The sea of red

3 02 2011

Chinese New Year for me has always been a time to look forward to. It wasn’t just for the red packets or envelopes which had the promise of some additional cash in hand, but for the opportunity it provides to catch up with relatives and friends, some of whom we would see only once a year. In my early days, the new year would also mean long road trips around the long and winding roads that got us to the more remote parts of the island, long before the arrival of the Pan Island Expressway, and although I usually did not enjoy the visits to the remote locations which included Punggol where my grandmother had a “sworn-sister” and the Jalan Teck Whye area, where my mother had a childhood friend to visit, I did enjoy the long drives which in the days before air-conditioners were commonly installed in cars, meant a long and usually uninterrupted journey with the wind blowing in my hair through the opened window and quarter glass of the car.

The sea of red Chinese New Year decorations - red being an auspicious colour to the Chinese, New Year celebrations are never without the colour red - but it isn't the red of decorations that I would first associate Chinese New Year with.

The reunion dinner was always something to look forward to as well, as this would be one of two occasions (the other being Christmas) during which the extended family on my father’s side would gather. Many of these dinners when I was a little older would take place at my aunt’s place in Spottiswoode Park, just across from the train station – and has continued on up to last year. One of the things I would always associate with reunion dinners is the sounds of the trains – the horn that sounded as the Senandung Malam departed and the sound of the very loud diesel locomotives that punctured the silence of the evening.

The sounds from the railway station are ones that I associate Chinese New Year reunion dinners with, as for many years we would have our reunion dinners at my aunt's place in Spottiswoode Park just across from the train station.

Silence wasn’t of course something that Chinese New Year celebrations are associated with, and besides the familiar sounds for the pounding of drums and clash of cymbals, there was that once familiar sound of fire crackers going off in the night, something that faded with the complete ban on the firing of fire crackers soon after the Chinese New Year of 1972 due to the trail of death, injury and destruction they were inclined to leave (although we could still hear the sporadic crackling for some years following the ban as a few resisted what were seen as attempts to restrict a traditional practice). It was in fact the after effects of the firing of fire crackers that has given me my earliest memories of Chinese New Year, which would have been associated with the very first Chinese New Year I had after moving to Toa Payoh at the end of the 1960s. What I clearly remember is stepping out of the lift and seeing the sea of red, which was a ground coloured red by what was left behind from the previous night’s firing of crackers … that is the lasting impression that I would always have of Chinese New Years past.

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by ... the smell of gun powder and smoke that hung in the air, and the sea of red left behind .... (source: National Archives,

The sights and sounds of the Lion Dance is now the sound of Chinese New Years.