The Lunar New Year is almost here, and I’m getting that nostalgic ache for Singapore that creeps up on me from time to time. Missing it this time of year is a given; I’d have to be made of stone not to get caught up in the exhilaration that swept through the streets in the weeks leading up to New Year’s Day. The air fairly crackled with excitement, with a giddy sense of anticipation that reminded me of Christmas when I was little.
As expats, we lacked a cultural attachment to Lunar New Year and were content to observe from the sidelines. Sometimes we even took liberties with established customs. On New Year’s Eve, for instance, extended families get together for their Reunion Dinner. Taxis are scarce, and forget about getting a table in a Chinese restaurant. We held our reunion dinners at a pizza place within walking distance of our house. It may not have been terribly traditional, but the emphasis was on family. (And maybe a little Chianti.)
While we generally skirted the edges of the holiday, there were certain aspects we were happy to embrace wholeheartedly. In addition to our unconventional reunion dinner, we always decorated the house with trinkets celebrating whichever animal of the Chinese zodiac was being honoured that year. We devoured yummy pineapple cookies and tangerines, oohed and aahed over the Lion Dance and the Dragon Dance, sang the “Gong Xi Ni” song, cleaned the house, and watched in awe as fireworks exploded over the river.
The girls’ absolute favourite Chinese New Year tradition — by far — was the hong bao. The term means “red packets,” which pretty much sums it up: they’re red envelopes containing money, given to children and unmarried adults during the New Year season.
There are strict rules governing the contents of the hong bao. Ten dollar notes are fine (they’re red, which is a lucky colour), but $2 notes are the norm. (The Chinese are superstitious when it comes to numbers, preferring even numbers to odd, for example, and avoiding the number 4 because it sounds like the word for “death.” Many buildings don’t have a fourth floor for this very reason.)
I’ve heard that Singapore will never phase out the $2 notes because of the hong bao custom. Whether or not that’s true, they’re certainly in demand around the New Year. But not all $2 notes are created equal. Since crumpled and dirty is not in keeping with the holiday’s theme of new beginnings, only new, crisp bills will do. Which means if you’re planning a “quick” visit to the bank in the weeks leading up to the big day, think again: the lines of people intent on exchanging old bills for new spill out onto the street.
I wanted to participate in this awesome tradition, and took great care selecting a package of elegant and understated hong baos — no cartoon characters for me! My own kids wouldn’t care if I got the rules wrong; they were just interested in the cash. But giving hong baos outside my family unit proved to be a more delicate undertaking. I didn’t want to cause offence, and I was worried there might be unspoken rules I didn’t know about because they were, y’know, unspoken.
My wonderful Mandarin tutor, Lihong, had a baby boy, and I wanted to give little Jun Huai a hong bao for his first Chinese New Year. But I was afraid of getting it wrong, so I bought him some clothes instead. When I admitted this to Lihong, she laughed and told me I had to stop thinking like a Westerner — the Chinese are never offended when someone gives them money. She even gave me a hong bao with $10 in it, which made me extremely uncomfortable!
This year, Singapore will be overrun with Year of the Rabbit imagery. If you’d like to see some great photos of the nation celebrating its biggest holiday, check out the Tiny Island blog, written by a prolific Singaporean who does a fabulous job of capturing the essence of her country in pictures.
To my Singaporean and Chinese friends: Happy New Year! 新年快乐！