Interview with Meihan Boey - Unraveling the Quirky Side of Chinese New Year.

Interview with Meihan Boey - Unraveling the Quirky Side of Chinese New Year.

Meihan Boey is the author of The Formidable Miss Cassidy (co-winner of the 2021 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and winner of the 2022 Singapore Book Award for Best Literary Work), and science-fiction novella The Messiah Virus. She is also the vice president of the Association of Comic Artists of Singapore and has scripted several comics, including Supacross and The Once and Marvellous DKD. She is a dedicated comic book and manga fan, an enthusiastic gamer, a persistent triathlete, and not yet a Super Saiyan, though she keeps trying.

 Celebrating CNY 2024 By Going Back In Time

Q. How was CNY celebrated when you were a pint-sized ninja at 5 years old? Paint us a picture and take us on a time-travel journey to your childhood, where red packets were like treasure chests.
Wow that’s going back a while! This would be 1982, and Singapore was very different back then. My clearest memories of Chinese New Year when I was very young are all tied to my grandmother’s Chinatown shophouse.
My father is the oldest of six siblings, and each was also married and had two children, so it made for a very crowded house during CNY!

singapore shophouse in 19080's

The shophouse was on Club Street, and it was very old fashioned. There was no running water except via a pump in the outdoor wet kitchen, so the toilet was still essentially a bucket, and the bathwater was kept in a very big ceramic tub. Us little kids were terrified of the toilet - the bucket was big enough for us to fall into!

Back then angpaos were not filled with dollar notes but with coins, usually fifty cents (you can hardly blame the adults, when you have that many nieces and nephews!). Fifty cents was enough for us to buy some sweets or even a small toy in the school canteen, so we were quite happy with that!

I was always dressed in red from top to toe. I remember very much disliking those red dresses, they were very itchy! I couldn’t wait to get back in my t-shirts!

We kids would play games with poppers and five stones while the adults ate and talked. At some point in the afternoon, everyone would head out to watch the lion dances. It would be very crowded and noisy, with older kids tasked with keeping an eye on younger ones.

Pic credit -

Q. Spill the tea! What did you absolutely love about CNY, and what made you roll your eyes? Share the drama, we're all ears!

Chinese New Year is a great time to catch up with family members. It’s always nice to gather, chat, and find out how everyone is doing.

However that same circumstance can get really fraught! I remember my grandmother once flying into a rage and chasing out one of my aunts with a broom - that aunt was a recent addition, having only just married my uncle, and Grandma did NOT approve of her (or, I suspect, of her overly tight red cheongsam).

In recent years, I have friends and relatives who prefer to avoid CNY entirely because they are unmarried, divorced, childless - you name it, anything any older person can badger a younger one about! Asian aunties and uncles are not known for their respect of personal boundaries, haha.

Q. Since you've joined the "angmo" club through marriage, how has CNY transformed? Any culture shocks or hilarious mishaps you can't help but laugh about?

Meihan red Cheongsam

Pic credit - Meihan Boey

Haha is there such a club?? I suppose there is always a learning curve, on the part of both partners, when we’re of different backgrounds and cultures.

Honestly my husband, who is from Scotland, is a quick learner and very adaptable. He was unfazed by my vast number and variety of cousins and relatives, who span several countries and cultures (Philippines, Shanghai, Germany, and one Mormon family from Utah).

Truthfully speaking, Scotland also has strong family-oriented values, and the rules of behaviour and respect are not so different. You speak politely to your elders, wash up your own plate, and be enthusiastic about any gift that is given - the only difference being, in Singapore you politely put the gift away, and in Scotland you open it immediately.

Perhaps the only funny thing that has ever really happened was when my mother, in planning our reunion dinner, asked me what my husband prefers to eat. I told her, he doesn’t eat any seafood apart from fish.

Lo, when we got there, she solemnly declared, “Yes, I remembered - no prawns, no shellfish, right? I ordered something special for you!” And she proudly presented a dish to my hubby.

It was sotong sambal goreng.

Q. Let's talk Lo Hei - the salad toss that's more than meets the eye. Spill the secrets on what it actually represents... and feel free to throw in any other wild CNY stories you've got.

I’m no expert on lo hei, apart from enjoying eating it! But lo hei is not really a Chinese New Year tradition at all, in that it does not come from China, and is a relatively recent addition.

It is said that the dish (which is called yu sheng - lo hei refers to the tossing!) came to Singapore via Teochew and Cantonese migrants, and started off as a simple raw fish dish in the 1930s. In the 1960s, the famous Lai Wah restaurant reinvented it as a

‘prosperity toss’ (the literal meaning of ‘lo hei’), improving all the ingredients, and rather poetically imbuing each ingredient with meaning.

As a marketing person, I admire the genius behind it. To invent a dish out of mostly inexpensive ingredients, which need no cooking and only basic preparation - and then ask customers to assemble it themselves - and finally to turn it into THE essential dish of the world’s most important Chinese festival! It’s Steve Jobs level of innovation.

‘prosperity toss’ (the literal meaning of ‘lo hei’)

Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

Lo hei is only practised in Singapore and Malaysia, but it’s become so ubiquitous that many Chinese people of this region are flummoxed to realise it exists nowhere else!

The ingredients’ “meaning” is mostly based on puns off Chinese good luck idioms. We Chinese folk do love a pun, and it’s very easy to pun in a language that only uses 4-6 tonal variations!

For example, the word ‘yu’ in one tone means ‘fish’; in another tone, it means ‘happiness & prosperity’. The Chinese idiom nian nian you yu, means ‘prosperity year after year’ - therefore, here, eat some fish every year! You get the drift, right? Hahaha.

Some of the puns are related to the food’s appearance or taste. The crackers are yellow, and go with the phrase “to tread a golden path”. The sweet plum sauce relates to the phrase that simply means “great sweetness”.

You can look up most of the other idiomatic meanings online!

CNY Family Outfits 2024 - Dressing Right For The Fireworks

Q. Is is true I should only wear red to visit friends on Chinese New Year? Even if I look awful in red?

Haha no, not at all. The main thing is to look bright and cheerful. Traditionally, new clothes are worn and gifted on Chinese New Year, and it used to be the only time of the year most people received new clothes at all, so naturally that would be what they wear! But as you can imagine, they were rarely red - after New Year, those clothes needed to be practical, for use in daily wear.

You can wear almost any colour to visit, except combinations of black and white, which are traditionally funeral colours in Chinese culture. Even then, if you’re wearing black trousers or a white blouse paired with a brighter colour, it’s unlikely anyone will mind.

Explore our curated Chinese New Year collection with vibrant and cheerful colors, celebrating the Year of the Dragon in 2024 for a stylish Lunar New Year. Click here

Q. Is it ok to wear a cheongsam if I’m not Chinese?

Of course! The modern cheongsam isn’t necessarily a formal traditional outfit at all, although it certainly can be. But as a nice dress, it is as appropriate for anyone to wear as, say, a kimono bathrobe.

I mention this briefly in my new book, The Enigmatic Madam Ingram. The cheongsam (or qipao) we know now, with its body hugging tailoring, is very modern. In Cantonese “cheongsam” just means “long dress”, and for most of its existence, that’s what it was - a long dress, usually with long or elbow-length sleeves, that was quite loose and flowy and practical to move around in.

It is only in the last 100 years that Chinese women in cities like Beijing and Shanghai started wearing a cheongsam with a more fitted silhouette. It also grew shorter from the 1930s onwards; the trousers which used to be worn under the “long dress” turned into silk stockings!

In Hollywood,movies like The World of Suzie Wong wildly popularised the “sexy” version of the cheongsam. Today, when you think of a cheongsam, it might be the slinky version that comes to mind first. That also gives rise to the idea that you need to be slim to wear such a form fitting dress - again, not true! There are plenty of excellent tailors who can create a perfect fit for anyone (the famous Golden Scissors in Chinatown is one of them).

And again, not all cheongsams are unforgivingly cut! You can still find the looser, more traditional styles.

The best places to buy a cheongsam for Chinese New Year

Superstitions To Remember For CNY 2024

Q. I’ve heard some odd superstitions around Chinese New Year - is it true you can’t sweep the floor?

My mother still keeps to this tradition - it’s said that a broom will “sweep away” all your brand new luck!

To be honest, my speculation is that this came about because women - who, naturally, were doing all the cooking, clothes making, and spring cleaning - wanted to enjoy their holiday as much as anyone. So instead of spending their new year - in their new clothes, remember! - cleaning the bloody house, at some point in history, one or a group of women declared they would not sweep, “lest they sweep out the good luck”.

This stuck, and turned into a long-lasting tradition. I have no proof of this, of course - most things women have been responsible for in history, have little to no formal record - but I know for sure that’s what I would have done.

Canvas & Weaves: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions!

I loved it! Thank you very much, Canvas & Weaves! Happy shopping for your next Chinese New Year outfit and Chinese New Year jewellery (don’t forget some nice cheerful home decor!), and Gong Xi Fa Cai to all!

Browse our Chinese New Year collection of bright and cheerful outfits - here 

 shop Lunar New Year collection.

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