A postcard from Singapore VIII

January 31, 2008

This week I worked the 9 to 5 shift just like many others in Singapore and elsewhere. No big deal you might say but peak time taxi fares and traffic jams make getting to the office a real pain. My colleague David Loh who was also on dayshift made a tempting offer, ”buy a helmet and I’ll take you on my Ducati”. This sounded like a plan to me, so of I went to Little India to buy my new helmet. After a little haggling – 50% off the first price - I left with my new silver motor cycle helmet.

The next morning David picked me up and we whizzed past all the jams to the office, faster and more thrillingly than any taxi ride so far. For the whole week we explored routes and I noticed that many homes were decorated with red banners with big golden characters. David and other colleagues told me this was already preparation for Chinese New Year which is in February.

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The legend tells how long, long ago in ancient China there was a furious man-eating beast from the mountains (or from under the sea), which looked like a dragon (or  a unicorn). On the first and 15th day of each lunar month the monster, called Nian, came out to hunt people. On the days of its coming the people, in terror, locked their doors before sunset.

1In one village lived a wise old man who rallied the people together to face the Nian with loud noises and fireworks. On a moonless freezing cold night the monster appeared and the moment it opened its jaws the people made frightening noises, beating drums and lighting fireworks. Wherever the monster went it was driven back by the din, time and time again until it fell down exhausted and was killed by the villagers.

 8Savage as the monster was, the Nian was defeated by the concerted efforts of  a small village. From that time on the people maintained the tradition by beating drums and gongs and lighting fireworks on the coldest day of winter to drive away imaginary monsters and to celebrate their victory over them. Today, Nian refers to the New Year’s Day or Spring Festival. You can hear people often say Guo Nian, meaning ‘survive the Nian’. As Nian also means “the year” Chinese often greet each other with Xin (means “new “) Nian (“year”) Hao (“good”) – Happy New Year!

Chinese New Year is the most important celebration in the Chinese calendar and year 4706 begins on February 7, 2008 – it is the year of the rat. Babies born before Chinese New Year are born in the year of the pig.

The next day on a visit to a shopping mall the shops were covered in red. Red banners with golden letters, red rats in all shapes and sizes, red lamps, red envelopes and all kind of lucky symbols …. Red and gold wherever you looked.

 3One of the shop owners nicely explained to my wife and I that in ancient times most people were illiterate which was why animals that influenced people’s lives were chosen to symbolize the terrestrial branches: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig (or boar). Another legend tells how one day Buddha summoned all of the animals and honoured those who came by naming a year for them. When the cat and the rat heard they have to appear, the cat said to rat: ‘We should arrive early, but I usually get up late.’ Because they were neighbours and good friends the rat then promised to wake up his friend so they can go together. However, the next morning when the rat got up, it was much too excited and forgot his promise. The rat went directly towards the gathering place. On the way, it came across the tiger, ox, horse, and realized that the other animals are running much faster. As the rat did not want to fall behind it jumped on the ox and promised to sing for him if he carried him. They arrived first and the ox was happy thinking that he would be the first sign of the years. But the rat had already slipped in front and so the rat became the first lucky animal of the Chinese zodiac. Meanwhile his neighbour the cat was far too late and when it finally arrived the selection process was over. That’s why other animals appear behind the rat (in above mentioned order) and why the cats hate rats so much that every time they meet, the cat will chase and kill the rat.

5Then Buddha named a year after each one and announced that people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s personality. Richard Nixon, George Bush, Marlon Brando, Al Gore, Shakespeare, George Washington, Jimmy Carter, Clark Gable, Charlton Heston, Lady Bird Johnson, Mozart and William Shakespeare were all born in the year of the rat (1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020, 2032, and 2044).

Though in some people’s eyes the rat is not adorable and there are many derogatory references to rats, it heads the Chinese zodiac. Since the presence of a rat in a Chinese farmer’s home has historically been seen as an indicator of big harvests, the sign is known as a “wealth animal”.

Browsing the internet I found lots websites describing the character of rats:

The rat is recognized as an animal with spirit, wit, alertness, delicacy, flexibility and vitality. Being the first sign of the Chinese zodiac, rat people are endowed with great leadership skills and are the most highly organized. They can be charming, passionate, charismatic, practical, hardworking and strong-willed people who are keen and 7unapologetic promoters of their own agendas, which often include money and power. Behind the smile rats can be terribly obstinate and controlling, insisting on having things their way no matter what the cost. These people tend to have immense control of their emotions, which they may use as a tool to manipulate and exploit others – both emotionally and mentally. Quick-tempered and aggressive, rats will not think twice about revenge on those that hurt them in any way. Rats need to learn to relax sometimes, as they can be quite obsessed with detail, intolerant and strict, demanding order and perfection.

But now back to the Chinese New Year, which is observed as a public holiday in countries with a sizable Chinese population. Chinese months are based on the lunar calendar. Each month, and also the Chinese New Year begins on new moon, the darkest day of the month and festivities end when the moon is brightest with a Lantern Festival. In the Gregorian calendar, Chinese New Year falls on different dates each year, a date between January 21 and February 20. This means that the holiday usually falls on the second (very rarely third) new moon after the winter solstice.

I was told that during that period Singapore slows down, shops are closed and many people travel home to visit their families. I understand that New Year celebrations may span over weeks before and after the official holidays and this is the time when businesses in the region operate in ‘holiday mode’ and its generally not the time for making important decisions or business negotiations.

The shop owner told me that Chinese New Year celebrations are marked by visits to kin, 6relatives and friends, a practice known as “new-year visits”. “I wear new cloth” he adds and “I already prepare the red envelopes” or red packets. These red envelopes, in Mandarin “hóng bāo” always contain money. Varying from a couple of dollars to several hundred, the notes have to be new and clean. The amount of money in the Hongbao should be of even numbers, as odd numbers are associated with cash given during funerals. Since the number 4 is considered bad luck (the word for four is a homophone for death) money in the red envelopes never adds up to $4 – and as the number 8 is considered lucky (for its homophone for “wealth”) $8 are commonly found in the red envelopes. Traditionally Hongbao’s with the “lucky money” are passed out from married couples or the elderly to unmarried juniors.

As kind of general preparation people clean their house thoroughly, decorate it with lots of symbolic and lucky words and prepare lots of food. Everyone gets a haircut and everything and everyone looks new and fresh. Well prepared for the night of New Year’s Eve, Chinese families come together for a celebration or reunion-dinner. This custom is also called “surrounding the hearth,” from the custom in earlier times of eating dinner around the family hearth. Children and adults eat together a dinner, which begins only when all family members are around the table. A table setting is placed for those unable to come home to symbolize their presence though far away. As I learned everything related to the Chinese New Year is symbolic or has a special meaning. Several of the dishes served have auspicious meaning and are indispensable to the night’s menu: mustard greens, the “Long Year Vegetable” represents long life, as well as uncut noodles, which represent longevity and long life, though this practice is not limited to the new year; a “Whole Chicken,” (must be a whole!!) symbolizing wealth for the whole family (since “chicken” and “family” sound the same in the Taiwanese dialect ); a type of clam called han is eaten since it sounds like the Chinese word for “fat,” means “becoming well-off”; and fish balls, shrimp balls, and meat balls are eaten to symbolize the three top scores earned during the civil service examination in ancient China. Although fish is on the New Year’s Eve dinner table it cannot be eaten on New Year’s Eve, since the Chinese words for “fish” and “surplus” sound the same and people wouldn’t want to eat the next year’s surplus – I also found sources saying it exact the other way around. In some areas it is customary to have dumplings for this dinner as they symbolize wealth because their shape is like a Chinese gold nugget. And last but not least: Mandarin oranges are the most popular and most abundant fruit during Chinese New Year. This New Years Eve dinner is comparable to Christmas dinner in the West, except the Chinese will have much more food.

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Here is a brief guide to good and bad luck.

Good luck: 

- Fu is a lucky word. Fu – is very easy to say and is one of the most popular Chinese characters used during Chinese New Year. Around the Chinese New Year, people often put up a poster with this word on it – upside down! It’s the only time when a Chinese word is posted upside down intentionally.
- Clean the house completely from top to bottom before New Year’s Day for good luck in the coming year
- Opening windows and/or doors bring in the good luck of the New Year.
- Switching on the lights for the night is considered good luck and ‘scares away’ ghosts and spirits of misfortune
- Eat sweets to make sure you have a “sweet” year.
- Some believe that what happens on the first day of the New Year reflects the rest of the year to come. Asians will often gamble at the beginning of the year, hoping to get luck and prosperity.
- Wear a new pair of slippers that is bought before the New Year which means to step on the people who gossip about you.
- The night before the New Year, bath in pomelo leaves and you will be healthy for the rest of the upcoming year. 
 

Bad Luck

- Buying a pair of shoes is considered bad luck because the word “shoes” is a homophone for “rough” in Cantonese, or “evil” in Mandarin.
- Buying a pair of pants is considered bad luck because the word “pants” is a homophone for “bitter” in Cantonese. Although some look at it positive as ‘pants’ in Cantonese is also a homophone for the word for “wealth” 
- Washing your hair could mean washing away one’s own luck, but modern hygienic concerns take precedence over this tradition
- Sweeping the floor is usually forbidden on the first day because it will sweep away the good fortune and luck
- Buying books is bad luck because the word for “book” is a homonym to the word “lose”.
Avoid clothes in black and white, as black is a symbol of bad luck, and white is a traditional funeral colour.

So there you are, a bit complicated but useful to know. I’m off now to Germany, back to spend time with my family and friends, like the Chinese do at New Year but without the monsters.

3 comments

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Singapore doesn’t slow down for Chinese New Year so much as it comes to a complete and somewhat eerie halt. It’s wonderful seeing the decorations and public festivities and all that attendant excitement, and hearing evidence of lion dancers wherever you are, but seeing so much of the island closed entirely was disorienting my first year there and didn’t lose its novelty in following years. I’m sorry that my camera was reliably stuck in shop for the appropriate days.

I also enjoyed watching on Channel 5 the apparently random bunches of movies they would pick for the holiday. I could never figure the theme they had for the special programming other than “we had the rights to these movies”.

Posted by Joseph Nebus | Report as abusive

Joachim, what an educational piece – and from someone relatively new to Singapore too! I moved to Singapore 8 years ago and never tire of the many cultural festivals we have here. It’s a great experience to wander through Chinatown in the run-up to Chinese New Year, or to visit Little India during Deepavali. Glad to see you’re enjoying your time here. Hope you managed to try yusheng for CNY. It’s more Singaporean than Chinese – but it’s delicious and a really sociable meal. Good luck and prosperity!

It is Very interesting.