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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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10 years ago