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Chinese New Year Brings Out the Best of Old Singapore’s Ethnic Past

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There was noise enough to raise the dead, and in a way it was intended to. Cymbals crashed, drums pounded and metal pots and pans were clanged together as a troupe of dragon dancers drove evil spirits from The Oriental, a Singapore luxury hotel.

Not that the hotel had more evil spirits than anywhere else. The commotion was part of the 1990 Chinese New Year celebration. But Westerners passing through the lobby turned in astonishment as the chain of dancers snaked past, carrying a resplendent paper dragon with bulging green eyes and wide red jaws.

The tradition of driving away demons with noise goes back to the beginning of recorded history. And in any other place with a large Chinese population, the usual accompaniment to the cymbals and pans would be the setting off of little red firecrackers.

But “if they find someone setting off firecrackers” here, a cabdriver said, “that person gets three strokes with the cane from the authorities.”

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The old ways and the new converge in this newly spic-and-span city-state, where gleaming banks, office towers and modern hotels rise high above what’s left of its colorful old Chinese, Malay and Indian communities.

Like Singapore’s Arab Street and Little India neighborhoods, Chinatown was threatened with decimation for years as the 25-year-old nation struggled to raise the standard of housing, jobs and income for its 2.65 million people.

During our first visit in 1977, the wrecker’s ball had already begun whacking away at Chinatown’s “shophouses” (family-owned buildings with the shop on the street floor, living areas above), eventually knocking down what officials considered the worst of the slums in favor of high-rise housing.

Paternalistic former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was determined to modernize his republic. Each time we returned, there was yet another punishment for “antisocial behavior” such as littering, jaywalking, spitting or neglecting to flush a public toilet.

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The colorful “bumboats” peddling fish and fruit that used to crowd the Singapore River near Cavenagh Bridge were banished. The authorities shut down Bugis Street, where ladies of the evening (and those who only dressed like them) used to entertain with bawdy songs and dances while all-night food stands sold noodles, satay (skewered meats) and cold beer. Historic Raffles Hotel (now closed for renovations) had begun to look shabby and was rumored then to be on the hit list.

As more and more of exotic old Singapore disappeared, however, tourism began to fall off and the new deluxe hotels, springing up like mushrooms in the warm, giddy optimism, were less than half-full most nights.

So in 1987, Singapore announced a new conservation and restoration plan, and hired an American historical-preservation consultant.

By mid-1991, five new tourist-oriented attractions, and the restored Raffles Hotel, will be completed and opened in a sort of a Disney-cum-Colonial Williamsburg version of the raffish old port. Among the new attractions will be Tang Dynasty Village movie studio and theme park, Haw Par Villa theme park, the 125-year-old Empress Place Building (now an exhibition center) and Alkaff Mansion, a 1920s colonial residence serving afternoon tea, lunch and Dutch-Indonesian rijstaffel dinners. Even a sanitized version of Bugis street, now proudly described in tourist materials as “absolutely safe in terms of hygiene and personal security,” will be back.

Despite the modernization, , it’s still possible to find vestiges of old Singapore, especially around the New Year, which will fall on Feb. 15, 1991, the Year of the Ram.

On regular days, the well-dressed young white-collar workers may line up at the mall for a Big Mac or a Winchell’s doughnut, but when the new year comes, the old appetites return.

Street markets and shops are filled with the odd and fascinating foods of the holiday, which seems a mixture of Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are sugared slices of lotus root, paper-thin cookies called kuih-kuih or “love letters,” sticky rice sweets called nien gao, tiny pineapple tarts, squares of barbecued pork slices called rougan, melon seeds, pistachios (imported from California) and mashed sugar-dusted dates pounded into circles.

In place of turkey or roast beef, the Singaporean Chinese eat yue shang, thin slices of raw fish tossed in a salad with sweet and sour ginger strips, winter melon, lemon, and a dozen other ingredients. When the salad is mixed at the table, everyone present must say “ low hay " to bring abundance and good luck.

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Instead of pumpkin pie, there are round lotus cakes wrapped in lotus leaf, filled with white rice and covered with caramelized brown sugar. It is traditional to polish off every bite because whatever you eat this year will be returned to you, doubled, in the next.

Since cooking or handling knives during the holiday is thought to sever good luck, many foods are cooked in advance or can be eaten raw, and are sold in single-portion sizes. Food is also given as gifts.

The evening before New Year it is customary for all family members to gather under one roof for a reunion dinner, where the little red paper packets called hongbau, with money tucked inside, are given out as good luck charms by older family members to children and unmarried relatives.

The custom has recently come under fire in the letters column of the venerable Singapore Straits Times, because, according to the letter-writers, young, upwardly-mobile singles--an estimated 44,000 women and 60,000 men between 30 and 44--concentrate on job promotions and shopping for the latest fads and fashions, choosing to marry and have children late or not at all.

In turn, the young people resent it when relatives handing out the hongbau ask why they’re not married or why they have no children.

There is more than food for sale in the New Year street markets. Everywhere are pots of mandarin orange trees tied with red-and-gold ribbons. These are presented by children and young people to older relatives or exchanged by friends and neighbors. For the less prosperous, individual fruits are also sold.

Children kneel before their parents with two or four mandarin oranges (never one or three), wishing them happiness and prosperity. Guests are always handed oranges when leaving someone’s home.

Great bunches of long-stemmed pussy willows in big, painted bases, hung with dangling red hongbau and gilded ornaments, take the place of Christmas trees.

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In one area of the market one can glimpse old-fashioned “medicine men” carrying on their practices in open stalls. We saw a moth-eaten tiger head with one glass eye missing, its jaws open in a large, toothy grimace beside jars of twisted roots soaking in a murky liquid. One man filled vials with what looked like two colors of reddish sawdust, while another proffered jars of something with a pungent, liniment smell he promised was so strong it would take away pain by being dabbed on like perfume.

Stalls are heaped with clothing, shoes, belts and underwear, because it is customary to wear all new clothing from the skin out for the new year.


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