining & Dining
Lions, Dragons and Nian
You can enjoy the colourful traditions and rituals of the Chinese New Year on Samui, too.


Lions, Dragons and NianLegend has it that in ancient times Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on the first day of the Chinese New Year. Twelve came and Buddha named a different year after each one. He went on to decree that the people born in each animal’s year would be endowed with some of that animal’s personality. And this year, once again, it’s the Year of The Dragon.


Whereas last year’s Year of the Rabbit was characterised by calm and tranquillity, this year’s personalities will be marked by excitement, unpredictability, exhilaration and intensity. Hardly surprisingly, Bruce Lee was born in the Year of the Dragon! As was Joan of Arc, Salvador Dali, Mae West, John Lennon, Florence Nightingale and Gregory Peck, amongst many others.


Unlike its Western counterpart, the Chinese New Year is complex, saturated with ritual and actually lasts for a total of 15 days. It’s based on the ‘Lunisolar’ calendar and each year begins on a different day, at the point in the month when the moon is at its darkest. It runs until the moon is full, fifteen days later. And this year the festivities are all set to kick-off on 23rd January.


If you’re not a part of, or live close to, one of Samui’s Chinese-based communities, then you won’t be aware of what’s already been going on behind the scenes. This is the biggest and most important festivity in the Chinese calendar and, in much the same way as with Christmas in the West, preparations have been already underway for quite some time. People have been busy, gift-lists have been drawn-up and presents bought, along with material for decorations, and all the traditional and festive foodstuffs are being acquired and stored in readiness.


But equally as important is the ritual house cleaning. Traditionally, every room is emptied and scrubbed from top to bottom. Doors and window frames are also cleaned and re-painted and then covered with colourful paper decorations and proverbs relating to health and happiness. All this is to symbolically purge the unhappiness or disappointment from the old year and to encourage the spirits of good luck and prosperity for the year to come.


But, even if you didn’t realise that all of this has been simmering away, there are some very visible clues giving away what’s about to happen. The main one is the sudden appearance on the streets of red and gold lanterns and banners, a week or so beforehand. How imposing this is depends on what part of Samui you’re in. If you’re staying in a resort somewhere then a few red lanterns will probably appear around the grounds or in the restaurant. But if you take a trip to where the island’s Chinese communities are concentrated, it’s a different story!


Mae Nam, for example, contains one of the most spectacular and beautiful Chinese temples on Samui. The ring-road near to the traffic lights will be a riot of colour in the day-time and ablaze with lanterns strung between the buildings at night; this will extend down the length of the two adjoining side streets, too. Something similar will be happening in Nathon, in the region of the middle road, where you can still see the old wooden houses of the Thai-Chinese families that have lived there for generations. And further afield, in the southern part of Samui, around Hua Thanon, you’ll find similar preparations underway.


It’s wonderfully decorative and strikingly beautiful. But nothing will actually happen until the morning of Monday the 23rd. And that’s when you’ll witness the explosion of colour and the spectacle that’s more-usually associated with this event: the processions, the dragons, the lions and the subsequent street parties.


This is known as Nian and usually lasts for just two days. Legend has it that the mythical beast, the ‘Nian’, would always appear on the first day of the new year to devour cattle, crops, and even villagers, but with a particular fondness for little children. In order to protect themselves, people took to putting food on their doorsteps at the start of each New Year in the belief that the monster would be appeased and wander away. On one occasion it was noted that the Nian took fright when he saw a child dressed in red. And so, the following year, every house was draped with red lanterns and armed with red fireworks and firecrackers. As this seemed to do the trick, and the Nian was never seen again, the tradition survived and continues to this day.


The spectacular street processions of Nian are a result of this tradition and with many of the symbols and motifs having deep spiritual significance. It’s all about frightening away the bad sprits whilst summoning and welcoming the good ones. To an enthusiastic drumming, clanging of gongs and clashing of symbols (not to mention the occasional ear-splitting fire cracker), the red-clad mass wends its way from door to door, stopping at each to exchange tokens and bless the household. The huge and bobbing lions cheerfully accept red money packets (known as hong bao) and return spiritual nourishment in the form of green vegetables in exchange. As each household is visited, one or more of their members join the procession and add to the numbers, both physically and spiritually.


And then, to an outside observer, all seems to die away after these two days of spectacle. But not so. In each house observances are kept and daily prayers are said. Visits to neighbours and friends are in order, along with the customary exchange of goodwill and gifts. And contributions to the local temple simply cannot be ignored! Finally, 15 days after Nian, and on the occasion of the approaching full moon, the ‘official’ end of the New Year is marked by the serene ‘Festival of Lanterns’.


It’s one of the oldest and most spectacular festivals in the world and an occasion that’s simply not to be missed. But, some advice. Unless you live within walking distance of Mae Nam or the middle road of Nathon, be ready to get there early and spend a day with some gentle sightseeing. The crowds become intense, the traffic’s at a standstill and parking is a nightmare.


At which point it only remains to wish you good luck and Guo Nian Hao. Which, of course, as everybody knows, means ‘Happy New Year’ in Chinese.


Rob De Wet


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