7 pm sharp. Holding a basket overflowing with oranges – symbols of prosperity and good luck – we knock at the doors of an HDB flat. Wearing a red dress Kasey, with a warm smile invites us inside. The moving carpet, called by the household ‘a dog’, frantically runs around.
“This is my dad, my brother and his fiancée, and my sister with her husband. And there, on the couch watching TV, are their two children”, Kasey introduces the family.
According to an investigation carried out before the Chinese New Year Eve, we should present kids and singles with the traditional red envelope – ang pao. The envelope – also according to the investigation – should carry an even amount of money. The odd amount is offered to the family of the deceased at funerals. We try very hard not to commit any faux pas and fail miserably. Apparently, ang pao is to be offered only by the married couples, and at that point of time, we have not yet exchanged the vows. The kids, however, are quite happy with the gift anyway.
Soon, the whole crowd moves to a living room, where a huge dining table reigns. On it, there is a giant bowl filled with various ingredients: pieces of salmon, shredded radish, carrot and ginger, peanuts, croutons resembling mini-cushions, sesame seeds, and many others. On top of all this – olive oil and different sauces. The host hands out long chopsticks and instructs the guests to toss everything as vigorously and as high as possible. Tossing is accompanied by shouting auspicious wishes:
– Eternal youth!
The ingredient reflects each one: sesame – a successful business, fish – prosperity, radish – eternal youth, lime juice – happiness, etc.
Tossing the traditional salad – Lo Hei – results in a total mess on and around the table. The hosts, however, are blissful. The bigger the mess, the greater the happiness and prosperity in the New Year. Mobile carpet, overjoyed, absorbs everything that lands on the floor. And when the ladies of the house are preparing the final feast, gentlemen entertain us with a conversation about curiosities from the world of fruits.
“See? It is a ‘dragon’s eye’ – Kasey’s brother shows us a tiny, round fruit covered with yellow skin. To us, it does not resemble an eye at all, much less a dragon’s one. Seeing our confused faces, he peels the fruit and everything becomes clear. Surrounded by white fruit flesh, a dark pupil of a seed looks at us. The sweet ‘dragon’s eye’ or more prosaically – longan – we devour in a blink of an eye….
The highlight of tonight’s evening is the Reunion Dinner, traditionally spent in the company of close family and friends. In the middle of the table, the emptied Lo Hei salad bowl is replaced with the small stove. On it, there is a pot with boiling broth made of chicken, vegetables and herbs. Its mouth-watering fragrance fills the entire apartment. Around the stove, there are plates with various ingredients: thin meat slices, pieces of fish, shrimps, seafood, different types of mushrooms and vegetables. Everyone takes whatever he feels like to and dip it in the broth. After a short while, the piece of food is ready. We try all of it, one by one, with rice or rice noodles using separate small bowls. The whole dinner is richly seasoned with conversations, laughter and gratitude for the wonderful family atmosphere.
At the end of the evening – the dessert: homemade cookies and the realisation that two distant cultures have so much in common. Celebration in the family circle, opening doors for those who are away from home and the kids glued to the TVs, watching the Disney’s cartoons.
Traditions of the Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year (CNY) is one of the most important holidays in Singapore, rollickingly celebrated by Singaporeans of Chinese origins. Its translated name means Spring Festival. The CNY is celebrated over the period of 15 days. In Singapore, the first two are free from work.
As the Chinese calendar is based on the phases of the moon, the CNY is also called the Lunar New Year. Each year has its patron, associated with the Chinese Zodiac. For example, 2016 was the year of the Monkey, 2017 – of the Rooster, etc.
The most important event of the CNY eve is the Reunion Dinner. It is usually organised in the house of the eldest family member. The dinner can be compared to Christmas Eve supper in the Western world, as it is held in accordance with the similar principles of forgiveness, reconciliation, and reunification of the relatives in the family circle.
One of the finest moments of the dinner is tossing the Lo Hei salad. Supposedly, its tradition was born in the fishing village when on the seventh day of the CNY celebration the fishermen feasted on caught fish, shouting auspicious wishes. Until recently, Lo Hei in Singapore was also prepared on a particular day of 15-day celebration, however, now this rule is not followed anymore. Today, it is also popular to organise Lo Hei in the workplace or to go out with the whole department to the restaurant where the salad ingredients are prepared on request. It is believed that such outing will bring the company a very successful year.
Each day of the CNY celebration is dedicated to a different deity or deities. For example, on the first day are celebrated deities of Heaven and Earth, on the fifth – the deity Prosperity, etc. Each day is also associated with particular rites and beliefs. On the first one, relatives visit the eldest members of their family to eat dinner prepared the day before. According to the beliefs, lighting a fire on the first day of the CNY celebration brings bad luck. On the last day, singles are looking for their second halves. Ladies write their phone numbers on the oranges and throw them into a river, or a lake. On the other side, the fruit is fished out by gentlemen. The sweet taste of oranges symbolises the sweetness of the initiated feeling.
In the days immediately preceding the New Year, a throughout cleaning takes place in Chinese houses. It is believed that cleaning will rid the house of the woes of the past year and prepare it for all the goodness that the new one brings. It is forbidden to use brooms during the New Year Day as these could sweep away the newly gain happiness. New clothes and hairstyles are also symbols of a new beginning. Those who carefully follow the tradition will clad themselves in a brand-new outfit on each day of 15-day celebration.
Know before you go
The CNY celebration in Chinatown is highly recommended, however, only to those who are not bothered by masses of people. Crowds can be so dense that create the human traffic jams on the narrow alleys of Chinatown market. An alternative is to explore the festive Chinatown two or three days after the main celebrations. The crowds disappear (along with markets and discounts), but the lovely decorations remain.
Do keep in mind that the first two days of the CNY are public holidays and almost all the shops are closed. Buying supplies in advance is highly recommended. Small local shops or local food courts are often closed for the entire period of the celebration – the traditional 15 days.
The Chinese New Year is rollickingly celebrated in Chinatown. On the CNY eve, parades, fireworks and artistic performances are organised here. Red decorations and paper lanterns specially prepared for this occasion adorn the main street of the district. You can easily reach Chinatown by MRT (Mass Rapid Transport). The subway station is located in the very heart of Chinatown.
The Chinese New Year has no specific date assigned. Every year, it falls on a period between mid-January and mid-February.