Celebrating Chinese New Year

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Today is the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year. The celebrations heralding the arrival of a new lunar year are coming to an end; by tomorrow the festivities will be well and truly over. Every year the fifteen days admittedly can be tiring but they are also invigorating at the same time, and most significantly, they are a celebration of new hope for another year. At the end of each day, we look forward to another day with renewed hope. At the end of each year, we look forward to another year with weeks and months of renewed possibilities. Which is why I greet the Chinese New Year with zest and enthusiasm. Of course, living in a cosmopolitan city like Singapore, this feeling of renewed hope can apply to some other festivals, especially the start of a new calendar year on the first of January. Yet being Chinese, the Lunar New Year holds a special relevance. Each Chinese New Year I am also celebrating Chinese customs and traditions.

Friends who think I am Westernised are always surprised how seriously I observe the customs of the Chinese New Year. Each year some of them will invariably expressed how they are taken aback by the distance I go in everything from cleaning and decorating the house to buying flowers and new clothes. Close friends know I am quite traditionally Chinese. Yet sometimes I surprise even myself; the extent I invest both time and effort. With each passing year, I will somehow learn more Chinese New Year customs and will put them into practice. Over the years, the essentials for each Chinese New Year will include buying real firecrackers, not to light and fire, but to hang in front of the house. A new pair of shoes and slippers. New clothes, especially sleep wear and underpants. New brooms. Hainanese Chinese New Year food decorations on a plate. And then there are the Chinese New Year flowers. Bought at the right time so that they will bloom around the eve or the first day. Especially the Plum Blossom which is both auspicious and symbolic.

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I cannot remember at which point in my life when Chinese New Year became more than a passing festival. When I took it upon myself to celebrate the fifteen days with reverence and aplomb. When it became, for me, about celebrating being Chinese in a mixed society of different races and religions. I guess it is also an occasion to feel the pride of being Chinese, to feel the need to continue the rich and colourful heritage of the Chinese tribe. But ultimately, I think there is another reason. Among my friends, there are those Chinese who celebrate Christmas with more vigour. There are those Chinese who leave town to escape the rituals of this festival they find to be a huge chore. And those Chinese who lament how they cannot feel the Chinese New Year mood and proceed to reinforce this lack of festive mood by celebrating less. Like Malays, Indians and Westerners who celebrate their respective New Year festivals with appropriate good cheer, I wish to set a good example for Chinese. Ours is a rich tradition of fifteen days, each representing meaningful Chinese rites.

Two years ago, I produced a movie about Chinese going home for Chinese New Year, called ‘Homecoming’. It is a movie I am proud of. It is also the movie Jack Neo won an acting prize for. The need to leave your hometown to work then going home during Chinese New Year to reunite with your family is both a sad and happy phenomenon. It emphasises the importance of the family unit but also highlights a festival that marks the passing of time. This year, I have deliberately pulled all the stops. Even though I am now staying in an apartment, I bought a bigger Plum Blossom tree. I organised an open house on the third day and invited more guests than previous years. I revisited the distant petrol station I used to clean and vacuum my car many years ago. And this year, I decided to bring back another cheer. To have the lion dance right in my home. I was told it is a first time in our condominium. When the troupe came and the loud sound filled my apartment, I was brought back to my childhood, when as a small boy, I was both frightened and excited by the loud sound of the firecrackers at midnight. Smelling the burnt firecrackers, I remember telling myself, “So this is Chinese New Year!”

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‘As a small boy, walking through the pieces of the chilli-red crackers fired the night before, I smelled and even tasted the passing of time. There was a distinct feeling of the dawn of a new year and a feeling of fresh hope for the family. Since then, I have as an adult, been recreating this feeling every year with varying success. Gong Xi Fa Cai!’

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