As I watch this year’s preparations for Chinese New Year, I clearly remember my own Chinese New Year. It was 1999, I was in Singapore, and my friend Soh-Koon had invited me to spend the holiday with her family.
I had visited before, hiding in an air-conditioned hotel to escape the stifling equatorial heat. Everything had been perfect: the hotel’s management impeccable, the streets and air clean, the traffic bearable, everyone smartly – albeit similarly – dressed. My memories were those of a staid and stolid high-tech island state, a land more suitable to shopaholics than to tradition.
Toilets flushed automatically, a novelty. Public ashtrays were positioned strategically along the sidewalk. Traffic was orderly and fluid. For one escaping the chaos of Jakarta and Manila, it was bliss. I wouldn’t have to lift a finger. Singapore would do it for me.
That comfort carried a steep price tag: uniformity, blandness, rigidity, and restriction, a little like an image of Switzerland but with better food. In this perfect land, disagreement was taboo and individualism a character flaw. Like the yellow lines which demarcate where people must stand to board the subway, Singaporeans lined up, an entire nation hell-bent on making money. Globalization was their deity, mirrored in the gleaming but tedious stretch of familiar chain stores and international franchises which have sadly become the staple of any world-class city.
Still, I came to realize my impression of Singapore was tainted not by the island’s impassiveness or conformity, but by my own imprisonment within its make-believe walls. To learn about its people, I had to leave its smooth glass towers.
That opportunity came with the approach of the year of the Rabbit, which astrologers predicted would be pleasant, productive and restful, a welcome respite from the turbulent year of the Tiger, which sent so much of Southeast Asia reeling back in the late 1990s.
Singapore loves a celebration. Its 5.4 million Chinese (74%), Malays (14%), Indians (9%) and Eurasians live in religious harmony envied by more troubled neighbours, and part of that harmony is anchored in its dozens of religious festivals.
The Chinese New Year, or spring festival, is probably at least 4000 years old and begins on the first day of the lunar year. It is said to celebrate the legend of the beast Nian, who terrorized helpless villagers until an old man found his three weaknesses: noise, sunshine and the color red. The villagers set off firecrackers, banged on drums and pots, built a huge bonfire and painted everything red. The beast ran off and was never seen again.
Here’s how I described it all back then.
Though firecrackers are banned for safety reasons, huge fireworks take their place and there is red, red, red everywhere. The streets are crowded as last-minute shoppers inch into stores for that final gift and hawkers stridently plug sweet dried shredded pork, which once tasted cannot be forgotten.
Days before the celebrations, Auntie – Soh-Koon’s mother – began cooking and cleaning the large appartment housing Soh Koon’s extended family, an activity meant to sweep away last year’s ill-fortune. Throughout Singapore, doors were decorated with red origami-style cuttings bearing such good wishes as happiness, wealth, fertility or longevity.
On the day, smells began drifting irresistibly from the kitchen and we crowded closer, waiting for food to appear. While the new year is certainly a time to strengthen family ties, pay old debts and set aside grudges, what it really is about is food.
As anthropologist K. C. Chang wrote in Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives, “To say that the consumption of food is a vital part of the chemical process of life is to state the obvious, but sometimes we fail to realize that food is more than just vital. The only other activity that we engage in that is of comparable importance to our lives and to the life of our species is sex.”
As the self-proclaimed food capital of Asia, Singapore takes this view to heart.
We started with long life noodles, raw fish surrounded with what looked like Christmas-colored green and red coleslaw. To secure that elusive longevity, we all stirred the noodles vigorously, each shake adding years to our existence, we happily believed.
It was a feast. The table was heavy with enough food for an army, and indeed an army came, the families of eight or nine of Soh-Koon’s brothers and sisters, their children, a few selected uncles, even Number One Son who visits once a year.
As everyone (but me) dove into ‘100-year eggs’ we waited impatiently for the piece de resistance, the buah keluak, a traditional Straits Chinese dish which looks like chestnut peels and is stuffed with minced pork and shrimp. These dishes differ from traditional mainland Chinese fare, as Straits Chinese are of both Chinese and Malay parentage, often offspring of Chinese men who settled in the area after marrying local Malay women. Like Auntie, many Straits Chinese speak Malay rather than Chinese, but retain old Chinese traditions.
The evening was capped with hours of card-playing. Armed with coffee we stood vigil late into the night since it is believed that the longer children stay up, the longer their parents will live.
The next day the children (even adult ones) received red packets, paper envelopes stuffed with cash. “As long as I don’t get married I’ll keep getting money,” one sister joked. She was well into her thirties. We all traded visits, aunts and cousins criss-crossing the island, waving to one another as their cars passed on crowded streets.
We visited two temples, the first a crowded affair in Chinatown whose access was obscured by hundreds of petitioners seeking better business luck. The entrance was lined with stalls selling fresh flowers and incense sticks, their thick scent cloying. The second temple was smaller, more private. People came to pay homage to their ancestors, whose cremated remains are held here or who are buried nearby, a bronze-framed photograph the reminder of that loved one’s smile.
Thinly overlaid upon this tradition is a modern facade, and this dichotomy is precisely what makes Singapore appealing. In the morning, Singaporean Chinese can be seen replenishing the oil lamp on their altar, lighting incense sticks and preparing food offerings for their ancestors before whipping out their cellphones and chatting animatedly about the latest stock quotes in markets which just closed on the other side of the planet.
While the control and rigidity remain, Singapore may be shaking off its shell. I spotted some youths with orange spiked hair hanging around a street corner, cigarettes stuck to the corners of their mouths. Once unthinkable, billboards advertised – and showed – a women’s underwear line the subway. The vaunted yellow lines are mostly ignored as Singaporeans shed some of their imposed discipline and begin to act like Asians in other big cities, pushing to see who will get in first. Multiracial couples are so commonplace they’re hardly noticed. I’m reminded of a Muslim friend of mine in Malaysia who had to sneak into Singapore to marry his Sikh girlfriend, a union considered illegal in his own country.
Certainly there are those who believe the country is too neat and regimented. Entering a shop dripping from the rain, I am promptly handed a slim plastic bag in which to place my wet umbrella.
Yet Singapore’s best-selling T-shirt depicts a series of ‘forbidden’ activities – from chewing gum (a S$1000 fine, or US$580), flower-picking ($500), spitting ($1000), bird-feeding ($1000), to water-wasting ($500).
It takes sophistication and self-confidence to laugh at your own foibles. Like the new casualness on the streets of the city, this visit was a breath of fresh air.
But that was 1999 and I have not been back since. Tell me… has Singapore changed?