A Good Start: The Joys of the Western and Lunar New Year in Taipei — East and West Look at Each Other

WORDS BY Rick Charette

PHOTOS BY Gao Zanxian, Valentin Petkov, Yenyi Lin, Taiwan Scene, MyTaiwanTour, Liu Jiawen

A few decades ago, in Taipei the long period spanning the Western New Year and Lunar New Year was one of relative quiet. Things have changed. This long season is now packed with special activities. And whereas in the past travel to Taipei during this “down time” was something generally avoided by the international traveler, today the back-to-back Christmas/Western New Year and Lunar New Year seasons are actively targeted by travelers from overseas, knowing they can fill their schedules with unique happenings and experiences. (Read more: Eight Amazing Ways to Celebrate New Years in Taiwan)

Lunar New Year is one of the most important cultural festivals for people in Taiwan. (Photo / Valentin Petkov)

Though not a Christian nation, Taiwan has embraced the joys of the Christmas/Western New Year season, with public celebrations large and small through much of December.

The Taipei 101 New Year countdown fireworks show attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year. (Photo / Gao Zanxian)

In the past, Lunar New Year in Taipei was unusually quiet, because so many people left the city. This was because so many had come to the north from other areas during Taiwan’s Economic Miracle period, and returned to their parents’ homes for the holidays. No more — today, a large percentage of families are firmly rooted in Taipei, and there is surging demand for holiday fun. Business owners, notably in shopping areas and night markets, have been happy to oblige, taking their own holidays after the general public settles back into their regular routines.

EAST AND WEST REPRESENTERS

We’re off on a mini-tour through the twin season, and we’ve specially invited two VIP guests, Keoni Everington and Queenie Li (李佩書), to serve as cultural co-navigators. This tour has two themes. The first presents key cultural adventures; the second is cross-cultural comparison, Keoni representing the West, Queenie the East.

Keoni, from the US, is a member of the journalist team at Taiwan News, a digital news site that publishes reports both on Taiwanese society and on modern global trends.

Keoni Everington from Taiwan News (Photo/ Yenyi Lin)

Queenie, born and raised in Taipei, is Associate Managing Editor with the New Business Department in the CommonWealth Magazine group. It’s Smile Taiwan unit has many insightful English-language articles written by Queenie herself.

Queenie Li from Smile Taiwan (Photo/Yenyi Lin)

THE WESTERN NEW YEAR

Without question, our two co-navigators agree, for locals, expatriates, and visiting international tourists, the main event for the Christmas/Western New Year season is the grand finale, Taipei New Year’s Eve Party (台北最High新年城跨年晚會). The Xinyi District fills up with a sea of humanity, centered around Taipei City Hall and Taipei 101. The big draws are the hours-long stage show outside City Hall, featuring a cavalcade of high-caliber pop stars, and the magnificent fireworks and laser-show spectacle at midnight, launched from the tower’s outdoor decks. (Read more: Welcome the New Year at the Chic and Trendy Hotels in Taipei)

Though Taiwan is a Buddhist/Daoist/Confucian country, says Queenie, with only a small Christian minority, “the spiritual essentials of the Christmas/ Western New Year are understood and are also felt genuinely, with a desire to share the celebrations with your closest family members and friends.”

Taipei embraces Western new year with the hours-long stage show centered around Taipei City Hall and Taipei 101. (Photo / Gao Zanxian)

Keoni strongly recommends scouting out the area in advance, and showing up early on the day to assure yourself a good vantage point, especially for the laser show, which is only on one side of the tower (around the Vie Show Cinemas Taipei Xinyi, 台北信義 威秀影城, is best). Bring raingear, he adds. Finally, note that the metro system runs for the whole night, but expect long waits. Consider a “post-party party plan” that keeps you in the area an extra while at a bar/nightclub as the area slowly empties.

Crowded celebrations are iconic to the Western New Year, but another phenomenon of the season that seems to be shared by those from both East and West, Queenie adds, is the fact that when you switch from your younger, freer days to working life and/ or young-family life, your New Year’s Eve preference changes from fun in huge crowds to more intimate outings with loved ones.

“My favorite student-day New Year’s Eve outings were ‘classical Taiwanese’ nights with friends up in the hills in the popular Maokong (貓空) tea plantation area, enjoying the great teas and tea cuisine, and watching the beautiful Taipei 101 fireworks-fest far off in the distance. I think foreigners looking for a ‘quiet version’ of New Year’s Eve would also much enjoy this.”

THE LUNAR NEW YEAR

The Lunar New Year public holidays go at least through the first few days of the new lunar year, and frequently longer. Queenie wonders if most Westerners — new expatriates and visiting tourists — likely think the Lunar New Year holidays, in terms of public spectacle, are more like the boisterous Western New Year’s Eve than the quiet, home-centered Christmastime. Keoni agrees this is indeed true for many. “The shopping period leading up to the holidays is very busy for locals,” he says, “stocking up on the countless auspicious goodies you need. But many Westerners are not aware that then, at least for the first few days of the holidays, it is significantly quieter — though public fun has picked up markedly in recent years.” (Read also: Chinese New Year in Taiwan : The Six Days of Chinese New Year (part one.)

Prayer is an important ritual element, offered both to deities and ancestors, and Keoni recommends that tourists visit major temples, where some of the most lively scenes are to be found. Busy Longshan Temple (艋舺龍山寺), “one of the city’s oldest, is always fascinating for tourists. Fireworks go off all around the city at midnight as the old year ends, dispelling evil demons, and the big temples fill up. Tourists are also fascinated by the elaborate prayer rituals with the Old Man under the Moon (月下老人) at Xia Hai City God Temple (台北霞海城隍廟), who helps people find their true love.”

Xia Hai City God Temple is known for its elaborate prayer rituals which help people find their true love. (Photo / Taiwan Scene)

Another quintessential Taipei experience during the cool-temperature holidays, both Keoni and Queenie agree, is a trip to the Beitou (北投) hotspring resort area, which Queenie feels would be especially attractive to European visitors who are into retro styles. This mountain-base enclave in northwest Taipei was developed by the Japanese during their 1895-1945 period of colonial rule, and today attractive old Japanese wooden buildings share the space with modern five-star hotels and inexpensive public baths.

Footbath is one of the top attractions in Beitou for tourists who love hot springs. (Photo / MyTaiwanTour)

For international tourists looking for the stereotypical Chinese-culture celebration spectacles such as grand temple activities praying for blessings and traditional lantern shows, Keoni suggests visiting Taipei during the annual Taipei Lantern Festival, a celebration which lasts over a week, centered on the Lantern Festival Day which takes place on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month. This big party features large brilliant-color floats, laser-art shows, extensive lantern-display areas, street performers galore, a massive grand finale carnival parade, and endless other amusements.

THE MOST REPRESENTATIVE NEW YEAR MOMENTS

The Western New Year

From Keoni’s point of view, the Western New Year is pretty straightforward — it’s the countdown to midnight, which occurs in publicly shared celebrations around the world, symbolizing a new beginning. This is a very emotional moment for many, who want to share it with loved ones, family, and good friends. He compares it to the desire for family reunion during the Lunar New Year holiday, and the love for others expressed through prayer, seeking good health and fortune for those you cherish.

The Lunar New Year

Queenie knows that only a limited number of Westerners, notably those who have married into local families, get an in-depth experience of the family-reunion joys of the period. However, the more public shopping period leading up to the Lunar New Year and the season-ending Lantern Festival celebrations are just as meaningful for locals, and she thinks visitors experiencing these will be quite moved. This intuition seems borne out when she asks Keoni what has left the deepest impression on him over the years.“I absolutely adore the different Chinese zodiac animal each Lunar New Year” he says, “With so much wild, crazy, super-cute theme visuals concocted, from the giant Taipei Lantern Festival floats to the laser shows to the cute lucky decorations in homes.” (Read Also: From Our Guides: Secrets to Traveling around Taiwan over Chinese New Year)

Lantern Festival celebrates the end of lunar new year and is just as meaningful for locals. (Photo / Gao Zanxian)

Keoni is one of those lucky Westerners who gets to be part of local-family reunions, and savors the ageless quintessentials, “such as the fireworks and ubiquitous red, and how mythical stories tie customs together in the same way things like Santa Claus myths explain Christmas. The ‘Nian (年)’ monster myth, for example, ties many things together. As the story goes, the terrible Nian came yearly — the character for Nian also means ‘year’ and ‘new year’ — killing wantonly, with a special appetite for eating children. Slowly, people learned that it fears loud noises, bright lights, and the color red — i.e., fireworks, wearing lucky red clothing, and so on.”

For Queenie, it’s the New Year’s Eve giving of lucky red envelopes and bursting of firecrackers. “Kids are given red envelopes with money at the family dinner table, but they pass them on to parents immediately, so it has limited meaning,” she says. “What had deeper meaning as a child was my Mom taking us to the park to set off firecrackers,” which is said to scare away otherworldly evil influences. Today she cherishes passing out red envelopes to others, “especially to parents, because this means you’ve become a fully mature and responsible adult and contribute to others’ welfare.”

During the New Year holidays, an endless variety of auspicious foods are consumed (see our Shopping article). Queenie believes that more adults in the West tend to have a sweet tooth, and wonders what Keoni’s favorite Lunar New Year food is.

– Dihua Street is a place where people go to get gifts right before the Lunar New Year. (Photo / Liu Jiawen)

“I do indeed have a bit of a sweet tooth,” he says, “and my favorite is the sweet version of niangao (年 糕, New Year’s cake). Though it compares vaguely with something like mochi, there’s really nothing like it in the US.” As it happens, this is Queenie’s seasonal favorite as well.

SEASONAL DOS AND DON’TS

The giving of cash gifts is not a tradition in the West, and Keoni wonders if Queenie can provide some easy-to-follow essentials for foreigners in Taipei when giving red envelopes to people.

“Wow, this one is almost impossible to answer concisely,” she says, “because it depends on the relationship between the two people, and the permutations seem endless. It’s hard even for locals to figure out. In general, for a foreigner invited to spend time with a local family, I suggest envelopes for the elder generation, to show respect, and also for any kids. Only token amounts are necessary for kids; NT$200, 600, or 800 are all fine, and the adults will appreciate the kind thought. For an elder, NT$1,000 or more, say NT$1,200, will be fine.” (You might also like: Chinese New Year in Taiwan part two: Gift giving, etiquette and more)

Red envelopes can be given to not only children, but also the elder generation.

Noting the difference in relations between men and women in the West and East, Queenie assumes that many Westerners must have trouble with the custom that married women can only visit their parents on the second day of the Lunar New Year holidays, never the first. Keoni confirms that he indeed was quite vexed by this in the beginning. “I understand now that, traditionally, upon marriage women usually moved a fair distance away from their parents’ homes. They first had to show respect/ piety for the parents in their ‘new’ home, and this cultural rule clarified things for everyone.”

Now married, Queenie states that this is truly a point of sadness for many ladies, and causes special heartbreak for newly married women, who aren’t used to the custom. “Thankfully, I feel things are now changing, with more couples talking and seeking better balance, perhaps sometimes just spending time together, or perhaps sometimes spending the first few days with one side of the family, then switching to the other.”

Queenie notes that while it seems Westerners enjoy being part of huge crowds on special occasions, notably Western New Year’s Eve, the love of crowds and renao (熱鬧, hot and noisy) environments that runs so deep in Chinese/Taiwanese society is unique. Nevertheless, as in the West, this begins to wear off as people hit their “30-somethings.”

These days, says Queenie, “I like a good restaurant with friends on Western New Year’s Eve, and with family during Lunar New Year, when good restaurants begin opening up again after the first few days. But a word of advice — demand is very high, so book as far in advance as possible.”

For Keoni, the quiet of the first Lunar New Year days can be a bit tedious for foreigners not lucky enough to spend family-reunion time with locals, with public facilities such as museums and libraries closed, and with limitations in food offerings because so many eateries are closed, just as in Western counties during Christmas. But like Queenie, he notes that things seem to be picking up with each passing year, and naturally, since international tourists love night markets and they tend to be open now except for Lunar New Year’s Eve, nighttime cultural-exploration satisfaction is now pretty much guaranteed. He asks Queenie, as a seasoned reporter on local happenings, where foreigners can get good info on what’s open and happening during the holidays.

Dry goods such as mullet roe and sausage are common delicacies enjoyed during Lunar New Year gatherings. (Photo / Gao Zanxian)

In terms of temple happenings, she says, “Since prayer during this period is crucial, most temples around the city will be open. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau website and Taipei Travel are good sources on related activities. There won’t be big events like temple parades, lion-dance shows, etc., because the temples are busy handling all the baibai (拜拜, prayer or worship) activities, which are simpler and more straightforward. Special activities might be something like the R.O.C. President or Taipei mayor showing up to pass out lucky red envelopes.”

In terms of opening times for restaurants, stores, and public buildings, Queenie states that “with each passing year, the city seems to stay more and more filled up. Since most everyone wants to come out to play, businesses oblige. Things will be quiet on New Year’s Eve, but some big restaurants, for example, those in international hotels in particular, will reopen even on New Year’s Day. As a general rule, they’ll open later in the day than usual. Many night-market vendors will open, and shopping areas such as Dihua Street (迪化街) will open, because so many people want to do last-minute gift buying. Detailed opening info can be hard to find, so I’d say if you’re targeting a specific business, phone ahead.”

Season’s greetings — and happy celebrating!