KL Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
Chinese New Year is the first major ethnic festival to take place in Singapore each year. With 70 percent of the Singaporean population being Southern Chinese, the festival is considered one of the most important of the year. Preparation and anticipation for it can be felt throughout the city-state for about a month before the actual holiday.
The dates for this ethnic holiday are typically around the first half of February, sometimes happening as early as late January. Because of this, there is always a palpable sensation of “gearing-to-go” the moment Christmas and January 1st are over. Specifically, bazaars spring up all over Singapore overnight. Some malls creatively refurbish their Christmas decorations to suit the lunar festival too.
Furthermore, Christmas puddings and Santa Claus are speedily replaced with New Year kuay (cakes) and jovial Gods of Fortune, with red and gold becoming the dominant colors everywhere. One knows Chinese New Year is close when at every corner in the city-state, there is a red decoration glittering with golden Chinese characters.
Chinese New Year is alternatively known as the Lunar New Year. This is because the Chinese calendar is based on the cycles of the moon rather than the sun.
Chinatown Light-Up and Festive Bazaar
The harbinger of Chinese New Year in Singapore is always the annual Chinatown festive light-up and street bazaar.
A grand ceremony kick-starts this in January each year, transforming the entire heritage district into a bustling festive playground with stalls selling New Year goods everywhere. The associated festive bazaar itself also lasts until Chinese New Year’s Eve. From start to end, the entire area is packed with shoppers and tourists every night.
Update 2021: Regrettably, the COVID-19 Pandemic resulted in the cancellation of the festive bazaar for 2021. The light-up, however, is unaffected.
Locals Flock to the Bazaar
In recent years, Chinese New Year goods and festive decorations are also sold throughout Singapore. Despite that, many Singaporeans, both Chinese and non-Chinese alike, still flock to the Chinatown bazaar. They do so either to both soak in the festive ambiance or to enjoy the free street performances in and around the bazaar.
Besides Chinatown, Waterloo Street is also a center of celebration during Chinese New Year in Singapore.
While the market here is much smaller, it is equally popular because the area is beside the beloved Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and a popular shrine to Phra Phrom (Thailand's revered Four-Face Buddha). Many shoppers therefore take the opportunity to offer prayers to both Kwam Im i.e. Guan Yin and Phra Phrom while shopping for New Year festive goodies.
And on Chinese New Year’s Eve, thousands of devotees flock to Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple to offer midnight prayers, this being one of the most important religious rituals for some Singapore Buddhists. Close to midnight, the entire Waterloo Street is transformed into a crowded sea of aromatic incense.
Other Chinese New Year Festive Bazaars and Decorations in Singapore
As mentioned above, Lunar New Year festive goods are widely sold throughout the country in January and February. Many malls and sightseeing attractions will also put up appropriate decorations. At major attractions, such as Jewel Changi Airport and Gardens by the Bay, the decorations could be very elaborate.
Yummy Food, Red and Gold, and Huat
According to some locals, Chinese New Year in Singapore is all about delicious festive food.
Others say it’s about prosperity and money-making. Some also feel it’s about proper preparation for stunning career success in the coming year.
Whatever one’s beliefs, desires, or aspirations, Chinese New Year festive bazaars in Singapore cater to one and all. Food stalls are everywhere. Red and golden decorations adorn every corner too, many of which feature the Chinese Zodiac animal of the incoming year.
Visitors able to read Chinese will also immediately notice wordings on the decorations all being well wishes for prosperity and easy money-making. Of note, Huat (發), the Hokkien-Chinese word for a windfall, is the most commonly used character. This could be considered the one must-know word when celebrating the lunar spring festival in Singapore. Even festive cakes and snacks are often adorned with Huat.
Chinese New Year’s Eve and Reunion Dinner
One of the most important rituals of Chinese New Year in Singapore is the Reunion Dinner, which takes place on the evening of the Eve. On this night, Chinese families gather for a sumptuous dinner. The meal itself symbolizes unity and harmony for the entire extended family and is considered one of the most important events of the calendar year.
In the past, mothers and grandmothers would slog for days to prepare for this important dinner. Food markets would also be packed with frantic shoppers right up to the last moment.
Nowadays, though, many Singaporean families opt to have their Reunion Dinners at restaurants instead. This, in turn, translates to practically all Chinese restaurants operating on the Eve offering only Reunion Dinner packages, with these packages usually fully booked way in advance.
For travelers in Singapore, this is something to take note of; it can be a tough challenge finding a place to eat on the Eve. Even Western eateries such as fast-food outlets could be very crowded, with long snaking queues on that important night.
Many Traditions Persist
Other rituals for Chinese New Year’s Eve, albeit less formal ones, include visiting flower bazaars and offering prayers at temples after Reunion Dinner.
The former, called guang hua shi (逛花市), originated from the olden custom of visiting marketplaces to buy festive plants as decorations. Naturally, most Singaporean families nowadays would have already purchased all necessary decorations by the Eve but guang hua shi remains a popular outing for many. This is especially with stalls typically offering outrageous bargains before midnight.
As for the latter, the hours before midnight are strictly for visits to popular temples and shrines, the purpose being to offer prayers to deities at the onset of the New Year.
Such prayers, or di yi zhu xiang (第一柱香), invite peace and blessings for the whole of the New Year. As mentioned above, the Waterloo Street Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple is the foremost location for this practice. To repeat, the areas in and around the popular temple are always packed from late evening till past midnight on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
Da Nian Chu Yi: The First Day of Chinese New Year
With most shops and businesses closed, the streets of Singapore are relatively quiet on the first day of Chinese New Year. There is, however, plenty of human traffic, with Chinese families rushing to visit relatives while decked out in bright colors.
All will be carrying vivid paper carriers too —these containing Mandarin oranges in pairs. Such oranges are the standard and the must-have for any Chinese New Year house visit, as the fruit symbolizes gold. In short, to visit a household without any during the lunar spring festival is considered very rude, even offensive.
The Celebrations Continue
The closure of the Chinatown festive bazaar on the Eve doesn’t mean the cessation of Lunar New Year street celebrations in Singapore. On the contrary, a bigger, more dazzling one begins toward the end of the Chinatown celebrations.
Known as River Hongbao and typically hosted at The Float @ Marina Bay, this is a large open-air exhibition featuring immense lanterns, cultural performances, and even fireworks.
For Singaporeans, River Hongbao also replaces Chinatown as the place to head to after the arrival of the New Year. With the spectacular Singapore skyline as backdrop, there is indeed nowhere else in the country more suitable to continue the celebration. Nowhere else more atmospheric to embrace a brand new year too.
River Hongbao 2019 Weekend Fireworks
© 2017 Yong Kuan Leong
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on February 19, 2017:
Hey Paul, thanks for commenting! I'm happy to know the article brought back memories for you. Incidentally, I didn't have nian gao this new year, again. Somehow, glutinous rice stopped agreeing with my stomach, or vice versa, and I can't eat it without getting a massive gastric disorder.
I miss it a lot!
Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on February 19, 2017:
I really enjoyed reading this article and viewing your great colorful pictures. This all brings back memories of the Chinese New Year festivals which I celebrated in Taiwan in the 70s. I especially remember eating the delicious glutinous rice cake, niang gao or kuay. We called it "di gui" in Taiwanese and it was either sweet or salty. I liked the sweet variety.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on January 10, 2017:
Hey AliciaC, thanks for your comment. I do hope you can visit us, or the region, some day eventually.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 10, 2017:
The New Year celebration sounds like such fun. I love your descriptions and the colourful photos. I appreciate this article because it's highly unlikely that I'll ever be able to visit Singapore myself. I enjoy learning about it by reading articles like this.