International

Lunar New Year: A quick guide to what just might be the most challenging and laborious festival in the world

With a hobby that spans over five decades, Johnny Lowis’ vast stamp collection is nothing short of amazing.

In fact, the 72-year-old Chinese Singaporean possessed over 950,000 stamps at the height of his collection.

Apart from that, his stamp collections have been exhibited at the Singapore Philatelic Museum, Malaysia KL Auto Show, Hong Kong North Point Community Centre and stamp clubs in different countries.

Lowis’ philately journey began when his father gifted him with an album of stamps when Lowis was 15.

However, what really got him serious about it was his profession.

The semi-retired graphic designer who graduated from De Monfort University in Leicester, England, started collecting stamps to get inspiration for his work, with British stamps being his main source of inspiration.

Currently, he has around half a million pieces of stamps in his entire collection. Among his favourites are the Chinese zodiac stamps, which he started collecting in 1995, but only as part of his general collection.

Lowis began expanding his zodiac stamp collection after his first zodiac stamp exhibition was held at the Singapore Philatelic Museum in 2002.

“Since the exhibit, I was encouraged to concentrate my collection on the zodiac stamps, partly because they have a large number of collectors around the world,” he said.

To date, Lowis has approximately 5,000 different zodiac stamps.

Among the 12 animals, the Tiger zodiac carries a great significance to him because he was born in Jan 1950, which is the Year of the Tiger.

On top of that, the very first zodiac stamp was introduced by the Japan Post in January the same year.

Since then, zodiac stamp issues have gained massive popularity among stamp collectors worldwide, with more than 80 countries producing them currently.

Lowis first started collecting tiger stamps 24 years ago in 1998.

Most of his tiger stamps are acquired online through eBay and Delcampe, or exchanged with the other 200 stamp collectors around the world.

It is estimated that there are about 600 tiger stamps in circulation globally, with Lowis alone owning about 500 of those.

Currently, his collection of tiger stamps is valued at around RM9,000, including his write-ups on them.

As an avid philatelist, Lowis has some of the most unusual stamps, such as the world’s first tiger stamp issued by the British Malaya in 1891.

These stamps were issued by different states in Malaya which were not part of the Straits Settlements such as Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak and Selangor.

During that period, the Straits Settlement states were still issuing stamps depicting Queen Victoria, hence the four states came out with a separate issue on the Malayan Tiger.

Lowis said that the average price of the stamps now is about RM90 each.

Above all, one tiger stamp stands out for Lowis: “To me, the most interesting stamp is the set printed by the Liechtenstein Post.”

The stamp comes in a souvenir sheet and was produced in traditional Chinese paper-cutting design using the latest laser technology to punch out the shape of a tiger.

All imprints are embossed in classy-looking gold foil. The stamp cost Lowis about RM180.

For the Year of the Tiger this year, Lowis is still waiting for about 100 zodiac stamps from different countries such as Japan, North Korea, China, Vietnam, Australia, United States, Canada and France.

“So far, still no news from the Malaysia Post. Hopefully they will issue one too,” he said.

As a graphic designer, Lowis’ passion for stamps doesn’t stop at collection; he has been helping to design stamp covers and postmarks for the Singapore Philatelic Museum for festive occasions since 2002, until the pandemic hit.

It’s clear his passion gives him much fulfilment.

“To me, the stamps are the passport to meeting people.

“Because of stamps, I have friends from all over the world,” said Lowis.

When the clock strikes midnight on February 1, wishes of good fortune will be expressed, fireworks will explode into the sky and red envelopes filled with money will be exchanged as millions of people around the world ring in the Lunar New Year (LNY), also known as Spring Festival or Chinese New Year.

In other words, it’s basically one big overnight party.

Watch the video above to see how Sydney is preparing for Lunar New Year

But unlike the manner in which much of the world celebrates on December 31, LNY is a long holiday marathon filled with traditions and rituals (and much family drama) that lasts well beyond the first day of the new year.

Beyond the usual LNY traditions, however, is a holiday full of interesting quirks and customs around the world.

For LNY newbies – or lifelong Spring Festival revellers who need a refresher – here’s a quick guide to what just might be the most challenging and laborious festival in the world.

About Lunar New Year

On February 1, 2022, the year 4720 begins.

It marks the first day of the Year of the Tiger in the Chinese calendar.

The LNY is celebrated during the second new moon after the winter solstice, usually between January 21 and February 20 on the Gregorian calendar.

Festivities begin on the first day of the first lunar month on the Chinese calendar and continue until the 15th of the lunar month, when the moon is full.

Chinese legend holds that Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on New Year’s Day and named a year after each of the twelve animals that came.

The animals in the Chinese calendar are the dog, pig/boar, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, and rooster.

Also, according to legend, people born in each animal’s year have some of that animal’s personality traits.

Year of the Tiger

Though most are familiar with the 12-year Chinese zodiac calendar, represented by 12 different animals, it’s actually more complicated.

A year isn’t just categorised by its zodiac animal, but also by a more complex sexagenary cycle – a combination of one of 10 heavenly stems and one of the 12 earthly branches.

For many, this means welcoming one of the Chinese zodiac’s 12 animals (this year, the tiger), their sequence following the order in which they finished the Jade Emperor’s folkloric Great Race, from ox to tiger.

And many people take this 60-year calendar very seriously.

It plays an important role in making huge life decisions, such as whether to have a baby or get married.

While it’s said to affect each individual differently depending on the year they were born, the tiger is associated with power and rebellion.

Preparations and fortune goodies

Preparations for the LNY usually begin at least a week before the Spring Festival begins.

On the 26th day of the last lunar month, festive cakes and puddings are made.

The big cleansing is done on the 28th day. Fortune banners are hung on the 29th day.

Fairs will be set up around cities during the last days of the year, selling fortune goodies and flowers for the new year.

The year ends on a high note with a big family reunion dinner on the 30th day, or Lunar New Year’s Eve – on January 31, this year.

The Lunar New Year menu is carefully chosen for its lucky meanings, including fish (the Chinese word for it sounds like the word for “surplus”), puddings (symbolises advancement) and foods that look like gold ingots (like dumplings).

After the feast, families will stay up past midnight to welcome in the new year.

Lunar New Year lasts 15 days

Just because the new year has begun doesn’t mean you’re allowed to rest.

While most countries that observe LNY offer three to seven days of public holidays, celebrations don’t end until the 15th day of the first lunar month, also known as the Lantern Festival.

There is a list of superstitious dos and don’ts for the new year but the rule of thumb is to say a lot of “kung hei fat choy”or “gong xi fa cai” and avoid saying things that may sound like a less auspicious word.

During the festival, people will travel around to visit relatives, who will prepare snacks and fill up candy boxes for the visits – except for the third day of the month.

It’s believed that arguments are more likely to happen on that day – February 3, this year – called chi kou (or “red mouth”).

Hence, most people will engage in other activities like visiting a temple. In Hong Kong, a major spring festival horse racing event takes place every year on the third day.

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