Despite the national and global divisions we see around us every day, celebrations of diversity and unity often still shine through the unrest and uncertainty. One such celebration that we honour today is the shuffling in of the Year of the Rat, which initiates the beginning of a 12-year cycle in Chinese philosophy.
This Chinese New Year, we have partnered with Zhui Ning Chang, a Malaysian theatre practitioner, fiction editor and sensitivity reader, to share her perspective of the holiday. Her theatrical practice focuses on multilingual theatre and intercultural stories, and she champions new writing from underrepresented communities through her platform, Lazy Native.
The Unmistakables invited Zhui Ning Chang to write about how brands might harness what we call ‘the difference dividend’ - opportunities for organisation to unlock cultural, conversational and commercial opportunities - during Chinese New Year amongst the Chinese diaspora and beyond. We believe that when we celebrate the nuances of our differences, by bringing in ‘the minority mindset,’ we can create cultural currency by representing diverse audiences in meaningful ways.
Gong Xi Fa Cai!
Broadly known as Lunar New Year globally and as the Spring Festival in mainland China, Chinese New Year* (CNY) is the biggest and most important festive celebration of the year for ethnic Chinese and several non-Chinese peoples. CNY begins on the last day of the last month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar and is celebrated for fifteen days. It is a time of respect to ancestors, a celebration of family reunions, and a wish for prosperity and luck in the coming year. There are over 250,000 British East Asians residing in the UK, more with the influx of international students and workers. The UK’s Chinatowns come alive with colourful events, performances, and other festive activities during this period, attracting a huge number of tourists. However, outside of pockets with higher Asian demographics, it is rare to see London or any other UK city turn out in bulk for the festival. This is in sharp contrast to Malaysia and Singapore, where I grew up and CNY is an unmissable opportunity for brands to redecorate in red and gold and bring a sense of excitement and anticipation to the coming celebrations.
Red packets and gift giving
As a child, one of my favourite things about CNY is the tradition of receiving hongbao or angpow, red envelopes filled with money given out by older family members to children and unmarried members of the younger generation. This is part of a larger tradition of gift-giving during CNY, where relatives and friends call on each other to celebrate the festival together. In the lead-up to CNY, people will stock up on all kinds of goodies to be gifted to others. This is a brilliant opportunity for brands to disseminate their product for sampling, and some companies like Manuka Health New Zealand have seized on this. Manuka presents its healthy honey in tasteful, festive packaging for CNY, perfect for gift-giving. They took the time to understand the wants of the community during CNY and then creatively repackaged their product to target those desires.
New year, new me
A time-honoured CNY practice is to thoroughly clean the house in the lead-up to the festival, as it is believed one should not sweep the house during the CNY period or risk sweeping away good luck in the new year. It reminds me of an Oppein ad that shows two elderly parents and their city-dwelling son bridging the divide between urban city life and quiet hometown. The short film featured Oppein’s home accessory products positioned in strategic and unobtrusive points, and notably tailored the narrative of the ad towards the culture of supporting elderly family members, creating an emotional connection and willingness to consume the ad and its product.
Forging familial connections
CNY is all about renewing family ties. Catching up with cousins you have not seen for a whole year, fending off nosy aunties endlessly curious about career and marriage, playing with nieces and nephews growing up too fast, all come together to share food, laughter, and each other’s company. Apple drew on this to shoot the story of a single mother raising her child alone, and the difficulties this present around CNY. The ad was shot on an iPhone 11 Pro, starring the famous Chinese actor, Zhou Xun, and dealing with local concerns on the pressures of CNY on the concept of family. While this is clearly geared toward appealing to the mainland market, similar diaspora opportunities exist as evidenced in popular response to Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell.
It would be wonderful to see brands collaborate with diasporic Chinese makers to create products that are respectful of the culture and not appropriative, and this would also directly support and uplift underrepresented members of the community. As CNY’s global presence grows, brands should seize on the deep emotions and beliefs entrenched in CNY to join in intersectional representation and become part of the narrative.
*We use the term ‘Chinese New Year’ instead of Lunar New Year, though it is sometimes interchangeable, as there are several Lunar New Years observed across different Asian cultures. We acknowledge that the phrase is insufficient in including non-Chinese peoples who derive their calendars from the Chinese one and share the same date and overlapping practices for the festival, such as the Korean Seollal and Vietnamese Tết.
About the author
Zhui Ning Chang is an Associate Director at Flux Theatre and Connections Producer at Global Voices Theatre and facilitates the British East Asians Media Network. In publishing, Zhui Ning edits for SFF on a freelance basis, with a specific interest in works by writers from marginalised backgrounds, and is mentored through the PoC in Publishing mentorship. Zhui Ning holds a BA (Hons) in Liberal Arts with a major in Comparative Literature from King’s College London and is pursuing an MA in Text and Performance at Birkbeck College and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.