Background Information: Amanda is a Chinese Singaporean in her 2nd year of college, and she and her family grew up in Singapore. Her family celebrates Chinese New Year every year, which is a country-wide festival in Singapore, where Chinese people make up the majority of the population. Usually, it is a four-day holiday, and there are specific ways in which Chinese families celebrate it. I interviewed Amanda about how her family spends it.
Amanda: Chinese New Year is a holiday, I think it’s 12 days, where Chinese people celebrate the Lunar New Year. It’s in February every year, because the Chinese follow a different calendar than the Gregorian one, and I’m speaking from experience as a Chinese in Singapore, because Chinese people in China and in other places celebrate it very differently. We have a Chinatown that’s usually decorated in red lanterns, with these large banners we call couplets because they always come in a pair and they have some kind of prosperous saying on it that we read from right to left and it’s usually 8 words broken up into 2 phrases wishing people good fortune, luck, things like that. But because Singapore is predominantly Chinese, Chinese New Year almost always ends up being a national celebration, and we get a number of days off school and work.
Ankita: What does your family usually do to celebrate?
Amanda: Usually what my family does is visit friends and extended family, so on the first day my grandma always invites her family over, so that would be my grand-aunts and uncles, my parents’ cousins, things like that, and this is all on the paternal side of my family. She would cook a nice, big lunch for everyone with some traditional things like sharks’ fin soup, which I object to but my grandfather buys sharks’ fin every year anyway, or sometimes she substitutes it for fish maw, and also fried chicken wings which everyone likes, some broccoli mushroom with gravy type thing, and bamboo shoots because my dad likes those. And in the mornings, she’ll always cook these, they’re not noodles but they’re weird shapes made of flour, I can’t really describe them because she molds them by hand, but yeah so she’ll cook those in a thick white soup with a lot of cabbage and carrots, and it’s delicious. Then after that we go over to my aunt’s house on the maternal side of family, and then the next couple of days, usually it’s over the weekend, we go to my parents’ friends’ houses. Oh, also the biggest thing about Chinese New Year, and I think the most recognizable and widely celebrated thing is angpao, or hongbao (红包), which literally translated means red packet. Basically, the elders, typically those who are married and those who are working, give the younger ones, those in school, children, etc, red packets with money inside, and the money is always an even number. And in return, the young ones give the elders a pair of oranges, which is supposed to symbolize some kind of fortune, I think because of the Chinese name of oranges and how it sounds like gold – a lot of things that are considered prosperous by the Chinese is because they sound like prosperous things in the language, since there are so many words in the language that sound exactly like each other but are just written differently. I would still be considered a young person, so I do still get angpao every year and my parents keep it for me, just because I’m not out of college yet. I think it’s quite a formal thing too because my parents and grandparents will give me angpaos, and the people who are closest to you tend to give you more money, like I get $100 from each of them every year, which adds up to a lot of money. But I’ve seen my parents budget for angpaos before and it seems like a really stressful thing… like, people can give $100 or even hundreds of dollars…
Ankita: Are there like, typical decorations and stuff involved?
Amanda: When we were younger, the house would always be decorated for Chinese New Year, we’d have a lot more sweets out, I know friends who’ve gone to Chinatown to buy flowers and lanterns and things like that. And we used to also follow the pre-Chinese New Year rituals a lot more like spring cleaning, which was supposed to help usher in good fortune by purging all the things we don’t want. So it’d be a big family thing where we cleaned the house together and donated all the things we wanted to give away, and we’d always go shopping for new clothes, kind of keeping in line with the ushering in the new sort of mentality. During Chinese New Year, we’d always wear new clothes to these sorts of house parties, and we even used to buy new jewelry, like my grandma would give us these gold fish necklaces and my parents got us gold bracelets with our names engraved on them. But I think it was after the first recession in 2009 or something like that where my parents’ income decreased, because it was around that time that both my parents changed jobs that had substantially lower incomes, we started saving a lot more money, and that cut back our spending on Chinese New Year substantially. We’ve since kind of bounced back financially, but Chinese New Year has never been celebrated the same way, and I don’t think it’s just for us, but also it does feel like less and less people are committed to making it to the house parties even, because I don’t see the same people as often. I don’t know if these elaborate sort of social gatherings and rituals are things my generation and I would bother to keep up with, because I feel like it’d be too much of a hassle for me to, and it’s also difficult now because we’re all overseas so it’s not like we can really meet up with each other.
Thoughts: While Amanda’s experiences and memories of celebrating the festival are specific and individual to her, she describes the commonalities in how the general population does things. For example, the exchanging of hongbaos and oranges, and the family visits, seem to be common. I have encountered friends exchanging stories on these family gatherings, which generally happen once or twice a year on such a large scale. Some basic customs, stories, and rituals, therefore, seem to be in the collective consciousness of the community, and everyone knows to do it. It is also interesting to note her description of the slow shift in traditions, and in how many people (in her family at least) do not celebrate the festival as extravagantly anymore, or how she does not show up as often to gatherings. Perhaps because of the fluid nature of folk practices, it is often subject to change, and what is commonly practiced or accepted shifts with social or economic context, as Amanda has described.