Celebrating Chinese New Year in Singapore
Chinese New Year is the first of several major ethnic festivals 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 in the city-state. Preparation and anticipation for it can be felt anywhere throughout the island 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 also speedily replaced with New Year kuay (cakes) and jovial Gods of Fortune, with red and gold becoming the dominant colours everywhere. One knows Chinese New Year is near when at every corner, there is a red decoration glittering with golden Chinese characters.
Chinatown Light-Up and Festive Bazaar
The harbinger of Chinese New Year in Singapore is 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 retailing New Year goods everywhere. The bazaar itself lasts till Chinese New Year’s Eve, and from start to end, is always packed with festive shoppers and tourists every night.
Nowadays, Chinese New Year goods are easily found all over Singapore. Despite that, many Singaporeans, Chinese and non-Chinese, still visit the Chinatown bazaar, if only to soak in the festive ambience. On selected days, there are also street performances in and around the bazaar. Ask any Singaporean where to go within the country at the start of the year, and Chinatown would surely be the first suggestion. With so much to see and sample, it is certainly an event not to be missed.
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 (see below) and Bugis Street Market. 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 and Phra Phrom while shopping for New Year festive goodies here.
Red, Gold, and Glorious Food
According to some locals, Chinese New Year in Singapore is all about food. Others say it’s all about prosperity and money-making, or stunning career success in the coming year.
The reason for these claims is evident the moment one steps into any Chinese New Year bazaar in Singapore, be it the Chinatown one or elsewhere. Food stalls are everywhere. Long queues also form before stalls selling traditional Chinese New Year foods such as bwa kwa. Next to these are, of course, the decoration stores. Always red and with eye-catching gold, these stores are full of decorations prominently featuring the Chinese Zodiac animal of the incoming year. 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, 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 dinner itself symbolises unity and harmony of the entire extended family.
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.
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 closing at midnight. For the religious, the hours before midnight are 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 surrounding bazaars are always packed from late evening till past midnight.
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 colours. Look closer and you would see most families also carrying vivid paper carriers containing Mandarin oranges. These oranges are the standard and the must for any Chinese New Year house visit, as they symbolize gold.
The closure of the Chinatown bazaar on the Eve also doesn’t mean the cessation of street celebrations. 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 go after the arrival of the New Year. With the spectacular Singapore skyline as backdrop, there is indeed nowhere else in the country more suitable for such a celebration. Nowhere else more atmospheric to embrace the New Year too.
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© 2017 Kuan Leong Yong