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.

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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, http://www.picas.nhb.gov.sg).

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