The event of the year
Published/Last edited or updated: 1st June, 2018
With nearly three out of every four Singaporeans being of Chinese heritage, it’s no surprise that Chinese New Year is the biggest festival of the year in the city state. It’s also the only multi-day public holiday in this high-stress society, and for many Singaporeans it’s the one time of year when they can forget about their jobs, turn off their smartphones, and spend some quality time with their extended family. Singapore may be a long way from Beijing, but the Chinese New Year traditions live on.
Cleaning and decorating: Chinese New Year is also known as the ‘Spring Festival’ and begins with a thorough spring cleaning of the home. In addition to removing the dust and clutter, this traditional cleaning symbolises sweeping away any bad luck or problems from the previous year.
Once the house is a clean slate, it’s time to decorate! Red and gold are the colours of Chinese New Year and you’ll see paper cut-outs of lucky Chinese characters, paper lanterns, and decorations with the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Another symbol of spring, fresh flowers and potted plants make beautiful decorations as well as popular gift items. Be careful which blossoms you pick as each carries a deeper meaning: pink plum blossoms symbolise perseverance while bamboo represents long life.
Visiting family and friends: The arrival of the New Year in celebrated for 15 days which allows plenty of time to catch up with family and friends. To symbolise a fresh start, many people get haircuts and new clothes – sometimes traditional Chinese dress like a cheong sam – before the visiting begins.
Family visits are the most important and take place during the first few days of the new year. No matter how far away they live, all family members are expected to be present at the Chinese New year family reunion dinner, a feast of special dishes like roast duck and abalone. Within families, it is also traditional to exchange hong bao. These red envelopes filled with money are given by married people to children and unmarried relatives. Many Singaporeans like to go to the bank for brand new notes and the amount should always be an even number.
When visiting a Chinese home during the New Year period, it is customary to arrive with two mandarin oranges (a symbol of wealth) and wish them a happy and prosperous new year. In Singapore, the most common New Year’s greeting is “Gong xi fa chai”.
Food: Do expect to put on a few pounds as Chinese New Year comes with plenty of treats that are both delicious and symbolic. For example, the Mandarin word for ‘pineapple’ sounds like the word for ‘wealth’ which makes pineapple tarts a best-seller. Furthermore, the word for mandarin oranges sounds like ‘luck’, dumplings kind of look like gold bars, and pomelo (a large citrus fruit) represents an abundance of money, health and children. Expect to see all of these for sale at Singapore’s Chinatown street market.
Many of the dishes eaten at Chinese New Year dinners also have a symbolic meaning. Long noodles represent a long life, spring rolls are symbolic of wealth, and a fish served whole means that you will have a year of abundance. One very popular dish in Singapore is yu sheng – a salad of raw fish and shredded vegetables. Before digging in, the tradition is that all diners should use their chopsticks to toss the ingredients into the air –the higher it goes, the higher your earnings for the coming year.
Tanya Procyshyn is a freelance writer and photographer. With a passion for unusual destinations, she has camped alongside Komodo dragons and shook hands with soldiers in North Korea.
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