This article was first published on 5 February 2016, the Year of the Monkey.
The city is being painted red. As temperatures dropped drastically recently on our beloved island and peninsula, its streets have been gradually filled with bright orange mandarin trees, red paper fortune scrolls and all forms of gou1 (糕) – glutinous rice cakes, turnip cakes, taro cakes. Purses are stuffed with empty red packets (lei6 si6 利是) waiting to be filled with even-numbered bills. Our town is alive with the excitement of celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year, patiently waiting for the moon’s orbit to round the earth until we enter the Year of the Rat.
Historically, gwo3 nin4 (過年), meaning to pass the year, was not as innocent as it sounds: nin was actually a great monster who had to be chased away. He would terrorise villagers all through winter, until spring finally came and people would find ways to scare the monster away with the bold colour red and loud fire crackers. At the very least, they would appease him with food placed outside their doors. After successfully getting rid of the monster, it was necessary to start the new season with good karma to allow the flow of good luck smooth passage into your home. This is when the Big Cleanup (daai6 sou3 ceoi4 大掃除) would take place.
You can take the Big Cleanup literally or metaphorically. In our lives today, your nin monster probably comes in the form of deadlines, post-holiday stress or dread of how yet another big feast will impact your post-Christmas health goals. Clearing out the bad can be just as much about getting down and dirty with the year-old dust behind your couch or tying up loose ends with unfinished projects and finally paying off a debt. The Big Cleanup usually takes place on the 28th day of the last lunar month (年廿八), which this year would translate into February 6. For those who feel they haven’t followed through on their New Year’s resolutions so far, this is your chance to still get them going before the Chinese New Year. It is the second-chance-cleanup.
Daai6 sou3 ceoi4 literally comes from the idea of sweeping. The symbolism of sweeping away dust in the house reflects the sweeping away of bad luck. The previous year’s dirt has to be removed to allow good wishes space to move in. If you want to get serious about removing the bad stuff, you would use bamboo leaves as they are the most efficient in getting rid of evil spirits. This basic concept rapidly expanded into including many more forms of “cleaning.” Door and window frames were replaced or a new coat of paint added to the façade of the house. Decorators worked overtime to prepare entrances with red paper trimmings representing good luck, good fortune and long life. Others settled old feuds with friends and clear our any bad blood among family.
There are only two things to bear in mind once you’ve done your Big Cleanup – hide the brooms and dustpans so that incoming luck cannot be swept away and make sure you do not cut your hair, as that would be the same as chopping away all your chances to prosperity. Do go out and buy yourself a new outfit, though – just make sure it’s red red red.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.