Seeing red

Range of red dresses in a boutique
Seeing red at Chinese New Year

One of my fondest memories of Chinese New Year celebrations must be the exciting feel of crisp money notes and the distinctive new note smell that waft out from Red packets or ang pau.  By Chinese definition, only those who are married are considered adults, so singles can receive ang pau for as long as they stay unmarried.  So I think the custom of giving lai see, or fortune money in red packets is among the best Chinese traditions.  

A substantial sum of money inside the red packet would make me very happy but the significance is in the Red wrapper because the colour Red sends best wishes for good fortune.  So lai see is always presented in Red envelopes. 

As I received red packets each Chinese New Year, I noticed how designers are coming up with more and more creative designs so after carefully emptying out the cash, I will add the ang pau envelopes to my collection.

Each Chinese New Year season there will be an explosion of Red in malls and markets because Red is associated with happiness and vitality and believed to scare away evil spirits and bad fortune.  From festive decorations to home furnishings and especially clothes, Red is a common theme throughout.  Traditionally, new clothes are a must for the New Year and to usher in more prosperity, the Chinese will wear clothes in Red.

Red dresses all in a row!
Today only the truly traditional will wear bright Red colours while most will choose milder shades in maroon or pink because this spectrum of Red colours represents all things auspicious.  It’s interesting that even people who are “anti-Red” will somehow pick a garment which has some Red colour maybe only on the collar or as trimmings on the edge of sleeves.  I guess it’s that deep-seated traditional streak which dictates that one must wear a bit of Red to stimulate a more positive flow of prosperity.

Incidentally, my football-crazy nephews told my sister not to bother buying any new shirts for them because they will wear their football jerseys for Chinese New Year.  I thought it’s a great idea to save their mum’s money and as they are keen supporters of Manchester United and Liverpool FC’s, the boys will also keep the elders happy because they will be wearing bright, bold Red.

Chinese New Year is one of the best occasions to wear ethnic themed outfits designed with elegant Chinese collars, intricate frog fastenings and satin or brocade fabrics. In fact, many clever designers have married the beauty of batik with traditional Chinese patterns to create uniquely Malaysian Chinese New Year outfits.  So instead of wearing a solid Red outfit, Chinese blouses and stylish cheong sam dresses are a welcome alternative.

Red underwear displayed for sale in a department store
Black, a chic colour for cool people, is an absolute taboo in this season because Black and White are the colours for death and mourning.  But recently I learnt from a radio chat show that there’s a way for Chinese who insist on wearing dark and somber colours during Chinese New Year to contra this taboo.  How?  By wearing Red underwear! 

“What will they think of next?” I asked myself when I heard it.  The clothes industry has always been creative and now even underwear designers have jumped on the proverbial bad wagon to create both men and ladies under garments in Red. 

I always thought Red underwear was just a novelty or a passing fad but now I know why there’s such a lot of Red underwear in the lingerie department each Chinese New Year season!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in February 2010

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