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Celebrating Chinese New Year in Singapore

ScribblingGeek earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Chinese New Year in Singapore is a fascinating display of red, gold, and enchanting street decorations.

Chinese New Year in Singapore is a fascinating display of red, gold, and enchanting street decorations.

Chinese New Year is the first major ethnic festivals to take place in Singapore each year. With 70 percent of the Singaporean population being Southern Chinese, the festival is also considered one of the most important. Preparation and anticipation for it can be felt anywhere throughout the city-state for about a month before the actual holiday.

The dates for Chinese New Year 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. Bazaars spring up all over Singapore overnight. Some malls creatively refurbish their Christmas decorations to suit the lunar festival too. 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, 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 incoming Chinese Zodiac animal for the New Year is always showcased at the Chinatown festive Light-Up. The main display in the above picture is that for Year of the Rat 2020.

The incoming Chinese Zodiac animal for the New Year is always showcased at the Chinatown festive Light-Up. The main display in the above picture is that for Year of the Rat 2020.

Chinatown's Light-Up and Street 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 heritage district into a bustling festive playground with stalls selling New Year goods everywhere. The bazaar itself lasts until Chinese New Year’s Eve, and from start to end, is always packed with shoppers and tourists every night.

Locals Flock to the Bazaar

Nowadays, Chinese New Year goods and festive decorations are sold throughout Singapore. In spite of that, many Singaporeans, both Chinese and non-Chinese alike, still flock to the Chinatown bazaar. They do so either to soak in the festive ambiance or to enjoy the free street performances in and around the bazaar.

With so much to see, buy, or enjoy, it is certainly an annual event no one wants to miss.

Waterloo Street

Besides Chinatown, Waterloo Street is also a centre of celebration during Chinese New Year in Singapore. While the festive market here is much smaller, it is equally popular because the area is next to the beloved Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Bugis Street Market.

In addition, there is also a popular shrine to Phra Phrom, or Thailand's revered Four-Face Buddha. Many shoppers thus take the opportunity to offer respects to Kwam Im i.e. Guan Yin and Phra Phrom while shopping for New Year festive goodies at Waterloo Street. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, worshippers flocking to Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple transform the area into one of liveliest hearts of celebration for the festival.

Red, Gold, and Yummy Food

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 other claim 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 gold decorations adorn every corner too, many of which feature the Chinese Zodiac animal of the incoming year. Regarding these decorations, those able to read Chinese will 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 windfall, is the most commonly used character. Even cakes and snacks are often adorned with Huat during Chinese New Year in Singapore.

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 symbolises 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 tourists, this is something to take note of; it can be a tough challenge finding a place to eat on the Eve. Even Non-Chinese eateries, such as fast-food outlets, could be very crowded with long queues on that important night.

Many Traditions Persist

Other rituals for the 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) in Chinese, originated from the olden custom of visiting bazaars to buy festive plants as decorations. Naturally, most Chinese families nowadays would have already purchased all their decorations by the Eve, but guang hua shi remains a popular outing with many, especially with stalls often offering outrageous bargains before midnight.

As for the religious, the hours before midnight are strictly for visits to popular temples and shrines, 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. In Singapore, the Waterloo Street Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple is the foremost location for this practice. The area and the nearby Waterloo Street Bazaar 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.

Look closer and you would often see these families carrying vivid paper carriers too —these always containing Mandarin oranges in pairs. Such oranges are the standard and the must for any Chinese New Year house visit, as the fruit symbolizes gold. To visit a household without any during the lunar festivities is considered very rude, and very offensive.

Chinese children love the new year, for they receive hong bao, or red packets. These are small envelopes containing money. Nowadays, hong bao come in all shades of red.

Chinese children love the new year, for they receive hong bao, or red packets. These are small envelopes containing money. Nowadays, hong bao come in all shades of red.

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. In fact, a bigger, more dazzling one begins toward the end of the Chinatown celebrations. Known as River Hongbao and nowadays situated at The Float @ Marina Bay, this is a large open-air exhibition featuring immense lanterns, cultural performances, and even fireworks.

For Singaporeans, River Hongbao 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 the New Year too.

© 2017 Scribbling Geek


Scribbling Geek (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.

Scribbling Geek (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.

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