February 12, 2018
Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand
The fireworks are lit, red lanterns hang high, and the news is awash with the great annual migration in the Middle Kingdom and auspicious news for the Year of the Dog. But, the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, is happening elsewhere in the world too. The history of China is one of commerce, migration, and collaboration – and nowhere is this more evident than the interesting, colorful Chinatowns throughout Asia.
Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City
In Ho Chi Minh City, Tet – the Vietnamese New Year – will be in full swing. Here, just as in the rest of Vietnam, people celebrate, but there’s a little more Chinese flavor in Cholon: the largest Chinatown by area in the world. The history of the Chinese in the area goes back to the 18th century, when the Chinese were taking refuge against a rebellion during the Tay Son Dynasty.
Indeed, having been a city in its own right, today known as District 5, Cholon is now part of Saigon, but the atmosphere is a little different from the rest of Vietnam this time of year. The red Chinese celebrations mix with the Vietnamese and French for something truly unique.
Mostly famous for the Binh Tay Market, more spiritual visitors will want to head to the Quan Am Pagoda for a little culture. Travelers will get a little respite from the celebrations in the street and can enjoy the serenity of prayer and the photogenic spiral incense.
One of three official Chinatowns in Japan, Nankinmachi in Kobe is one of the most impressive and colorful Chinatowns in East Asia. Every year Chinese New Year, or Shunsetsu, is celebrated in this little enclave with lion dances, dragon dances, and traditional Chinese fare and song. Visitors shouldn’t be surprised to see revelers wearing the masks and costumes of traditional Chinese opera – and perhaps a little unrelated cosplay as well.
The Nankinmachi Chinatown area was settled in the 19th century by Chinese merchants, and that history of capitalism continues in Nankinmachi as a dining and shopping center.
Travelers would be well-advised to head in the direction of Kobe this spring to catch the cherry blossoms, with luxury hotels in the area including the Kobe Kitano, Kobe Meriken Park Oriental Hotel, and Oriental Hotel Kobe. It’s getting very late to book, so now would be the time.
Visitors to Japan may also want to check out the Chinatowns in Tokyo and Yokohama.
Kuala Lumpur Chinatown
The Chinese ties run deep in Malaysia – especially when it comes to the dragon dance. But, truth be told, Petaling Street isn’t the best place in Kuala Lumpur to celebrate Chinese New Year for travelers looking for excitement. Visitors would be better off checking out the fireworks at KLCC Park or Merdeka Square.
However, for a more spiritual, less explosion-y Chinese New Year experience in Malaysia, there is Thean Hou Temple. Just a few kilometers from Chinatown proper at Petaling street, this temple is a sea of red lanterns, and people come from all over Malaysia to light incense, pray for a better year, and admire the Chinese-style architecture.
That said, Petaling is not without merit. The salt-roasted duck from this area is famous and two areas not to be missed are the Central Market and the Sri Mahamarimman Temple. Much like many other Chinatowns, Petaling Street and its Chinese history come with a helping of mercantilism and conflict, but today is a booming commercial center.
Far from mainland China, the biggest Chinatown in the Philippines is gearing up for Chinese New Year with dances and firecrackers down Ongpin Street. Now is the time to visit the Philippines – with weather still cool and diving season just now kicking off – but it’s in Binondo that lovers of Chinese culture will want to check out this coming weekend.
Along with the dragon dances, lion dances, red lanterns, and jade charms, visitors should expect fireworks in what is known as the world’s oldest Chinatown. Binondo in Manila was founded in 1594 by Luis Perez Dasmanrinas as a settlement for Chinese immigrants, but the history of Chinese here predates even the Spanish colonial era.
Visitors can also expect musical and cultural performances throughout the festivities, and foodies should look up Manila on Sale for their Binodo Food Crawl for Chinese New Year.
Places like Taiwan and Hong Kong are left off this list for obvious reasons, but Chinese New Year in Singapore is very Chinese indeed. Ethnic Chinese make up more than 75 percent of Singapore’s population, and the events throughout the country are some of the most spectacular celebrations in the world. In Chinatown, things are even more impressive.
The first New Year activity to kick off is the Street Light-Up, which began in January this year to fireworks and dancing, and the streets will be lit up throughout the festivities of Chinese New Year. While there, travelers are advised to check out the Sri Mariamman Temple, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, and the Jamae Mosque.
In the alleys of Singapore’s Chinatown, hundreds of stalls will be selling traditional Chinese foods and crafts at the Festive Street Bazaar all the way up to and through the countdown. Visitors hoping to get the most out of their Singapore Chinatown experience should head to New Bridge Road and Eu Tong Sen Street for the countdown.
Chinese New Year is not even a public holiday in Bangkok, but if you’re lucky enough to be in Yaowarat on February 15, you’ll see celebrations throughout the day. Dragon dances, lion dances, acrobatics – but the party really begins the day of Chinese New Year, when all of these processions make their way to the various temples.
Starting around noon on Chinese New Year, the festivities begin and don’t stop until midnight. The entirety of Yaowarat is ensconced in cultural dances and songs, and Thai performers go on until the clock strikes 12 at the main Chinatown Gate.
Anyone planning to go to Yaowarat from February 15 to the Lantern Festival on March 2, should come wearing red and with walking shoes.