Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Goat has arrived, ahead of schedule

Or so one could say. Many believe that the Chinese zodiac starts on the first day of the Chinese New Year. But it is said that the change of the zodiac starts with Li Chun, the arrival of Spring, which is based on the solar calendar. This year, it is on 4 February 2015. Ah, for the many mothers to be, which animal were they betting for? Horse or Goat?

With the arrival of a new year with a new animal, it keeps the local Chinese economy humming and running. Go to People's Park Complex, and you will see a constant crowd, peering over the shoulders to look at what brings to them in this new year. These days, one does not have to remember. Up came the handphone and each took a picture of the animal that he or she belongs too. And then, it would be the family members as well. Temples are also having such posters for their devotees.

If there is anything that links Singapore Chinatown of today to the past, it must be the street bazaars, offering all kinds of goodies. Gone are the stalls that used to sell the Chinese New Year cards. Most clothing stalls were also gone, not to mention the shoes. I remember when I was young, we hardly buy new clothings or shoes. But for the Chinese New Year, it was a must and hence we kids looked forward to the shopping trip to Chinatown. Even it meant suffocating in the crowd.

What could well be the continuing products could be the melon seeds, groundnuts, Chinese sausages, waxed duck, Yunnan ham. Yes, the Bak Kwa (sweet meat) is like a must and there would be queues for the favourite old signature stalls. Today, you can still see queues. Some things are a must for they are symbolic of one's hopes. Ground Nuts known as Hua Sheng (which could sound like flower growing) could well be one of these.

In the past few years, even wedding glamour photo and dress companies began to appear in the street bazaars. Certainly a great way to catch some out of the crowd.

Dui Lian (Couplets) is not like what it used to be, where the folks would wait patiently to ask the Letter Writer to write some nice phrases for them. There are many ready printed ones available but nothing beats the original writings. This year, I spotted one calligrapher, supposedly from China doing a roaring business. His calligraphy is indeed very nice. With our HDB flats, there's hardly space on the doorway to paste the couplets. Interestingly, I spied and saw our new mainland Chinese neighbour pasting them inside the hall. Putting up the red banner (Ang Chai in Hokkien) over the doorway is also fast diminishing because of the small doorway into the HDB flat. But there are still some who faithfully put them up, very much what they used to do in the old pre-war houses or even attap houses of the old.

Apart from the din and roaring business to encourage folks to buy new things for the home and family members, from curtains to tidbits for the New Year Day guests, each family would also go about preparing for the new year in a quiet way. One of them must be in the wet market where Mum and Grandma would be busy with, stocking up fresh food to cook for Reunion Dinner. But of course, these days, many families opt for Reunion Dinner in the Restaurants. Where once the restaurants would be closed for the Chinese New Year, these days great business opportunities await from CNY eve to the days that follow. Loh Hei (Chinese Raw Fish with a selections of ingredients, each symbolising one great wish and hope) is certainly one of the great attractions. From within the family, it has become a big corporate event where vendors would treat their customers to such a Loh Hei gathering. Within the company, the boss might buy his staff lunch or dinner with Loh Hei. All for a better business!

Ah, but the traditional Grandma prefers to cook at home, cooking the traditional and delicious dishes that Grandpa loves and certainly the grandchildren. More work yes, but the efforts and love put into each dish certainly brings out the glee and smiles of the extended family. What better satisfaction can Grandma get.

In the old days, most families would have the tablets of their departed loved ones and the ancestors at home. On CNY eve, it is one of the moments when the family also remember their departed loved ones.They would cook all the favourite dishes of their departed loved ones and offer to them the way Chinese had done for millennium. In a way, it was good because after the offering, the living ones got to eat the food. These days, many tablets have been placed in temples. While many families still make it a point to go to the temple together to offer their respects to their departed loved ones, it would require immense efforts to cook and to bring the food there. Many still do, carrying the food in tingkat (multi-layer containers).

In many old Chinese clan associations, there is always a small space where members could put the tablets of their departed loved ones. In the days when clan associations were active and supporting many members who came to Singapore alone, this was a favourite space for one to reserve a tablet for the time to come. A number of the tablets are still found to be covered, as is a practice when one is still alive, with now already faded red paper. Probably when the person passed away, no one knew that he or she has already reserved such a tablet in the clan association. Until someone peek into the covered tablet, the story remains untold.

With each new year, the elders in the family would try to keep on to the traditions, dismayed at times with the changing world. A constant struggle as they win some and lose some. While the Chinese New Year might mean more in the old days when the ancestors were living in the country with four seasons and were likely to be farmers, it is still an important tradition that binds the extended families together. And it will repeat itself as each generation begets yet another generation.

To the ageing folks, each new year brings forth memories of the old. Many look back at the difficult times and smile at their more fortunate descendants, quietly noting the outcome of their hard work. Some would subtly remind their descendants to remember the source of the water when they drink. If it makes sense to them.

To borrow the coined wish, Goat Xi Fa Cai. Or my own one, Have a Huat New Year!