If you’re in Taiwan over the Chinese New Year Holiday, congratulations: You couldn’t have picked a more festive time of the year for your visit. And if you find yourself invited into a local home over the holidays, 雙贏! (Shuangying, or double win) because you’re about to experience Taiwanese culture from an insider’s perspective to which few casual visitors are ever privy.(Read more: Do in Taiwan as the Taiwanese do! Seven Taiwan Taboos worth knowing about)
In this two part article, we’ll be offering practical advice for spending your Chinese New Year in Taiwan. In part one, we’ll deal mostly with logistics, and in part two we’ll switch over to etiquette. Since tradition and culture play a big part in both the when to go and what to bring aspects of Chinese New Year, let’s start with that.
Taiwanese people are, in general, pretty casual, and not nearly as hung up on rigid formalities as folks in Japan (whose myriad unwritten rules of etiquette, such as which party should bow more deeply upon first meeting) are legendary.
That said, there are still some pretty fundamental traditions involving customs, taboos and traditions worth knowing in advance, starting with the traditional days of the Lunar New Year holiday.
Though traditions surrounding these days aren’t as rigidly observed as they once were, they’re still a pretty good barometer of who’s going to be visiting whom by day. As a casual visitor, knowing this stuff will do more than just demonstrate that you’re a rock star in the cultural sensitivity department: It’s also a pretty decent way to predict a) how bad traffic is going to be on any given day, and b) how likely you are to be taking your meals at a convenience store for want of an open restaurant on any given day.
So here goes, and remember that from here on in, we’re talking about the lunar calendar, so for the sake of this article day one of the coming Year of Our Dog 2018, is Friday, February 16.
The Six “National Public Holiday” Days of Chinese New Year, 2018
Chinese New Year’s Eve
This is the last day of the year of the Rooster, and just like on the western New Year’s calendar New Year’s Eve begins right around sundown and continues until the stroke of midnight, which – don’t worry – unless you’re somewhere up in the mountains (and even then, you’ll have to be pretty far in) you won’t sleep through, as the moment will be marked by a cacophony of fireworks. Since a fair chunk of Taipei people come from somewhere else, expect the roads heading south to be more crowded than the roads heading north. In general, this is a bad day to drive, and if you haven’t already booked a train ticket forget about it. Many stores and restaurants will close early today, or not open at all.
Tradition dictates the young visiting the old to strengthen family ties. In practical terms, this means that, like yesterday, the roads will be clogged with traveling families going to visit the relatives, but traffic is a bit lighter than yesterday (as a fair chunk of Taiwan will have done their traveling yesterday). It’ll still be tough to get a train ticket, and many stores and most restaurants will be closed. If you happen to be in Taipei, today’s a great day to bicycle around the city or practice your jaywalking; the roads in the capital will never be clearer than on day one of the Chinese New Year holiday.
Most Taiwanese folks stay put on the second day and continue feasting and playing Mah-Jong. However, day two is traditionally when married women will return to the homes of their birth parents, so some families will spend the day visiting maternal grandparents. Traffic is generally better on day two outside of the cities, and parts of Taipei may still feel like a daytime scene from the movie I Am Legend. Many stores and restaurants remain closed on day two.
Days 3 & 4
The third and fourth days of the Lunar New Year are when lots of people travel from town to town, so your best bet is to explore the city in which you’ve woken up. Lots of people visit temples on these days, so it’s a great time to do the same. Taipei is as uncrowded as you’ll ever find it, so these are the ideal days to explore Taipei. Though some stores and restaurants will still be closed on these days, others will be open for business. Traffic won’t be as bad as on the first and last days of the holiday, but if you’re traveling between cities you’ll want to adapt a zen attitude towards traffic.
Though festivities will continue until the Lantern Festival on March 2nd, this is the last day of the public holiday, so expect lots of last minute revelry, feasting, last-day settling of debts at the Mahjong table. Most businesses should be open today, and traffic will be heavy as a fair chunk of Taiwan heads back from south to north to get ready for work on Wednesday, February 21. If you’ve been in Taipei roller skating naked down Chung Shan Road for the last few days, cut it out: Mom & Dad (and everyone else) are definitely home again.
OK, so we’ve covered the basic days of the holiday. Pretty simple, huh? Well, buckle up, as things are about to get a bit more complicated. Join us next week for…
Chinese New Year in Taiwan: Gift Giving, etiquette and more ( Part Two)
(Read more: From Our Guides: Secrets to Traveling around Taiwan over Chinese New Year)