Scott Teng Elly Chiu
Feb 18, 2016

Same old new year?

Though steeped in tradition and rooted in filial piety, the meaning of Lunar New Year is starting to evolve, especially among young people. Marketers wishing to reap good fortune should pay attention.

Elly Chiu, Scott Teng
Elly Chiu, Scott Teng

You’re probably reading this on the 11th day of the Lunar New Year; if you're Chinese you may be reading it on your phone to avoid the gaze of your visiting auntie; if you’re a Westerner you may be wondering what all the fuss is about and how anyone could possibly spend so much on a can of mollusks.

It’s the most important annual festival for the Chinese and the Chinese diaspora and other Asian communities around the globe. And it’s not one to be missed by marketers, who launch specific Lunar New Year communication and activations, many of which are eagerly awaited by audiences in the region. 

The standard ad approach portrays Lunar New Year as the celebration of family unity and filial piety. Many riff on the centrality of family to the East Asian and Southeast Asian identity. Familiar narratives include the long-suffering parent versus the prodigal son, rekindling of family ties, overcoming all odds to be back with the family. Whether handled with nostalgic sentimentality or slapstick fun, it’s always didactic: 'Be good to your parents, or else!' Otherwise it’s, 'When was the last time you saw your relatives?' Or, 'Don’t you appreciate the sacrifices your parents made for you in the past?' The wagging finger of the cautionary tale, with good and bad children (and their ensuing fates) is never far away.

Also standard in Lunar New Year communications is a layering on of familiar tropes; of red, gold, firecrackers, lions, and tigers—the world of traditional symbolism. This taps into a very real psychology. The desire to start the year auspiciously, and the underlying fear of the year ahead turning out badly.  Don’t sweep the floor on the first day, or else you’ll sweep your luck away! Don’t buy shoes! (The word for shoes sounds like a sigh in Cantonese). Deposit your money on this specific date and time, and you’ll be guaranteed riches in the year ahead!

For all the tradition, Lunar New Year as idealised is very different from the Lunar New Year as experienced. Yes, in many ways it’s an eagerly awaited holiday associated with the coming together of family, exchanging of gifts, sharing of delicious snacks and delicacies. But it’s not without its own rough edges.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Lunar New Year ‘micro-aggression’ is one such. Visiting extended family over the Lunar New Year is a social minefield strewn with danger, especially for young adults: the need for face, expectations for one’s professional and personal life, one-upmanship between families. All this must be negotiated carefully to retain cordiality between relatives.

‘You’re already X years old...why are you not married?’, is a favourite. ‘How much are you earning?’ another. Humble bragging is another skill often on display around the Lunar New Year dining table: ‘My son got me this iPad, oh it’s too difficult to use!’  And then the power plays: ‘My daughter travels all the time, she’s so busy at her job.’

Over the first two days of the New Year in Singapore this year a Google doc, aptly titled ‘CNY [Chinese New Year] Power Play’, made the rounds. A bulletin board of sorts for young Singaporeans to vent their frustrations about these meddling relatives, whose statements are thinly veiled digs at one’s inadequacies.

This isn’t a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon though. These frustrations are echoed in China, Malaysia, and lately, even in Vietnam, where the meme ‘Muốn Tết gắn kết, hãy bớt vô duyên” (‘If you want to feel connected, stop being insensitive’) has been coined just this year. No surprises, therefore, that conflict-avoidance strategies are on the rise, including Lunar New Year fiancé rental and bi nian—travelling away for the New Year (or literally ‘avoiding the new year’).

The concept of Lunar New Year as a time for family gathering is evolving. In the cities where family sizes are getting smaller, or where economic realities mean one just can’t be physically with one’s family, alternative Lunar New Year communities are emerging, among friends rather than family members. The 2016 Lunar New Year ad by Levis in shunning of all references to family or being together—taps into the zeitgeist and proposes New Year as a fresh start for exploration and living life.

What then, for marketers?  Lunar New Year is not going to lose its importance and significance any time soon. It will always fulfill a very real human need for ritual and togetherness, even for the least religiously inclined among us. Family and all the decorative trappings of the Lunar New Year are likewise here to stay. 

Yet some advertisers are tapping into the emerging narratives and new realities. Inquisitive Aunties, notice is served. 

Elly Chiu and Scott Teng are associate directors at Flamingo. They thank Linh Le (Project Director) for contributions to this piece.

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