Sunday, January 15, 2012

Chinese New Year in Singapore: The Complete Checklist

Sunday, January 15, 2012
A Singaporean Chinese New Year

Call me naive, but I've always thought that everyone around the world celebrated Chinese New Year (henceforth abbreviated CNY) largely the same way I did. It wasn't until I celebrated CNY away from home for the first time last year that I discovered how wrong I really was. What I've taken to be completely normal routines were foreign to my friends from Hong Kong and Shanghai. So, mostly in the name of fun, and also for visitors who are looking to join in the fun, here's a checklist for CNY, Singapore style.

1. Bak Kwa

A Singaporean CNY essential. Have you gotten these wonderful sweet-salty dried meat yet? If you have to name one item, just one item, that sets CNY in Singapore apart, this is it. I still can't figure out how someone actually made this a CNY essential for an entire city out of nothing, you know? We may be tiny for a city but this is still no mean feat! It could have so easily been something else, something equally random, like fish balls. I'm not complaining though, I love bak kwa. If you're thinking of getting some, the city's perennial favourite is Lim Chee Guan.

Pineapple Tarts

2. Pineapple Tarts

This is another snack that we get really excited about when CNY rolls around. Being city dwellers at heart, most of us buy our snacks instead of making them at home. But I actually know a good number of families who insist on making their own pineapple tarts for CNY year after year. These morsels are just something Singaporeans are particularly fond of, subconsciously or not, during the festive CNY period.

Assorted Nuts
Assorted Chinese New Year Goodies
Assorted Chinese New Year Goodies

3. Other CNY Snacks

Singaporeans are big fans of good food, in general, and most families can't help stocking up on assorted CNY snacks to entertain guests when the visiting (bai nian) kicks in. Many of these snacks are pretty much "made in Singapore", things you won't find overseas. Some of my favourites include the crumbly snow-white kueh bangkit, spicy prawn rolls, and more recently, the crispy arrowhead that seemingly popped out of nowhere. What are your favourites?

4. Yu Sheng (Lo Hei)

Lo hei or Lao Yu Sheng is my absolute favourite CNY activity. Essentially, Yu Sheng is a Teochew raw fish salad with shredded vegetables and various condiments symbolizing auspicious sayings. You begin by pouring in the condiments while saying the respective auspicious phrases. When that's done, everyone picks up their chopsticks and starts to "toss" the salad at the same time. It's good to take the salad as high as possible with your chopsticks, and this is when you begin to say all sorts of nice wishes, such as "let work be smooth", "let grades improve", etc. But what I really love about Yu Sheng is the taste - the refreshing sweet and sour salad with wonderfully crunchy crackers and of course, my favourite sashimi. What's there not to love? Again, although this dish may be available in China, Singaporeans were the ones that transformed it and made it CNY worthy. I don't know how it happened, but it did, thankfully!

5. Wearing New Clothes

Most Singaporeans insist that it's auspicious to wear a new set of clothes on the first day of the new year. Sounded logical enough to me, so I was surprised when my Hong Kong friends didn't really make it a point to do anything like this. I wouldn't say this tradition is unique to Singapore, but we definitely embrace it with more gusto. Most of us, anyway.

Red Packets

6. Red Packets (Ang Bao)

Receiving red packets is possibly the one thing that makes CNY so anticipated for many of us. The unwed ones, to be specific. In Singapore, before you're married, you'll receive red packets from your parents and married relatives. Once you're married, you become the one distributing red packets! Guess it's a fair cycle if you've been receiving your share of Ang Baos. Red packets are also known as Ya Sui Qian, or money that wards off evil. Hence, on Chinese New Year's Eve, the more traditional ones would sleep with the red packets given by their parents under their pillows (or in their pockets) to ward off evil. I do that.

7. Gambling Materials

You definitely need to gather some gambling materials (think poker cards and mahjong sets) since gambling is essentially the number one social activity during CNY. It becomes another reason for visiting homes, especially your friends' homes, those you were not required to visit, so to speak. As long as it's kept within "healthy" limits, why not?

Nian Gao

8. Staying Up Late on Chinese New Year's Eve

Another tradition I know of is to stay up as late as possible during Chinese New Year's Eve so as to improve your parent's longevity. I only found out about this a few years ago, and have been practicing it ever since. I know it sounds silly, but if there's a chance that it may actually work, why not? Besides, it's fun to stay up late with friends!

Mandarin Oranges and Red Packets

9. Mandarin Oranges

It's also a must to bring along two mandarin oranges when you go visiting (bai nian), at least in Singapore. These oranges are then exchanged whenever you visit someone's house. It's unthinkable to go visiting without mandarin oranges, and if you bring them around without a nice paper bag, people sometimes offer to give you one (true story). It's apparently a traditional symbol of abundance and good fortune, so it's more polite if your mandarin oranges are as smooth and unblemished as possible.

10. Spring Cleaning

Last but not least, spring cleaning! (Kindly pointed out in the comments below.) This must be the most universal tradition of all, something everyone attempts to do before CNY. It's a symbolic activity of ridding the old and welcoming the new - a recurring theme during CNY. It's also important because you're not supposed to use the broom in the first few days of CNY. Otherwise, you might just chase the Fortune God away from your house. Even if that doesn't bother you, a clean house can do wonders in lifting spirits! I'm definitely aiming to clean out all the clutter in my room in the remaining days to CNY!

And that's it. 10 CNY traditions that will have you set for a very Singaporean CNY. Are there any other traditions you would like to share?

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Leave a comment (2)

  1. don't forget spring cleaning!!

  2. hahaha oh yes, how could I have missed this out!


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