Happy Chinese New Year to everyone celebrating! Today is the first day of Chinese New Year, and I’m out visiting relatives and gorging on CNY goodies, but here’s a look back at my first-ever visit to Chinatown in the weekend leading up to CNY.
If you remember about CNY traditions in Singapore, the week leading up to the festivities is when everyone is busy preparing – cleaning the house, buying new furniture, decorating… one common place where you can get everything you need is Chinatown in Singapore, and it’s no wonder then that the place is absolutely packed on the weekend before CNY, when I decided to see what the big deal was about. My family’s traditions were more about avoiding the crowds then squeezing with them!
Here’s what I came away with, and what I hope will prepare you appropriately for the experience! I mostly snapped pix with my iphone 5, but have also included with some nicer photos from other folk with better cameras to better showcase some of the festivities.
WALK DOWN THE STREETS AND CHECK OUT THE CHINATOWN LIGHT UP
Every year, the main roads and pedestrian areas in the Chinatown area are lit up in celebration of Chinese New Year. It usually starts 3-4 weeks before the actual Chinese New Year celebration.
The divider between the main thoroughfare of New Bridge Road and Eu Tong Sen Street is usually the most lavishly decorated. The decoration is usually based on the Chinese Zodiac calendar and other traditional CNY symbols of wealth and good fortune – this year in 2014 we welcome the year of the Horse, and thus we have a pretty grand looking stallion as the centerpiece, followed by a string of galloping horses and rows of Chinese coins behind it along the road.
The other road that’s lit up is the parallel South Bridge Road – while it doesn’t have the main centerpiece, it’s still quite a sight to see, and where you can find the main entrance to the Chinatown Street Market (which I’ll talk about below) at Pagoda Street, which is marked by a decorated archway and only in Singapore, right next to Sri Mariamman Hindu temple. Further down the road is the Buddha Tooth Relic temple, which is a pretty grand building on its own already, but at this time of the year it’s decked out with more decoration and just feels extra festive.
Driving down these roads is nice if you’re just looking to enjoy a quick look, though walking along it gives you more time to snap pictures and really enjoy the light up. I would avoid driving to the area so close to CNY if I wasn’t expecting to bring back anything heavy from the markets, because all the families are out in force to stock up, and traffic is pretty crazy – parking involves a lot of patience and queuing!. There are several convenient train stations – Chinatown Station on the North-East Line and Downtown Line.
NAVIGATE AND BARGAIN AT THE STREET MARKET STALLS
Several roads in this area have been converted into pedestrian streets lined with stalls, and while they are open most days of the year, the market is extra big and extra festive during CNY. You can go during the day as the stalls open around 1030am, but I prefer being there at night because it’s cooler and all lit up 🙂
I was there on the weekend before CNY, so everyone who’s rushing to get the bulk of their festive shopping done was out and about, and the lanes were packed in like sardines! The crowds are not so bad further out, but near the major junctions, the crowd swells and at times comes to a standstill. It’s loud and noisy with everyone shouting for your attention from the stalls that line both sides of the street, but you can bargain and possibly get a good deal out of it!
My advice for tackling the crowd: Wear extremely light clothing so you stay cool in the crowd, and comfortable shoes you don’t mind getting dirty – the lanes are covered in debris from the crowds and shops, strewn with stuff from jelly wrappers to peanut shells, it’s not pretty! Carry as little as possible so you can navigate the crowds, and keep an eye on your belongings because while it’s generally safe in Singapore, crowds like these sometimes attract petty thieves.
If you’re looking for CNY-related souvenirs, you could get yourself an intricate paper cutting – some are laser cut, while others are actually painstakingly hand-cut, and these are put up as decorations during CNY. There are the traditional spring greetings, or Chun Lian, which are usually put up next to doorways, which you can get written in traditional calligraphy style if you like. Or just pick up any of a zillion knick-knacks that you’ll find in the stores along Chinatown – there really is no lack of choice.
TRY ALL THE GOODIES AND FOOD
For the Chinese, this is the time of the year where they go all out where it comes to food. There are so many stores in Chinatown that it can be a bit overwhelming, but it’s also a great way for you to sample everything in one place! Note that most of the malls these days usually have some CNY fair of sorts in the lead up to the new year, so you don’t have to venture all the way to Chinatown if you just want to buy some snacks.
One of the most popular foods to eat during CNY is Bak Kwa, or barbequed pork, and you’ll know where the stores are in Chinatown just by the sheer snaking queues of hungry Singaporeans determined to get their Bak Kwa for CNY. Why exactly this is so is a bit mystifying because nowadays there are many stores islandwide and they actually open throughout the year. Still, look out for Lim Chee Guan and Bee Cheng Hiang which are the more popular ones, though if you’re not much of an aficionado I’d suggest just picking something with a shorter queue.
Also popular for CNY are tarts and pastries of all sorts, usually found in little plastic jars with red lids. There are so many kinds out there, but those I’d recommend if it’s your first time buying: Pineapple tarts (my absolute favourite, pastry with pineapple filling yummy), Cookies (almond, peanut, or cereal ones are quite popular), or get some melon seeds (Gua Zi) and peanuts which are quite popular too!
Do you celebrate Chinese New Year or have a Chinatown where you are? Share your experiences here!