Monday, February 11, 2013

The Water Snake slithers in ...

It was a wet season that welcome the Chinese Lunar New Year. Business in Chinatown was in some ways dampened by the rain, but this did not dampen the spirits of the shoppers who braved the rain and the wet grounds to check out what's latest in Chinatown. The crowd was like what used to be decades ago. Of course, these days saw more tourists who wanted to soak in the atmosphere. For Singaporeans, almost every new town has its own Chinese New Year bazaars. But the atmosphere will not be the same as that in Chinatown, even though it does not have much of its original old-time sights.

It was a nostalgic walk along the streets of Chinatown (particularly in Temple St, Pagoda St, Trengganu St linking them through to Smith St), with the crowds being drawn to whoever called the loudest with the best offers. On the eve of Chinese New Year (CNY) eve, prices were beginning to drop, particularly the tidbits with short shelf lives. Certain tidbits just have to be there for visiting relatives and friends - kueh-chee (melon sheets) that now come in various flavours and groundnuts. Kueh-kueh (local pastries) come in big varieties ranging from love-letters (Kueh Belanda) to pineapple tarts. Most of these are influenced in many ways by Malays and Peranakans. There's the Taiwanese mochis that have been making big impact during pre-CNY sales.

What seems less obvious these days are the Dui-Lian (Couplets) that traditionally, most Chinese would get them to be pasted on both sides of the door-way and one on top. In the old days, and probably now, one would buy from the calligraphers. Letter writers in the old days are trained in calligraphy and hence could make the additional bucks from such sales. Every couplet is different because it is hand-written. These days, chances are one could buy printed ones. With most living in HDB flats, it would be a challenge to paste these Dui-Lian. My neighbour (who hails from mainland China) has his Dui-lian pasted on the door way between the living room and the kitchen, the only place where it is possible.

Food - an important part to the Chinese
Grandmas would be fussing about what to buy from the wet market to cook for the Reunion Dinner on the CNY Eve. Chinatown wet market is a favourite destination for many, especially for the older folks who used to shop here. Atmosphere in the basement market is different from the wet and dirty roads when the wet market stalls were along the Trengganu St area. No more pulling out the live chicken or ducks to check out if they are fat or not (or rather if they are meaty enough). In the old days, many would buy these poultry live and bring them back home. In the downtown houses, they could be kept in the bathroom or toilets. For those with bigger spaces, they could at least be in the kitchen courtyard. I remember the days when I had to fight with the chicken and ducks just going to the toilet. Or rather they were so alarmed by my presence. We would feed them with cockroaches in the belief that it fattens them up. Once my landlady decided to invest early with a few turkey chicks. Imagine the alarming calls each time I went to the toilet.

Then, came the stage when one would choose the live chicken or duck, have it weighed and price haggled and decided, pay for it and leave it to the stallholders to kill and de-feather, while one carried out with her shopping, to collect later. I remember the days when I had to help my mum to kill the chicken or duck by either holding the struggling bird's neck so that we could slit its throat and drain the blood. Yes, blood was also food. Then came the bird-flu and SARS and it was decided, no live birds in the market. We had to settle for chilled birds (at best).

Fish is another important item to buy. Nian Nian You Yu is one of the favourite greetings. Just similar sounds, but fish has always been an important dish for CNY dinner. For the Hokkien and Teochews, the Rabbit Fish (Peh Tor Hu - white belly fish) is one to look for. But alas, it is terribly expensive. It seems that during this time, the Rabbit Fish would be in its mating season, full or role. And it is less fishy in taste. One such fish could be about S$20 each, or more, from the wet market.

I suppose for other important ingredients, the existence of the supermarkets has somewhat dampened the prices in the wet market. Without fail, one would hear the housewives complaining that the prices "this year is higher than the last!".

For the Cantonese, the dried sausages are a must. many would flock to Chinatown which will have a bigger selection. During this season, a few stalls would be set up along Smith St to offer a range of sausages, waxed duck and the famous Yunnan Ham. The fact that sales were good indicate that many are still preparing them for meals at home. A simple steaming of the sausages on top of the rice is good enough for those of us who grew up with "Lap Cheong", the Cantonese name for the Chinese Sausages.

Everything Red
While the accountants see red in red, the Chinese just love them. Red packets in the old days were simple red paper cut into small enough sizes to wrap over the coins (yes, coins then). And then, red packets were for sale. These days, thanks to commercial marketing, one could get these red packets for free. And of course, the red packets were joined in by the gold packets, thanks to some innovative marketeers.

There seems to be the eternal "clash" between mothers and daughters (is this still true?) about wearing red and not black on CNY eve and CNY day, at least to please Ah Kong and Ah Mah (a good enough excuse), Kids, especially girls (well, up to a certain age) would be dolled up in the traditional Chinese clothings, especially cheongsam for the little girls.

It is always heartening to watch families all dressed in red, to a certain extent, arriving to visit relatives in the HDB flat where I live. Depending on their dialect groups, the senior members would be greeting in their respective dialects. Each dialect has its unique CNY greetings. You would hear Teochew greeting each other, Shin Jia Lu Yi.

Chinese New Year Eve Reunion Dinner
To the Chinese, the Reunion Dinner is probably the most important gathering of the family, more so in the extended family where there are the grand parents. Many daughter-in-laws make it their practice to have reunion dinners with their own parents earlier, a few days before the CNY. In the current families in Singapore where there are less children in the family, such gathering becomes more meaningful.

Given the small apartments (HDB flats) in Singapore, it is often a challenge to have extended family reunion dinners. Even when we split the tables into the elders and the children (a time for cousins to catch up). Grandma would often insist on cooking, maybe with some willing daughter-in-laws? But given that most are busy working and living separately, the younger grandma might not be keen to preside on the cooking of traditional dishes .. ahh ... Ah Mah's cooking, often the grandchildren's favourite. A trend that is probably sliding on a very steep gradient. And so, many now opt for reunion dinners in the restaurants. No more days of having to do marketing, lugging the buys back home, planning of the menu, cutting and cooking and after that washing. Big families, no problems, many restaurants have private rooms for a couple of tables if you want a private reunion dinner. Restaurants are also serving traditional dishes, and chances are also that these dishes will transcend across dialect lines.

Chances of all members attending the reunion dinners are certainly not a hundred percent. With the mobile Singaporeans, catching up is still possible thanks to technologies, such as Skype. For many studying overseas, this must be the time of homesickness as they will miss home and the re-nao (arousing) atmosphere of home. More so when they are staying in the northern hemisphere where dark, dreary and cold weather add to the gloom.

For the traditional Chinese families, there are rituals to be followed to welcome the new year. It is believed that if one stays awake longer into the Chinese New Year, the lives of their parents would be lengthened. Which kid does not like the idea of staying up longer? To welcome the new year, there will be offering of mandarin oranges and huat-kueh (traditional Chinese cake with the name "huat" that sounds like growth) to the Gods.

For some, it would be going to the Chinese Temples to offer the first joss sticks. In the Chinese tradition, 11pm is the beginning of the new day. And so, by this time, many would converge to their favourite temples. In Chinatown, Thian Hock Keng and Wak Hai Cheng Beo are two temples busy with devotees.

With a new year comes new hopes and new aspirations. And so, Singapore Chinese, with their fellow Singaporeans, look forward to a brighter future in the year of the Snake. Some of us reminisce the old times of Chinese New Year.