For The Culture

Food, Family, and Traditions: A Singaporean-American Chinese Lunar New Year

Though Chinese New Year has drawn to a close, APC community member Natasha Wan wanted to share what this special holiday means to her and how it connects to her Singaporean-American identity:

The world of Chinese New Year is very different than the everday hustle and bustle of Singapore. Cousins run around, aunts gossip, and uncles do what uncles do best: eat food and talk politics.

When I was young, I would visit Singapore every year for a whole month during this time and meet up with relatives and friends for weeks of food, celebration, and laughter! I would get to see my baby cousins, and play with my lifelong Singaporean friends!

I was actually born in Singapore and lived there for exactly 11 months and 2 weeks before moving to America! Even though I do not get to spend all my time there, my grandparents’ tiny, squeaky clean apartment will forever be my home away from home. In America, Lunar New Year is not as widely celebrated, so listening to New Years music, decorating our house and watching New Years movies helped my family get into the holiday spirit. During the weeks before the New Year, I would beg my mom to play what I called “Chinese New Year” music in the car or even during dinner. Going back to Singapore every year for Chinese Lunar New Year would always be a highlight of my year.

After a long, 23 hour plane ride, I loved to walk around in the airport, breathing in the sweet smells of Singapore, hearing the “ayaa’s” and “yeah lah” of the Singaporean accents, listening to the soft Chinese New Year music playing on the intercom and most importantly, looking for my favorite Blackcurrant Ribena Candy that would always be at the countertop of the immigration officer’s desk. After picking up our luggage from the carousel, my mom, dad, sister, brother and I would walk outside where my very tall and very bald uncle would be waiting to welcome us to Singapore and to drive us back home to where my grandma, grandpa, aunt, and cousins were anxiously awaiting our arrival.

While driving to my grandparents, uncle, and aunt’s apartment, we would pass by the many sights of Singapore including the Singapore Flyer (a Ferris wheel), the Merlion (a mythical creature with a lion’s head on the body of a fish), and of course the many, many decorations of lucky red and gold paper on the hundreds of apartment buildings, malls and light posts preparing for the upcoming Lunar New Year. These decorations often included this year’s animal, the Tiger (animal of 2010), which was one of the 12 animals that represented each year of the Lunar Calendar. When I finally arrive at home, my grandmother, Má Mǎ, would rush to clean us from head to toe to prepare for the new year (getting rid of the dirt of the past year). My aunt would often have prepared a delicious breakfast of one of our favorite Singaporean Chinese desserts, a sweet green and pink “kuih” or cake.

After taking a quick shower to wash off the post-plane ride feeling, my whole extended family would visit the Temple and pay respect to our ancestors by bowing three times with incense sticks. We asked our ancestors and the deities for blessings and good luck in the new year. Even though my parents, siblings and I are not Buddhist, this was important as traditions, family and our history are significant parts of our Chinese culture and background. Then, my grandfather, Gǒng Góng, would take my sister and I for a special trip to MacRitchie, a beautiful park filled with colorful birds, mischievous monkeys and a large pond of sparkling fish! We would throw small pieces of stale bread into the pond and hundreds of bright Carp fish would come swimming towards us, gobbling up the bread. After we had finished feeding the fish, my sister and I would run up to the small shaded resting stop surrounded by giant palm trees. “Gǒng Góng, can we please have ice cream! Please!!,” we would plead. “Okay, okay,” he would always say giving the ice-cream man the money. Every time we went there, we would get the same ice cream: an icy, sweet, rainbow popsicle that quickly dripped from the hot Singapore heat.

In the next week before New Year’s Day, I would get ready for the new year by getting my hair cut at the familiar “Uncle” Jon’s Salon (as cutting hair during the new year was considered bad luck). We would also go to Chinatown to buy a new qípáo (a traditional “Chinese New Year” dress), and last but certainly not least, visit the many, many homes of relatives. Each home would be packed with cousins, aunts and uncles, grand-aunts and grand-uncles, nieces and nephews, and many more extended relatives. When greeting any of my elders, I would bow and say “新年快乐” (xīnnián kuàilè), or “happy new year”, all while passing oranges out to them. In exchange, all children would receive a brightly colored 红包 (hóngbāo), or red envelope, filled with money. “Do not open it,” mothers would caution, “ If you do, it will bring you a whole year of bad fortune!” Tradition states that children should keep this red envelope under their pillows for all 15 days of Chinese New Year for good wishes and good luck. Being little and mischievous, my cousins, siblings and I would more often than not, open our little envelopes and compare the amount of money we were given! Most of the time, grandparents would give the most, then parents, then first aunts and uncles, and so on and so forth.

During the celebrations and reunion dinners of the New Year, relatives talk, laugh and most importantly, eat together. Some of my favorite dishes during this holiday are steamed fish, which is good for prosperity, plump dumplings and yummy spring rolls, which represent wealth, and endless noodles, for happiness and longevity. As a child and even today, dessert has been very important to me! 汤圆 (tāngyuán), sweet rice balls that represent family togetherness, and sweet chewy 年糕 (niángāo), a glutinous rice cake that represents a higher position or income, are two of my most favorite desserts. One of Chinese Singaporeans’ main traditions is to toss a very special and vibrant salad called 鱼生 (yú shēng) for a “Prosperity Toss” which is made up of seven different colored fish and countless other multicolored ingredients, each symbolizing a special lucky wish. Some of these ingredients are fish, of course, which symbolizes abundance and prosperity, pomelo for good luck, shredded green radish for eternal youth, and peanut crumbs for a household filled with good fortunes of gold and silver. After all the ingredients are gathered, everyone would grab a pair of long chopsticks and toss this colorful salad while wishing each other a “Happy New Year”.

After eating dinner, when us children got hot and exhausted of running around and playing with each other in the sticky, humid Singapore air, we would eat candies and cookies as we relaxed on the ground. All around us were the aunties and uncles, eavesdropping on the latest gossip of the family and of the country. Singapore is a very tiny country, so almost everyone knows everyone. Exaggerating aunties would tell the tales of neighbors and other extended family members. Uncles would talk about the forbidden topic of politics, discussing the things the government did in loud voices, happily but intensely arguing over each other. The television would also be blasting in the background, showing a live-filmed CCTV (China Central Television) show of different Chinese Lion and Dragon dances, acrobatic acts, comedy, and songs counting down the minutes of the new year. Sounds of firecrackers and fireworks at midnight would catch our attention, causing us to run outside and stare at the brightly colored sky.

This would last well past our bedtimes, when it started getting very late and dark out. Then, slowly but surely, goodbyes and good nights are made, hugs and kisses are given, and then suddenly, the house is much quieter it was before. Us youngsters would be showered and cleaned, then be sent to bed in new pajamas. Having new clothes, pajamas and bed sheets are really important during the New Year as they symbolize a new start and fresh hopes, setting the tone of the upcoming year to a happy start! Since housing in Singapore is small, my two cousins, sister and I all shared a room with my grandparents, with us kids sleeping next to each other shoulder to shoulder, the floor as our bed and a small cushion each as our pillow. The droning fan would be on all night next to the window, blowing the mosquitos and heat away from the pack of bodies. Nights in Singapore are actually quite refreshing, with crickets chirping and the water from the water fountain swooshing outside.

In the morning, screeches of monkeys and songs of birds slowly wake us up, a natural alarm starting the day’s New Year frenzy all over again.

Hello! My name is Tyler Newman and I'm a magical creature.

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