Yet, a glance to my left made me stop. Here’s a photo opportunity, I said to myself, and the resulting picture is at left.
This was not the first time I have noticed it;. In fact, I wrote about it thirteen years ago in January 1999: Non-Chinese boys participating in the traditional lion dance. But this was the first time I had a camera with me.
In the earlier article, I wrote about Malay boys. They made up about half the members of the troupe going around marking the re-opening of shops and businesses after the new year. In this picture taken at the temple, one of them could possibly be Malay, the other looks Indian.
The cynical would say they’re doing it just to collect hongbaos (little red envelopes stuffed with money, traditionally given out at Chinese New Year), but I would say, why not? Does anyone think the Chinese boys (and a few girls) in the same troupes have a different reason for being there?
This is one instance when we can sing praises of money. The appeal of cash is non-discriminatory. If it promotes integration, go for it.
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There probably was a time when, for Chinese Singaporeans, the city would be quite dead during Chinese New Year. I am talking about 50 years ago. Then, the different races tended to live in distinct parts of the city. The Malays were concentrated in Geylang Serai and further east, Indians were concentrated in Lower Serangoon and the Naval Base, the Chinese in several parts. It was also a time when adherence to community traditions was strong. Celebrating Chinese New Year would have been a really big thing for the Chinese, not like today when a good number would take the opportunity to travel.
The result must have been one where just about all Chinese would stop work and attend to family and celebration, and since the parts of Singapore they lived in were predominantly Chinese areas, they would have found their surroundings shut tight.
It’s a different Singapore today. The Chinese do not predominate to the same extent. My back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate that they constitute about 60 percent of the total population, or about 3.1 or 3.2 million out of 5.2 million. (My same calculations indicate that Malays now make up around 9 to 10 percent, Indians around 12 to 13 percent, and others — Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Burmese, Australians, Americans, Japanese, Europeans, Koreans, etc — make up nearly 20 percent). With a larger percentage of non-Chinese, it has become easier for businesses to stay open through the holidays. Our growing ethnic diversity is giving our economy a resilience and flexibility we did not have in the past.
On the second day of the new year, for instance, when my friends and I wanted to have lunch somewhere, there was no difficulty finding a place that was open. We were attended to by a mix of Filipino and Indian staff. Not far away, a Vietnamese restaurant and a Thai place was open, staffed by Vietnamese and Thais respectively. That said, many shops that were open had Chinese staff too; once again the prospect of extra pay for working on a public holiday must have been attractive, just as it was for those in the lion dance troupes.
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A middle-aged Chinese woman rode the lift down with us. She must have come out of her own kitchen, dressed as she was in shorts and a half-faded, old Hello Kitty T-shirt. For footwear, she had merely slipped on her flat clogs. Yet, she had a handbag with her and was clutching several hongbaos in her hand. Surely, dressed as homely as that, she could not be going out to visit relatives — a custom at Chinese New Year? While, costume-wise, the Chinese don’t go overboard like the Malays do at Eid, there is still a minimum level of dressing that is expected, if only to show a bit of respect to the visited family.
What was she thinking? I wondered.
Coming out of the lift, she headed for the car park. But instead of getting into a car and driving off, she walked right across the car park it to a bin centre where two Bangladeshi workers were transferring trash from smaller bins into a larger skip car. Going up to the men, she gave each of them two hongbaos, at the same time smiling and saying some friendly words.
She put me to shame. I hadn’t done likewise to the workers around my block.