It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like CNY

All over Singapore workmen are putting up red and gold decorations for the looming Chinese New Year.

In the lobby of my office building, the workers simply replaced the Christmas decorations with eleborate displays of red lanterns, gold coins, fake firecrackers, mandarins and what seems to be plastic cherry blossoms, although I’ve yet to see a cherry tree in this part of the world.

CNY in Singapore

On the edge of Chinatown, a huge marquee has been set up on a vacant block. Inside are stalls selling new year decorations, clothes, handbags, ceramics and plants. At my local mall, still more marquees are bursting with similar offerings. And fancy packaging is big. Everything from oranges to barbecued pork is packaged up in red and gold and the prices have been bumped up to suit the items’ new prestigious look. Bus stops all seem to carry advertising for tinned abalone, which can cost $30 to $50 a tin.

Chinese New Year Singapore

Last week, another enormous marquee popped up near my local MRT station. A huge poster announced a local politician wished everyone a happy CNY. (Singaporeans have an acronym obsession. News reports can be an incomprehensible recitation of letters. And so Chinese New Year is CNY.) Outside the marquee, the 12 animals that represent the years of the Chinese calendar were on display. In the just-after-dawn light, these figures looked like they had been dancing all night. Some looked suspiciously like they’d popped a few party drugs. Others looked like they’d been going just a bit too long.

Year of the rabbitYear of the MonkeyYear of the BullYear of the RoosterYear of the Horse

To my Vietnamese-trained eye, the CNY decorations don’t look quite right. There’s no yellow mai flowers, no strange animals made out of fruit, no flashing neon lights.  I feel a little homesick… again. And in Singapore, paper pineapples are strung up everywhere. I don’t know the symbolism of the paper pineapple.

CNY Singapore

Perplexing pineapple decorations

In Vietnam in the leadup to Tet, crime rates jump. People are desperate to take money home to distribute to their relatives in lucky red envelopes. And everyone travels to their hometowns for Tet. The nation’s buses and trains are all put into service, yet barely cope with the huge movement of people. Of Vietnam’s 85 million people, many people have left the homes in the countryside to travel to the city to work. But a good job in the city may pay only $60 a month, so every single tattered note is precious to people who work hard six or seven days a week, often sleeping at their workplace in order to send a little bit more home to their families.

Before Tet, people take extra care to lock up their homes, to chain up their motorbikes, even those parked in their loungerooms.

To prepare for Tet, houses must be cleaned, painted or totally refurbished (depending on what you can afford). Then end of the old year means the end of that year’s bad luck, bad health, bad anything. The new year should begin clean and fresh, ready for prosperity, health and happiness.

Last year, Darling Man and I took our tiny baby to his parents’ house, about two hours from Ho Chi Minh City.

We visited a temple. We ate the special Tet food. We marvelled at the dragon dancers, local boys in dragon costumes, jumping and leaping and drumming in the loungeroom. Their performance culminated with a spectacular leap by the front-end boy so the dragon could “eat” the envelope of money stuck to the lintel.

And then we went back to Ho Chi Minh City to settle into our new house. Darling Man had never actually spent Tet in the city and so was surprised to find it was a ghost town. He ventured out for supplies, returning after an hour with a cardboard bucket of fried chicken from the Korean Lotte fast food chain, the only place he could find that was open. “It’s not traditional Tet food,” he said, with a completely straight face.

Tet decoration

A Vietnamese Tet decoration -- a dragon made from fruit

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10 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. Michael Figueiredo says:

    Congratulations on the new site! I really like the layout–it is very sleek and clean looking. 🙂

  2. The Dropout says:

    Thanks Michael, and welcome to the new site!

  3. inka says:

    Clutter free, easy to navigate, great new site. Chinese New Yera is so colorful and full of imagination. I wish I were there and could look at all the red and gold and dragons made from fruit. Particulalrly nice pictures.
    inka recently posted..Syros – a very different Greek island

  4. robin says:

    Great name, great look, great post. The detail that decorations in Singapore are jarring to you as a resident of Vietnam really brings home the “expatness” of your life.
    robin recently posted..Molly

    • The Dropout says:

      It does, doesn’t it? Singapore can seem so Westernized, so I’m really enjoying the wonderfully Asian decorations that are up at the moment. I do miss the mai flowers from Vietnam, though.

  5. Glen says:

    congrats on the new site! looks great; love the name.
    Glen recently posted..Hack Ayers- a Tennessee Original

  6. Laurel says:

    Your new site looks great! Loved the photos. I celebrated Chinese New Year in s. Korea one year and it is still one of my most memorable holidays I’ve ever celebrated!
    Laurel recently posted..Cultural Assimilation – Why I Refuse to Live on the Fringe

  7. jade says:

    Great new design- love the name!! Also- CNY is so fun, we can’t wait to celebrate it here in L.A…. I’m actually running the Firecracker 10K race to start off the celebrations!
    jade recently posted..A Monster Hunt- Finding Loch Ness

  8. Adam says:

    Love the new site, glad I was finally able to check it out!! Great post, and I have to say that your experience as an expat is really, really eye-opening to us, as relocating somewhere across the world is something we’ve always talked about, and you give a real, honest assessment of what that’s like, both good and bad. I really appreciate that.

    Congrats on the new site; it looks awesome!!

    • The Dropout says:

      Thanks Adam.
      I’m loving being an expat. About 99% of the downside of my expat life is related to the fact that I have to go to work! Hopefully this new site is one step towards a more mobile lifestyle.

  9. Kelly says:

    Cute! I love the new site. It’s very clean and easy to read and navigate. Congrats! I didn’t know that crime went up around Chinese New Year, but it makes sense.
    And I can totally relate to the travel crisis.. I traveled on Easter in Argentina — biggest mistake ever! Everyone was trying to get somewhere, the bus station was INSANE and the buses were delayed by hours. Crazy, crazy, crazy.
    Kelly recently posted..I’m SO EXCITED!

  10. Norbert says:

    My only CNY experience has been in NYC Chinatown. I’m sure is not as big and great as it must be there in China and other Asian countries but here it gets really really crazy and people love it! It’s so festive and colorful!
    Norbert recently posted..Perth- Australia – Quick City Guide

  11. I’m getting confused now between your CNY and Norbert’s NYC! 🙂
    Love the 12 animals photo. Some have definitely been partying too long. Have a great time during the celebrations.
    Love the new look site by the way.
    Turkey’s For Life recently posted..Mooching Around Fethiye – Kale Park

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