Chinese New Year Etiquette Made Easy

Chinese New Year Etiquette Made Easy

Chinese New Year is fast approaching…And needless to say, I’m naturally excited because it’s a great time to catch up with both distant relatives as well as friends. Well, everyone’s busy with his or her schedule so Chinese New Year is the perfect time to play catch up.

Today’s blog post is inspired from the interview which I did for a reporter from The Sunday Times for an article that was published middle of this month on Chinese New Year etiquette.

It’s an open secret that Chinese New Year is also that time when we get asked all sorts of personal questions (some too awkward for comfort) from well-meaning relatives (think 3rd aunt and 6th grandaunt).

Lest you get uncomfortable and develop sweaty palms, fret not as I have answered all these questions for you. Incidentally, they were the same questions I was asked in the newspaper interview.

Learn how you can navigate each and every occasion skilfully using my tips. I call this Chinese New Year etiquette made easy. Read on to find out more…


Q1. I meet my husband’s relatives only when we visit them during Chinese New Year. How can I get the conversation going? What are topics that I can start with? What should I avoid?

A1: There are two ways to get the conversation going. For relatives who are single, you can pay a sincere compliment on topics such as their hairstyle, complexion or choice of clothes. 

For relatives who are married, shift the focus of the conversation to their kids. [e.g. “wow, (insert name of kid here) is now all grown up! He’s so tall now…So what did you feed him?”]

The 3 taboo questions to avoid are “when are you getting married?”, “When are you guys trying for a baby?” and “When are you going to lose some weight?”


Q2. I have a tanned complexion and don’t look good in red. How can I pull off an “auspicious” outfit when visiting the elderly folks? Also, what are other colours to consider?  

A2: Consider wearing an outfit in any other colour (avoid black of course) with a dash of red. This can be in the form of red motifs, prints, stripes or dots. You can also choose to accessorise with jewellery. 

If you have a tanned complexion, consider wearing warm colours instead. Good examples include gold, orange or yellow. These colours are considered equally auspicious.


Q3. My cousin’s kindergarten-going kid decided to open the ang bao I gave him, and declares to his parents that there is “only $4”. What can I do to diffuse the embarrassment, both his parents and mine? How should I decide how much to give?

A3: I would smile and share that 4 is a super auspicious number as in Teochew, it means everything will go smoothly (事事顺利, 事事如意) for the receiver. Then I will quickly redirect the topic to the rationale behind why adults give ang bao to kids and the blessings they receive (红包的含义).

You can decide how much to give based on the relationship between the giver and the receiver. For immediate family members, the amount will be more generous, followed by relatives, friends and acquaintances in this descending order. 

A good tip would be to sort the different denominations into different ang pow packet designs so you don’t end up fumbling through your handbag.


Q4. His relatives have been asking when my husband and I are starting a family, which I feel is very intrusive. How can I be tactful yet firm in fending off these questions?  

A4: Try being playful, find an excuse or just go direct to the point.

Playful version: “Who knows… maybe I’m pregnant? I’ll let you know when I pop” (say this with an evil grin on your face and tap the tummy a little)

Finding a situation (and using that as an excuse) version: “Well, we have discussed but will only start a family after ___________ (insert excuse here).”

The excuse can be anything ranging from a job promotion, settling down in a new job or the big move to the new house.

Direct to the point version: “It’s really very kind of you to be concerned. But right now we’re not planning on having kids but you can rest assured that you’ll be one of the very first to know when we do.”


Here’s wishing everyone a blessed and bountiful year of the Fire Rooster ahead. Gong xi fa cai =)