Jan 31 2011
I’ve written on my blog before about what Chinese New Year means to me. With the birth of our new baby boy in Singapore in late September, 2010, we have decided to once again brave the cold in Shanghai to visit the family and extended family this festive period.
However, posts on Lunar New Year celebrations in China aside, I’ve not before shared my perspectives on this wonderful cultural experience back home in Singapore. Although the background is relatively the same, just as we have experienced with other Chinese festivities, many of the events and traditions are much different. So for all my non-Singaporean friends and new residents of Singapore, let me share some of my observations.
Let’s look for example, at the very uniquely Singaporean tradition of ‘tossing’ what many Westerners might call a ‘hotchpotch’ of ingredients into the air while yelling out well wishes for the New Year… my first exposure to this activity back in 2006 took me completely by surprise, to say the least! Nobody warned me what was to follow – but being one to always partake in any local festivities to their fullest, I jumped up and joined in the tossing while yelling ‘Lo Hei’ (only later did my colleagues brief me on the tradition and explain that we were basically wishing for longevity and prosperity).
I will not even try to explain the full reason for each of the ingredients or their meanings (for fear of looking even more stupid than I did that very first day), so let me suggest a brief reading on the topic here… if you want to do even more research, just Google the Chinese – 发财鱼生 (or Chinese pinyin fācái yú shēng) – and you will find thousands of articles… I will reinforce however, that from what I know of Chinese culture, this is probably something that is very specific to Singapore – even my wife had never heard of or seen this behavior in northern or central mainland China.
Another very interesting observation, is what many could call an ‘obsession’ with a particular seafood not commonly consumed in many other parts of the world – not even in Australia, which is apparently one of the largest producers and exporters of this relatively expensive commodity. I am, of course, referring to ‘Abalone’.
Now I am still not a big consumer of Abalone (unless it happens to be included in one of the festive dishes during Chinese New Year) – just like durian… it’s definitely an acquired taste, and not something that I would go out of my way to purchase – but I’m led to believe that the cost of high quality Abalone is very steep indeed, and many people save their hard-earned money just to enjoy this ‘sea snail’ which is considered somewhat of a delicacy at this time of year. I do know, that a 425gram can of Abalone from New Zealand retails for around S$42.
Finally, although I am very accustomed to the tradition of sharing of ‘hong bao’ (in Singapore, it’s often known as ‘ang bao’ or ‘angpow’), or the ‘red packet’, it is definitely at a different scale to mainland China. The company I work for gives each of their employees a red packet with a nominal amount of money – from my observation, it’s more the gesture that counts in Singapore, rather than the actual monetary value.
What I’m not used to however, is the sharing and receiving of mandarins. I have no idea what this one is about, but I fully intend to find out! I have heard that it is not good form to give just one mandarin – it must be a gift in at least pairs… go figure!
In summary, for any foreigners, new expats or residents or those just thinking of spending their vacation in Singapore this Lunar New Year, I strongly encourage you to get out there and experience the festivities for all they are worth… and I don’t just mean hitting up a restaurant on Orchard Road or in your hotel!! Now that I am actively involved in the Grassroots organization in my local community, I have become very aware of how much effort goes into the local heartland events, and I strongly recommend that if you want to experience the culture and diversity associated with such an important time in our calendar, that you take the trek outside of the tourist areas and mix it with the locals – I will guarantee that you will be made feel welcome and that you will experience a Chinese New Year that is uniquely Singaporean and cannot be found anywhere else in Asia!
Peter Breitkreutz (aka Aussie Pete) is a PR who has been living and working in Singapore for more than 5 years. VP of a global bank by day, Peter lives with his wife and two young boys (both born in Singapore), is author of award winning blog, www.aussiepete.com and star blogger at OMY (http://blog.omy.sg/aussiepete) and MICA (http://www.blogfriends.sg/Blogs/aussiepete.aspx).