The celebrating of Spring in the greater town

27 01 2014

The arrival of spring, commemorated by the Chinese by the celebration of the new year, brings much colour and life to the streets of the “Greater Town”, tua poh, as it was known as to the local population. Besides the street market – long a popular source of goods necessary to welcome in the new year, the area since 1985, has also been livened up by the illuminations of an annual Chinese New Year light-up.

No horse run - this year's light-up is perhaps light years ahead ...

No horse run – this year’s light-up is perhaps light years ahead …

Crowds thronging the street market.

Crowds thronging the street market this year.

I managed to take in the festive atmosphere on the streets, packed with crowds that the weekend before  the new year brings, but not before I attended a rather interesting sharing session on the celebration of Chinese New Year held at the URA Centre. Entitled “Cakap Heritage: All About Chinese New Year in Kreta Ayer / Chinatown” and jointly organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the session provided a view not just of how the festival in years past would have been celebrated in the area, but also of the many ways in which Chinese New Year was observed all across Singapore through the recollections of several of the session’s participants.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

A bus passenger The an gazes out at the festive light-up. The annual light-up is now a spectacle not to be missed.

One topic that was discussed at length during the session was shopping. Besides shopping for festive goodies, cards and decorations, Chinese New Year is also when new clothes and shoes – a must for every Chinese, are bought. For some it would be the only occasion to splurge on a new outfit and while many had theirs tailored, clothes for children were often bought from the Tua Poh street market – although as one former Changi Village resident did testify, shopping wasn’t necessarily confined to the streets of Chinatown.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

Festive goodies on offer at the street market.

A seemingly popular shop to buy shoes from, was the Phoenix Shoes Company, located in a shophouse along South Bridge Road. Although the shop wasn’t one I was familiar with, it did bring back memories of another shoe shop – further east along South Bridge Road, from which my parents got their shoes from. That shop, the Crane Shoe Store, is one I well remember for how a light green box in which the pair of shoes in the size desired, would come rushing down a chute from the store room above – almost without delay whenever the shop assistant shouted an order out.

The streets come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

The streets of the greater town come alive in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

Other experiences ranged from the buying gold jewellery (On Choeng – a goldsmith on South Bridge Road, seemed a popular choice), to waxed products and ducks eggs. A name synonymous with the prelude to Chinese New Year these days, Lim Chee Guan – known for the long queues for what is today a must-have Chinese New Year treat, bak kwa or long yuk (sometimes translated to pork jerky or barbecued dried pork), did also get a mention. A participant did make the observation that queues would have been non-existent back in the 1950s – when it would be difficult for many. Another luxury mentioned was feasting on bats – something that a restaurant by the name of Oriental in the 1950s, was along with monkeys and squirrels, apparently quite well known for.

Shoppers at the street market.

Shoppers at the street market.

One the subject of luxuries, mention was also made of how for some of the less well-off folks – such as the Samsui women, Chinese New Year would be one of the rare, if not only occasion on which they would put meat, in the form of chicken, on the table, saving through the year to do so.  The mention of chicken does take me back to the Chinese New Years of my early childhood, when the second day involved visiting a family friend who helped on a chicken farm in old Punggol – besides the squealing of pigs for their supper and perhaps an unfortunate incident in which I swallowed a loose teeth biting into an ang ku kueh, a memory that does linger from those visits is the sight of a headless chicken bound for the pot, scampering around on the sandy ground. 

The colour of gold.

The colour of gold.

A consequence of the decades of social engineering in Singapore, is perhaps the loss of the use of the Chinese dialects, along with dialect group specific cultural practices such as was observed in the celebrations of yesteryear. Besides dialect group specific such as the Hokkien practice of Bai Ti Gong (honouring the Jade Emperor) still seen today, there are dialect group specific practices that have been adopted by the wider community such as the tossing of raw fish salad, yu sheng – a widely practiced Chinese New Year custom now in Singapore. This was confined initially to the Cantonese –  a gentleman recalled his first experience of it that went back to 1955. Other dialect group specific practices included taboos associated with Chinese New Year such as not sweeping the floor, and not throwing rubbish out of the house on the first days of the new year. 

A young shopper.

A young shopper.

One practice that was common across the community was letting-off firecrackers. The thunderous burst of noise, the acrid smell of gunpowder that lingered in the air and the sea of red paper that littered the streets, would not be something the younger folks would of course remember. Firecrackers which were banned after 1972 in Singapore – the first modern version of the Chingay parade organised in 1973 was offered as to compensate for that. These were however very much an integral part of the celebration before the ban and several of the participants did share experiences from the 1950s and 1960s, before the ban kicked in, such as how as girls they would not dare venture out on their own out of fear of mischievous boys would would lie in wait to scare the girls by throwing lighted crackers at them.

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by ... the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind .... (source: National Archives, www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

Scenes from Chinese New Years of days gone by … the smell of gun powder and smoke that filled the air, and the sea of red left behind …. (source: National Archives, http://www.archivesonline.nas,sg).

Still on the subject of firecrackers, a Danish couple shared how it was also common practice to let off crackers for the new year. Firecrackers are known there as “Chinese” – the smaller ones “one-cent Chinese” and the larger ones “two-cent Chinese” – a reference possibly to the origins of firecrackers.

Preserved fruits on offer,

Preserved fruits on offer.

Without the sound of firecrackers going off through the night, and perhaps with the distractions of the modern world and the dilution of cultural practices, Chinese New Year does seem a quieter affair these days. Chinese New Year, is however, very much still an occasion for the family to gather – the family reunion dinner is still very much an important part of the celebration for many families. And if one does brave the crowds on the streets of the Greater Town, streets that while perhaps are over sanitised and modernised, are where one does discover that the spirit of Chinese New Years past is one that is very much alive in the present. 

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view over the sanitised Chinatown and the modern city that has grown around it.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.

A view of the busy New Bridge Road with the galloping horses of the light-up.





Chasing the dragon through streets of red and gold

25 01 2012

I did something I’ve not contemplated doing in a long time over the weekend which was to brave the crowds on the streets of Chinatown on the eve of the Chinese New Year. I must admit that it wasn’t the street market with its offerings of red and gold and festive goodies that drew me, but rather the opportunity to photograph the 108 metre long illuminated three-dimensional Water Dragon decoration that has for the last month or so, dominated the divide between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road at the junction with Upper Cross Street, but since I was already there, I took the opportunity to take what was a thoroughly enjoyable walk around the street market as well.

Beside the street market, another draw to Chinatown in the lead-up to the Chinese New Year is the light-up which this year features a 108 metre long 3D Water Dragon.

The crowds on Pagoda Street on the eve of Chinese New Year.


Dragons, big and small, were everywhere this Chinese New Year.

Last day offers by vendors hoping to dispose of their excess stock attract crowds to the Chinese New Year street market.

Strolling around the street market, I realise that despite the sanitised version of streets that were once never without that spark, there is still some of what is missing to be found on the streets as they come alive in the lead-up to the Lunar New Year. Then as it is now, Chinatown is a focal point for shoppers seeking the essential to welcome the New Year, as they throng the narrow passageways left through streets lined with stalls that offer goods of red and gold – colours considered most auspicious by the Chinese, bringing colour and excitement that remind us of a now distant world.

Melon seeds - a must serve during the New Year.

Groundnuts too ...

Picking tangerines. Tangerines symbolise gold and are exchanged during the New Year for luck and prosperity.

Chopsticks on sale.

The market draws more than the local shopper – tourists mingle with the crowds, as do more recent residents of Singapore – many from a world from which our Chinese ancestors made their passage from in search of a better life and the world which gave us the festival we now celebrate. It is the new arrivals to our land that seem to bring the new Chinatown now to live, much as the ancestors to our older Chinese citizens would have done in very different surroundings. There was a different feel to the surroundings this time as well as a late afternoon downpour threatened to dampen the atmosphere that was building just as the crowd thickened in anticipation of discounts offered by vendors seeking to dispose of excess goods before the streets fall silent for the New Year. Although the downpour did thin the crowd on the streets as many sought shelter in the food outlets that were still opened late on the eve of the New Year, there were still plenty who umbrella in hand, braved the sudden deluge in search of a bargain.

The late afternoon downpour failed to dampen the atmosphere.

A shopper and her daughter under an umbrella.

More recent arrivals from China gathering for a reunion away from home along a five-foot-way in Chinatown. Part of the renewal has seen Chinatown becoming a focal point for the new arrivals from China, as much as it was one for the arrivals of old.

Wet from the rain, I decided to make a move as day became night, but not before seeking the best vantage for a photograph of the Water Dragon. I soon found it, thanks to the hundreds of photos that have been posted. It was then time for a reunion of sorts – not the ones I miss that were always accompanied by the sounds of a Tanjong Pagar Railway Station that has since fallen silent, but one in which tradition has been abandoned – a sign perhaps of who I have become in the brave new world I now find myself in.

An aerial view of the Water Dragon and the light-up.