Whilst I totally love the Christmas season, admittedly, Boxing Day always brings a little welcome relief as you can finally relax after several weeks of anticipation and busy preparation. But what if you had to do it all over again – pretty much straightaway?! We were slightly unprepared for the scale of Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore after being away for so long…
Chinese New Year here in Singapore is sort of the cultural equivalent of Christmas. By that I mean it’s the major festive holiday season of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, warranting a 2-day public holiday and lasting 15 days in total. And preparations start straight after Christmas. The exact (Gregorian calendar) dates shift year to year with the Lunar calendar. This year, “new year’s day” is 8th February – and next year it starts even earlier – 28th January.
It was early Jan when I noticed the malls were switching over their decorations. Snowy boughs were swiftly replaced by cherry blossoms. Baubles were swapped for paper lanterns. And in the blink of a (sleepy) eye – we were into the run-up to Chinese New Year.
As with Christmas, the streets are decked in festive decorations as early as commercially possible. Malls and museums compete for your dollar with programmes of themed entertainment. And yeah, you hear the same songs over and over…everywhere.
People travel home for family reunions. Thankfully Singapore is small and nobody has to go too far. Daddy Chu has a very large family whom I am relatively unacquainted with, and so it’s a challenge remembering who is who when they all get together! The kids bonded with their second cousins over a long session of Sleeping Queens (their new favourite card game) and we played our annual round of mahjong.
And of course – you get the festive foods – which are too varied and numerous to describe! You know its Chinese New Year when a proliferation of red-lidded tubs with various sweet and savoury snacks start piling up in the house. The girls’ favourites are the mini crunchy spring rolls and bak kwa, a barbequed sweet meat.
The girls have also been getting in some chopstick practice with several rounds of lo-hei (yusheng) this year, a dish in which everyone participates in the mixing of symbolic ingredients by tossing them high with chopsticks whilst shouting out various Chinese sayings. Ridiculously messy but lots of fun.
There’s also the guy in the costume: after seeing several Santas wandering the malls in December, the girls were amused to find another Man-in-Red, this time with smaller black pointy beard.
You decorate “trees”: bundles of pussy-willow branches are sort of your equivalent of the Christmas Tree. The girls enjoyed hanging up the gold and red ornaments on the little furry buds.
Kids (and close elderly relatives) receive presents money in little red envelopes called hongbaos. Adults only have to give out money after they get married, so having lived in Edinburgh for our entire married life so far – I was not quite up-to-speed with the hongbao-giving protocols. There are so many rules! Money has to be new (so you have to order fresh notes from the bank). You can only give certain multiples of notes and specific amounts are considered lucky / unlucky. Organised ladies carry pouches of hongbaos in various denominations in their purse at all times during the fifteen days of Chinese New Year. A separate compartment to store the hongbaos that your own children have received is advisable to prevent mix-ups. It’s a minefield. And after Chinese New Year, you are even more broke than you were after Christmas! (Although your kids are considerably richer.)
Having just moved back to Singapore, we’ve tried to make an effort to show the kids to all the interesting new cultural influences – the markets, parades, performances, street-light-ups, exhibitions and so on. Everything is new and exciting. We’ve also got a lot more family around us now than we had in Edinburgh, which means it’s not one Chinese New Year meal but four or five.
So it’s been a much busier season than I anticipated for us over the last few months – celebrating two back-to-back major festive periods between December and February; and when you throw Daddy Chu’s and Miss Chu’s January birthdays into the mix – it’s one seriously long, wallet-busting non-stop party! And then you need to go on a diet at the end of it all. Surely it would be better if Chinese New Year could be in April? We should really space these things out.
Anyway, roll on March. I think we need a rest now!