For some reasons, one's Chinese New Year preparations is not complete until one visits Chinatown. At least thought a number, judging from the congestion in the multistorey carpark where I park my car. This spells good news to the vendors in Chinatown.
Taking the opportunity to find out what's new, especially in the makan (food) goodies and the flowers, I went on my prowl. I was too early, then, for the makan goodies. But they certainly got me on my memory trail of the days when neighbours and relatives would be making their own kueh-kueh (cakes) and sharing them, or selling them. One would start keeping the used tins, like the big Milo tins (a favourite) and the plastic containers too.
While the nyonyas (the Peranakans) fancied more complicated kueh2, the others, depending on the dialect groups, might opt for their own. I think the Cantonese loved to make kok-jai (a mini curry puff lookalike with grounded peanuts and sugar inside). One of the more popular ones could be the "love letters". I still wonder if anyone had inserted love-letters in these thin crust. In the old days, I remember watching, and well helping out in making these thin pancake-like crust-like kueh. In Hokkien, I think it is called kuey-nern-gern (meaning rolled eggs). One spreaded a thin layer of flour dough onto the circular plated and then closing it with a similar plate, it is placed on a charcoal fire. It gets cooked easily and with a flip, it is done. The tricky part is using your hands to roll them when they are hot and still soft.
As kids we love to put these rolled love-letters as if they were cigars.
These days, less and less people are indulging in the making of these kueh-kueh. And there are dozens of them available in the market. Definitely cheaper that what one would have spent in making them. But maybe, they lack the loving touch.
For those who can afford, especially those in business, getting potted plants with fruits and flowers are a must. Each year, the florists try to bring in more varieties. If there is anything that links the Chinese of Singapore to that of China, the plants could well be one of the links. Pussy willows are only endemic to China. The plum-blossoms - the plum blooms in late winter - are amongst one of the popular ones. One puts them in a giant vase and watch the flowers bloom and possibly the leaves sprouting. And that's it. There are also the narcissus - shui xian - that the Chinese have a way of carving the bulbs to make them bloom earlier, especially in the hot climate in Singapore.
The kumquat - kumkat or kajai in Cantonese - is an all time favourite with businesses and temples. Possibly because of the word "kum" which is synonymous with Gold in Cantonese. There was one belief that if one wants to have a baby boy, one should steal a kumquat fruit from someone's plant. But in modern day Singapore, it could well be an offence! (^^)
To many Cantonese at home, they would start early, probably a month or so before the Chinese New Year, to buy a few chi-ku 慈姑 (in Cantonese for arrowhead) and plant them in a shallow bowl of water and pebbles. Anyone knows its significance? Chi-ku is a favourite bulb cooked in soups by the Cantonese.
Probably all Chinese would hang the red banner across the main front of the house. More religiously so in doing it were the Peranakans. But with flats these days, it is getting rare and the red banners could be shrunk to just cover the doorway. In the old days, it would be red banners, red clothings, yes, red packets, and plenty of red in the fire-crackers. Red date tea was also served. So, you can imagine the "old fashion" elders seeing red when they saw the kids wearing black!