The most hotly anticipated cultural feast in Singapore is beyond the shadow of a doubt Chinese New Year. As approximately 80% of the population is made up of ethnic Chinese, expect a roaring celebration steeped in traditions lasting for weeks. After years of travelling to the Lion City, I finally had the opportunity last year to immerse myself in the biggest and most significant event in the country.
The festival usually starts on the first day of the month in the Chinese calendar and ends on the 15th day. Chinese New Year is not only a public celebration, but it also brings people like family and friends together for reunion dinners, accompanied by various offerings. Symbolically, houses are cleaned to get rid of any ill fortune and make way for good luck. The Chinese are great believers in prosperity and financial advancement, so make sure, when visiting a Chinese family during the Lunar New Year, to bring two oranges symbolising gold and thus wealth. You will end up leaving with even more oranges yourself, so the money can start rolling in. If you’re a single Chinese female, ‘t is the season to go shopping, because you will traditionally receive little red envelopes containing an “ang pow” a.k.a. money, left, right and centre. It really is pity money, because you have no one to take care of you, but hey, who cares…
When I was in Singapore for the festival last year, it was the all-important year of the dragon. The dragon is the most powerful zodiac animal and in Singapore, where birth rates among the ethnic Chinese are known to be low, a real baby boom was expected. Dragons are believed to be natural born leaders and have an insatiable quest for success, which fairs well in a meritocratic society like Singapore.
The dragon was certainly roaring its head all across Singapore with Chinatown as the centre of all celebrations. Market stalls selling everything from weird looking dried fruits to sweets, oranges and the like, were littered all along the streets and the crowds drew in like nobody’s business. On the eve of Chinese New Year, spectacular fireworks were expected. However, as I stood there, huddled in the rain, clutching onto an umbrella, while the flood gates opened, I was unsure the New Year was going to receive the kick-off it deserved. It was still rainy season after all. True to form, thunder set in and the fireworks lasted a mere ten minutes.
Now, as Singapore is known as Asia’s food capital, one cannot leave the isle without at least devouring one or more yusheng meals. In the Chinese tradition, this seven-coloured dish is to be eaten on, or from, the seventh day of Chinese New Year. In Singapore the dish is a colourful mix of salad with raw fish slices. The dish is then topped off with crispy cracker bits, representing money, as yusheng is viewed as a symbol of prosperity and abundance. Although a bit too sweet, I quite enjoyed my yusheng meals, that is, until I was onto my fourth one. Although quick to pick out all the crispy crackers for good fortune, I mean good measure.
So in a country where economic prosperity and meritocracy are founding principles, it may come as no surprise that the prosperous, wealth seeking customs of Chinese New Year are brought to the fore. However, Singapore manages to retain all the cultural customs that are a true part of Chinese New Year and make it one of the most exciting times to be in the Lion City.