15 - 21Feb99
Gong Xi Fa Cai
It's the eve of Chinese New Year. Tonight, more than ever I feel out of place. I can tell that it is an important holiday. In many ways it is Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's all rolled into one. Everywhere you look there are traditional foods, decorations and ritual symbolism. Almost all of which is lost on me, most of which I'm sure I miss. I recognize red and gold as the seasonal colors, and rabbits of course. I don't know what most of the symbolism means or where it comes from.
Most of the symbolism seems to center around wealth and prosperity. Mandarin oranges are given because the word for that type of orange is homophonic for the word for gold. Fa Cai (or Fat Choy in Cantonese) translates into something like "great wealth". Many of the symbolic gifts seem to be given because there name sounds much like the word for something valuable. Two aspects of Chinese culture that I'm getting glimpses of understanding about are the importance of wealth and what I'd call symbolic magic.
As an outsider, it seems as if the locals, especially the Chinese are obsessed with wealth, money and the signs thereof. When someone sees me on my bicycle, they don't ask me where I've ridden, they ask me how much it cost. As a child of the sixties who has seen the rise, fall and resurgance american materialism it is somewhat of a shock to have complete strangers, almost on a daily basis, open a conversation with me by asking me what my bike cost. The other thing that they ask me is "Is it a foldable?", or just "a foldable", which with the Chinese accent sounds like "affordable?"
Another concept which I seem to only understand from the outside is that of Kiasu. It has been explained to me as a fear of failure to get the best. It is exhibited as a level of brand consciousness that would dwarf that of even adolescent suburban americans. I expect that part of my difficulty understanding kiasu comes from my own nearly brand-comatose background.
The Chinese culture seems to be steeped in symbolic and sympathetic magic. The number four is bad because the chinese words for four (si\) and death (si\/) differ only in tonality. Likewise, the number eight is good. One must not sweep the floors for the first few days of the new year lest one sweep out the good luck. There are auspicious and inauspicious days to do things. While I am not yet aware of people consulting on feng shui of webpages (four links is a bad, you should always reference an odd number of sites), I expect that it is not too long in coming. On the other hand, there are many Americans that believe that the reason I am such a neat and fastidious individual is because I was born in September.
There are no real firecrackers in Singapore. I'm not sure why the government doesn't allow them, but it's probably one of the standard reasons for outlawing things that go boom. I do see a lot of fake, decorative firecrackers. For noise, a few people play with cap guns.
I had been told by several people that I should go to Chinatown on New Year's eve. I have no Idea why this small area is called Chinatown, I have seen several sections of Singapore that seem a lot more culturally Chinese. Especially since right in the middle of Chinatown is a Hindu Temple.
On New Year's eve Chinatown is jam packed with people doing last minute shopping. The atmosphere is somewhere between a flea market and a county fair. My ears are assaulted by the cacphony of capguns, whistles, multiple stereos and ghetto blasters each playing different music, merchants hawking their wares over cheap PAs and hordes of people talking, all in a language that I don't understand.
On my way down to Chinatown I had some murtabak at a Muslim restaurant called Makmur Catering on Changi, just west of Eunos. It was quite good. Murtabak (the k is silent) is an Indian dish. It is yet another variation of fry a wrapping around some filling. The wrapping is breadlike and the filling usually seems to be a chicken or mutton hash. The food at the front of the restaurant was Indian, when I paid at the back I saw what appeared to be Malay food. I asked the guy if it was an Indian or a Malay restaurant. He said it wasn't Indian or Malay, it was Muslim. At times wandering around Chinatown I almost regretted having had dinner, but just like at county fairs, the fare was basically sugar, grease and random starch, just wrapped up in different shapes than I am used to.
There are quite a few people offering samples of their wares. I notice that I am not offered any samples. On another day, in Bugis village when someone seemed to be offering samples, and I asked him about them, he started talking to me in Chinese. Since he seemed to be in his twenties, I'm pretty damn sure that his English is as good as that of a significant percentage of Americans his age.
On the Second day of New Years, I kept hearing drums. Eventually, I found out that it was some people doing the dragon dance. I grabbed my camera to get some pictures as it was going on nearly next door to my flat. Walking up, I saw a group of young guys, all dressed alike in bright, garish loose fitting clothes and was struck by how much they looked like a Morris team. Not just in dress, but in carriage. I guess that the body language of members of a troupe that aren't performing in the current dance is universal.
This whole week I keep seeing the Asian equivalent to pickup trucks driving around, with eight to twenty, usually young, people in the back, all wearing brightly colored (Day-glo) dragon dance uniforms. On the side of each of these trucks is usually about eight dayglo flags with Chinese writing on them. I did notice that when one of the larger troupes was performing, signals were given with whistles. I suspect that dragon dances are not nearly as choreographed as Morris dances. I also suspect that there are a set series of rituals to be performed in each one.
In the dance I watched next door there were about half a dozen pairs of oranges laid out in front of the dragon. The two people who made up this dragon would dance a bit to the drums, and then the dragon would "eat" a pair of the oranges. I have not yet seen any musical instruments other than drums and symbols used in conjunction with the dragon dance. The drums, however, are many times louder than the Bodhrans that I'm used to hearing. When the dance was done, on a tray sections of an orange were laid out to create a chinese word.
On my first day back to work on Friday, I did receive my first "red envelope". It is traditional for people to give each other little red envelopes, about 5 by 8 cm, with money inside. I suspect that the symbolism of giving money is even more important than the quantity of money given. Technically, that was not my first "red envelope". A couple days before New Year's I grabbed a quick bite at Burger King and they gave me a red envelope with a couple of "buy one get one free" coupons inside.
Last modified 22 Feb 1999
Back to the listing of Singapore Tales.