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t r i b u n e . o n l i n e
the students' voice

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An Irreverent Look at the Singaporean Chinese New Year by Sim Jingwei ( Ed: Kudos - this is excellent work. )

According to the Chinese Lunar calendar, 2002 marks the 4699th year since the time of emperors in ancient China. What a lengthy history - complete with subterranean legends, political revolutions and rich culture! Nevertheless, this tunnel of time has brought about changes in attitudes towards the Chinese New Year, reducing emphasis on its true essence. When we think of Chinese New Year, the imagery that springs to mind is one of clearing out the old and ushering the new with activities like spring cleaning, crimson décor to bring prosperity and wealth, and a variety of other customs. However, let us take an anecdotal look at a few familiar ones in Singapore.

We begin with Lunar New Year's Eve. The time of the 'notorious' Reunion Dinner is supposedly a time for renewal of family ties, and most members make it a point to come back, even from afar, for this inimitable affair. Some time ago, the young would respectfully greet and wait for their elders before they themselves began the meal. Then everyone would tuck into a sumptuous home-cooked or steamboat feast. In the old days, when an air-conditioned bedroom was already a luxury, let alone a whole house featuring multi-split air-conditioning, you can imagine the sweltering conditions. Someone I know, who shall remain unnamed, boasts of having seen hunks eating with neither shirt nor singlet - the more sweltering the heat, the better the food tasted. Food was never wasted. Any surplus ( 'leftovers' would be a rude word) would be kept, to be re-boiled, re-stewed or generally re-cooked over the ensuing days. The surfeit of food was deliberate - a welcome precursor of the year's fortunes. It was an evening filled with laughter and the warmth of a family united. Today, however, many feel it an unnecessary hassle to contend with. Instead, they make their way to restaurants where they dine in air-conditioned pay-and-eat comfort. Yet it is not and will never be the same. Eating is an activity - bonding over sweat and tears (Grandmother's onions) is much more than that.

The first and second days of the New Year are the most hectic days. If you are an adult, you visit parents first, then in-laws. After that, the rest is up to you. Some still indulge in marathon distractions such as mahjong. Others just want to get over their hangover. Still others wish the whole world would go away. The tradition is losing its meaning. In our rushed society, relatives rarely see each other, and therefore the motivation for visiting is lacking. This makes even the chance meeting at a common relative's home rather discomfiting, unless you have not a small number of kids and it's plenty of ang pows you want, or you're one to stand and be poked, prodded and scrutinised from head to toe by relatives whom you don't quite recall. Call this Generation Y blood. Anyway, school will have brought down upon us, the younger members of the extended family, a back-breaking, nerve-wrecking burden - work. There are so many assignments piled on us that we have to spend our whole New Year scribbling away. It can detract from the joy of this occasion, to say the least. Still, it gives us another excuse to shorten visitation time.

Now we come to the varying aspects of the whole festival. Red (good fortune) and gold (wealth) are the colours of Lunar New Year, and apply to dressing as well. Of course, in modern Singapore, the current fashion rules, even if the 'in' colour is black. Mandarin oranges are symbols for luck and prosperity. Then again, were they not also meant to be gifts from the heart? This interpretation is uncommon now - rather, re-using is. Many simply take fruits received and repack them into different paper bags or shuffle them around to redistribute. Some things in human nature never change, though. I hear some do not wish to receive the traditional xin nian kuai le salutation because in Cantonese, it sounds too much like xin nian kuai luo (a sharp drop in share prices). While on the topic of superstition, it used to be anathema to sweep anything out. You either do all the sweeping before then, or if you must, sweep inwards so you are not sweeping your luck or wealth away. Today, I suppose few care, as they are not the ones actually doing the sweeping or throwing. Even if they do lift a finger, it is usually to throw something down the chute, into the common dumpster where the garbage remains (in the HDB block) for a few days.

In the old days, when times were hard, a child's ang pow gifts were supposed to be its monetary sustenance for the entire year. Today, we survive on regularly-given pocket money. One remnant of tradition is visible in that we still receive ang pow money almost always in even sums. I suppose it is all in the unconscious psyche.

Married folk give to the children, the elderly and the singles. Couples who tie the knot just to be able to apply for an HDB flat would object to this tradition. Here are some tips I have heard over the years: make private no-need-to-give-me-no-need-to-give-you exchange agreements with siblings or friends; go on vacation and neither be obligated to visit nor be visited (thereby avoiding one financial disaster for another); discreetly count your ang pows and let your parents know, so they can decide whether it is diplomatic to under- or over-match their return ang pows (a ping-pong match); better to give than to receive first, and so on. Best of all, if Dad asks you to lend your ang pow money, especially if he has run out of new notes, don't worry - he may surprise you with the amount of interest (annualised) you get back. Just make sure he pays you right after the New Year, or he will absent-mindedly deny that the transaction ever took place.

Though the traditions themselves remain, there are some things we have lost along the way, most of all the true meaning behind the Lunar New Year festivities. I hope we can remember our roots even in this modern society, and discern what we should preserve for future generations to appreciate and value.