Chinese New Year in Singapore

In this article about Chinese New Year in Singapore, one of our young writers, Javier Yung from Singapore shares how Chinese New Year is celebrated in the buzzing Southeast Asian city.

Chinese New Year - The Singaporean Way

Let's start with the myth behind the Lunar New Year celebrations. There are twelve zodiac signs in the Chinese lunar calendar.

The 12 Chinese zodiac signsThe 12 Chinese zodiac signs

The legend starts with twelve guard animals that were selected to run a race for the Jade Emperor. The clever rat was first, the fast ox came second. 

The animals thus appear in the lunar calendar according to their rank in the race.

Javier writes:

I know what you’re thinking – how could a minute and seemingly insignificant animal come first? Well, in order not to fall behind, the rat had the ox carry him on one condition that he sang for the ox. Right when the ox was about to cross the finish line, the rat thereupon slid past, earning himself first place. Sometimes, working smart – not hard, wins the day!

Do you remember that 2020 was the year of the rat? Whereas 2021 is celebrated as the year of the ox! The rat was the one who won the race while the ox came second

Since then, Chinese New Year has been celebrated by approximately one-sixth of the world population – with lots of goodies and Chinese New Year songs. However, amidst the joy prosperous mood, there might be a deeper story behind the composition of such songs.

For instance, the term 'Happy New Year' (贺新年) was composed to express the desire for a peaceful life without suffering. To boot, the God of Wealth 'Cai Shen Dao' (财神到) is a representation of the desire for wealth and fortune.

'Cai shen dao' or 'The Gods must be rich' is in fact one of the most well known Chinese New Year songs. Listen to the song here.

No Chinese New Year celebration is complete without ending the day bringing your hands to your nose to smell the distant fragrance of citrus and new banknotes.

Chinese New Year in Singapore

How is Chinese New Year celebrated in Singapore?

According to the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, this is the practice of seeking "reciprocity in all human relationships" or "li shang wang lai" (礼尚往来) — hence the exchanging of gifts.

Typical gifts: Mandarin oranges and red packets for money

Though it is a Chinese New Year staple here in Singapore, this practice is mostly found only in Southern China and by the Cantonese.

In Singapore, where festive traditions are largely influenced by Cantonese practices, exchanging oranges symbolise prosperity as the Cantonese word for the fruit, "gam", sounds similar to the Cantonese word for 'gold'.

Besides, isn’t it a pain in the ear to endure your parents’ nagging every day, requiring you to hit the sack early? Well, it’s time to rejoice! 

During Chinese New Year Eve, 'shou ye' (守夜) is a Chinese tradition where all family members gather and stay up through the night, with the belief that their parents would live a longer life in return.

Family Reunion dinner for Chinese New Year

This is often complemented with games such as Mahjong and card games after reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year.

Playing Mahjong

Chinese New Year in Singapore Traditions in Singapore

So now back to our Chinese New Year celebrations:

Grab a pair of chopsticks ready for the 'Lo hei' or 'prosperity toss' and embrace yourselves for the echoes of the widely used Huat ah!!

Last but not least: 'Huat ah' means 'To prosper'.

Typical Chinese New Year custom: The prosperity toss

Chinese New Year in Singapore
River HongBao 2021

This year's Chinese New Year festivities in Singapore include the RiverHongbao with nightly performances by local talents and artists at the Supertree Grove in Gardens By The Bay from 10 - 16 February 2021.

God of Fortune - at the River Hongbao in Singapore

A life sized God of Fortune, 24 gigantic lanterns and various lion dances as well as several contests can be experienced at the GardensByTheBay's showcase. Due to the pandemic this year there will not be any live stage performances but virtual screenings of pre-recordings of the performances instead.

Chinese New Year in Singapore

Chinatown in Singapore

Chinatown is the heart of Chinese culture where Singaporeans congregate, especially during the festive season. Since its establishment, it has been pervaded with shophouses and is bustling with visitors.

Singapore's Chinatown shophouses with Chinese New Year decorationSingapore's Chinatown

However, do you know how to figure out the general histories of the shophouses just by looking at the types of materials they were built with?

For instance, the earliest-established shophouses which were set up between the 1840s and 1900s are likely to be two-storey and made of plaster. On the other end, if steel or concrete mainly make up the shophouse, the likelihood the shophouse was built between the 1950s and 1970s is higher.

Do you know that Chinatown is home to the largest hawker centre in Singapore? That’s not all – the Republic’s nomination to inscribe hawker culture in Singapore on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was submitted on 27 March 2019. 

Singapore Hawker in Chinatown - image by Hit1912 Shutterstock.comSingapore Hawkercenter in Chinatown

Singapore is unique in that the entire city-state combines and celebrates the cultural traditions of each of those ethnic states, which comprises mainly the Chinese, Indian and Malay groups.

Chinatown is also home to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the city. 

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore's ChinatownBuddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore's Chinatown

In Chinatown you will find also Singapore’s oldest Indian temple. The Sri Mariamman Hindu temple complements Singapore’s status as a polyglot nation whose population consists of diverse ethnic groups. 

Singapore's Sri Mariamman Hindu templeSingapore's Sri Mariamman Hindu temple

Chinese New Year in Singapore History

Chinese New Year decorations in Chinatown Singapore

On a more sombre note: While some celebrate on New Year’s eve, some prefer to take a more solemn approach on the eve of the Lunar New Year -  owing to the fact that the British surrendered Singapore on 15 February 1942 to the Japanese Imperial Army. This happened on the fateful first day of the Lunar New Year, after which three years and eight months of suffering ensued.

Chinese New Year in Singapore  Resources

  • This article was sent in by Javier Yung from Singapore in 2020. The resource used for this text:
  • Source: Andrew Koay. "The Surprising Origins of Singapore's Chinese New Year Traditions, Explained. 25 January 2020. Last accessed 10 February 2021
  • Further resources used for the updated 2021 article: GardensByTheBay. "Riverhongbao2021." GardensbyTheBay. Last accessed 10 February 2021

Read more from our young author Javier Yung from Chung Cheng High School in his award winning essay about 'Singlish' here - or click on the image below:

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