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Chinese New Year Business Customs for Non-Chinese

Updated on January 16, 2017
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Middle age "otaku" from Singapore. With interest in games, movies, books, and anything mythological.

Chinese New Year business customs aren’t anything mythical nowadays, with China being such a huge player in the world economy. Still, they could get a little bewildering for those new to working with Chinese people. It doesn’t help that there are minor variations between China, Malaysia, Singapore, etc.

Generally speaking, the following five business customs are universally observed during the Chinese New Year period, wherever one might be. One thing to note before reading this list. Many such business customs evolved from folk beliefs. In other words, they could be considered as superstitions. By observing them, one is not superstitious though, especially when doing business. It’s a matter of being culturally sensitive and respectful to counterparts.

Chinese New Year Business Customs for the uninitiated.
Chinese New Year Business Customs for the uninitiated. | Source

Background

The Chinese year runs by the moon, with 12 months of 30 days each. This means the Chinese Year always begin after the Gregorian Year, typically in the earlier part of February. So as to keep pace with the Gregorian year, there is occasionally an extra month after the first. Chinese don’t call this the 13th month. It's simply referred to as the “rune yue”(闰月).

Each Chinese year is also presided by an animal horoscope. There are 12 of these and they always preside in the same sequence. Chinese Year 2016 is a year of the monkey. The preceding year was therefore a year of the goat. Etc. Because of this, Chinese New Year decorations always feature the “incoming” animal prominently. This is lucrative business as people have to dump their decorations after festivities, unless they are willing to wait 12 years to use it again. In Chinese New Year bazaars, such decorations are sold cheaply at many shops.

(FYI, the Chinese horoscope sequence is: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig)

Wearing red. The single most important Chinese New Year business customs.
Wearing red. The single most important Chinese New Year business customs.

1. Red. Red and eed. The Most Basic of Chinese New Year Business Custom

Red is the colour of luck for the Chinese and it is EVERYWHERE in Chinese cities during the New Year. It is thus an unspoken expectation that you be wearing red when visiting someone’s household or company for celebrations. This is the most basic of all Chinese New Year business customs.

Black, on the other hand, is a big no-no for it is the colour of mourning. For guys, this sounds to be an issue since men's pants are frequently black or grey. No worries. No one expects a man to be decked out like a firecracker. As long as one has on a reddish top, it’s fine.

Incidentally, other bright colours are acceptable too. Yellows, oranges, beige, etc. Purple is good as well, since purple is a Chinese colour of royalty. NO white tops and black pants though, as that’s what Chinese pallbearers usually wear.

Mandarins. The basic must-have gift  for Chinese New Year business customs.
Mandarins. The basic must-have gift for Chinese New Year business customs.

2. Mandarins

(Mandarins. NOT oranges. They have totally different names in the Chinese world.)

Exchanging mandarins is customary when visiting someone’s home or company during the New Year. It symbolises the exchange of gold, since the Chinese word for luck has the same sound as mandarins. Typically, the visitor offers two, and subsequently receives two in return. During the New Year period in Chinese cities, lots of people could be seen walking around with small festive paper carriers containing mandarins.

A tip on mandarin exchanges. If someone gives you two, and for whatever reason you have none to reciprocate, you could actually return those two to the visitor. Just avoid doing it immediately. * Wait for a while, vanish somewhere in pretense of searching, then do it. Another tip. No matter what happens, you must give back two. Odd numbers are considered unlucky. To give four is, well, fine, but considered odd particularly if you have only received two.

* The Cantonese have a term for the immediate receiving and returning of mandarins. 运吉 (wan guat). It implies an annoying waste of time.

Red Packets. They are frequently used as decorations too.
Red Packets. They are frequently used as decorations too.

3. Red Packets

Chinese children love Chinese New Year because they receive red packets. These are red festive envelopes, around A6 size and filled with money. Correspondingly, adults get a headache every New Year because of hefty red packets "expenditures."

Strictly speaking, only married people give red packets. Singles do not. If you aren’t Chinese, you wouldn’t be expected to give red packets too, though it would much be appreciated if you do so. If you do wish to give, use a proper red packet. These are widely sold at Chinese stores or bazaars during the festive season. Also check out the prevailing “rates” for the amount to give. It varies depending on the relationship between the recipient and you, and what you want to avoid is to give too little. That suggests you’re a Scrooge.

* It is quite a common Chinese New Year business custom for Chinese bosses to give staff red packets, as a form of gratitude for a good year. Unmarried Chinese also give elders red packets, as a form of piety.

Chinese lion dance.
Chinese lion dance.

4. Business Shutdowns and Reopenings

Many Chinese companies formally shutdown and reopen for the New Year. Bosses who take this business custom seriously can get very elaborated, with altar worships and grand dinners during shutdown. On reopening, they could be festive celebrations like lion dances too.

Shutdowns always last for a few days. (Chinese New Year actually stretches for fifteen days, even though only the first few days are public holidays in Chinese cities) Typically, companies shut down one or two days before the arrival of the New Year. Which day they choose to reopen depends on the stars for that year.

For non-Chinese, what is important to know is this. Chinese New Year is the most important celebration for the Chinese. Thus, Chinese loathe having to work during the shutdown period, because they have all sorts of family and social obligations. Some Chinese even consider having to work during the shutdown period as downright inauspicious.This is especially so for the first day of the new year.

At the same time, it’s also very challenging for Chinese bosses to summon workers back during shutdown; they would have to promise double or thrice the usual wages. (In good years, seven times is not unheard of) In other words, while you could pressurise a Chinese counterpart into doing something during his shutdown, you are unlikely to be forgiven. You are also definitely going to be billed a bomb.

Chinese reunion dinner.
Chinese reunion dinner.

5. Chinese New Year’s Eve

The eve, or the 30th night, is when the Chinese have reunion dinners with family members. This is the Asian equivalent of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. In China, where family members could be working all over the massive country, this brings about a notorious transportation crush annually.

For non-Chinese, reunion dinner means two things:

  • You could invite your Chinese buddies to party on the eve. Just don’t expect them to turn up early, if at all. Actually, most would consider such an invitation a nuisance.
  • Do not schedule any work for the night of the eve. No tele-conferencing or the likes of, etc. If possible, avoid the whole day entirely

For non-Chinese people working in Chinese cities, Chinese New Year's Eve also means several other things:

  • A lot of shops wouldn’t be open for several days. Get your daily supplies beforehand, please.
  • Some popular shrines and temples would be choked with people nearer to midnight. Unless you are interested in the spectacle, avoid these areas.
  • Chinese restaurants would be serving only reunion dinner packages on the eve. They would also be fully booked way in advance.
  • Non-Chinese restaurants that are operating might also be offering very pricey, pre-holiday menus.

In short, unless you have been invited to someone's family celebration, the eve is probably a good time to snuggle up at home.

Appendix: Suitable Chinese New Year Business Gifts

This varies from city to city. In general, the following are "safe" and appreciated, for individuals or businesses.

  • Hampers.
  • Baskets of mandarins.
  • Seafood delicacies, especially abalones.
  • Chinese tidbits and New Year snacks. The latter is usually sold in containers with gaudy festive decorations and red caps.
  • Wine. (Except for those who do not drink, of course)
  • Festive packages sold by Chinese companies. These contain a variety of stuffs, mostly ingredients for festive cooking during the New Year.

If in doubt, hampers are always a safe choice.
If in doubt, hampers are always a safe choice.

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Singapore

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