Category Archives: Chinese Culture

A Day in the Life: Chinese New Year 2014, Day 1

My blog was a mere baby during last year’s Lunar New Year festivities.  Still, I wrote a few in-depth posts about some of the traditions, the food, and the visiting that goes on during the holiday.  Read the first one at Chinese New Year, Days 1 and 2 (obviously titled before I realized the importance of using years – did I think my blog would only last one year?).  If you weren’t a regular reader then (I think there were only about two of you – Hi Mom & Dad!), I’d urge you to click back and read that one first.

I didn’t want to repeat all that info again this year – that would be boring for all of us – but I still want to give you a glimpse into what it’s like to celebrate the Lunar New Year in Singapore.  So this year, I decided to make a photo diary of our activities on the first day of the new year, thus combining two very popular post types: cultural posts and “Day in the Life of” posts.  This is guaranteed to be a winner – so read on!!

Before we get started, I should note: I have only celebrated three Lunar New Years in Singapore, but this one was quite similar to the last two (and, KMN assures me, is representative of *every* one).

6:30 AM: I wake up to an eerily quiet street.  All the shops, restaurants, and corner kopis (coffee shops) are closed.  There are few cars and zero pedestrians out and about.  This was just as I’d remembered from last year – almost spooky!  Singapore bustles through basically every other holiday (our first year here, I was shocked at how few establishments stopped/closed business for Christmas!) – but from the afternoon of the Lunar New Year’s Eve through the second day of the Lunar New Year, this bustling, commercial city slows, stops, and turns its attention to family.  Now, let’s turn our attention to the photos:

[For those of you reading on phones that don’t format captions, the relevant text for each photo is posted as a caption, and thus will appear under the photo.]

7AM: I sneak in an hour of work before the madness begins.  I start with a call to a client in the US, then do some scheduling and planning.

7AM: I sneak in an hour of work before the madness begins. I start with a call to a client in the US, then do some scheduling and planning.

8 AM: Stealing some 'alone time', sharing the trails at McRitchie with a surprising number of other runners/hikers.  7.5 miles of trails isn't a bad way to start a holiday!

8 AM: KMN and I steal some ‘alone time’, sharing the trails at McRitchie with a surprising number of other runners/hikers. 7.5 miles of trails isn’t a bad way to start a holiday!

10 AM (we were still running at 9 AM): Rehydrating, breakfast, quick social media check-in.

10 AM (we were still running at 9 AM): I rehydrate, grab a quick breakfast, and schedule a few social media posts.

11 AM: In the subway station, heading out to our first family visit.

11 AM: We head out for our first visit of the new year!  [It’s rather ridiculous how often my selfies are taken on subway escalators.  Because, you know, what ELSE would I do for those 15 seconds?]

12 PM: We are at the first (of 4) of KMN's great-aunt's houses.  Her children and grandchildren are also there.  We enjoy a traditional Peranakan dish of chicken and potatoes in a savory gravy.  This is officially lunch - but there is much more eating to be done, so we pace ourselves!  The table can't accomodate everyone at once, so we eat in shifts, and people filter in and out, as everyone has visiting to do today.  [If you're interested, you can read more about Peranakan culture in this post: I Married Into a Matriarchy.]

12 PM: We are at the first (of five) of KMN’s great-aunt’s houses. Some of her children and grandchildren are also there, and people flow in and out constantly. We don’t know them all, but greet them anyway, and wish everyone a Happy New Year. We enjoy a traditional Peranakan dish of chicken and potatoes in a savory gravy, served with spicy red peppers for zing and crusty bread for dipping in the gravy. This is officially lunch – but there is much more eating to be done today, so we pace ourselves!
[If you’re curious, you can read more about Peranakan culture in this post: I Married Into a Matriarchy.]

1 PM: Our second stop is literally next door to our first (another of KMN's great-aunts); but after some more snacks - this time, kuey pie tee - we pile into the car for Visit #3.  Normally, KMN and I travel easily by public transport. But on this particular day, we do save quite a lot of time and energy by hopping a ride with his parents.

1 PM: Our second visit is literally just next door (another of KMN’s great-aunts); and after some more Peranakan food and chit-chat, we pile into the car for Visit #3. Normally, KMN and I travel easily around Singapore by public transport. But on this particular day, we do save quite a lot of time and energy by hopping a ride with my in-laws.

2 PM: Pretty much all households in Singapore are no-shoes-indoors.  As you can see, there were lots of other visitors at our Visit #3 stop (yes, another great-aunt).

2 PM: Pretty much all households in Singapore are no-shoes-indoors. As you can see, we are not the only folks at Visit #3 (yes, another great-aunt).

3 PM: We make a quick stop at one of the Chinese temples, where the ashes of several of my Mum's (Mum = my mother-in-law) relatives are kept.  Cremation is common in Singapore, as land is very scarce - but relatives would never take a family member's ashes back to their own home (bad luck!).  Instead, ashes are usually kept in an urn at a temple, where relatives can visit and leave offerings.  Visiting deceased family members and leaving them some small offerings is very commonly done on the first two days of the new year, and the temple was, as usual, quite crowded.

3 PM: We make a quick stop at one of the Chinese temples, where the ashes of several of my Mum’s (Mum = my mother-in-law) relatives are kept. Cremation is common in Singapore, as land is very scarce – but relatives would never take a family member’s ashes back to their own home (bad luck!). Instead, ashes are usually kept in an urn at a temple, where relatives can visit and leave offerings – something that is often done during on the first two days of the new year. The temple is, as usual, quite crowded.

4 PM: At yet another great-aunt's house - this makes Visit #5 for the day.  If you can ignore the highway and cargo ships, she really does have a lovely ocean view out her front window!

4 PM: At yet another great-aunt’s house – this makes Visit #5 for the day. If you can ignore the highway and cargo ships, she really does have a lovely ocean view out her front window!

5 PM: Leaving Visit #6, laden with clothespins and clean, folded plastic bags - a very practice gift from one of KMN's uncles.  [Seriously - we need the plastic bags for garbage bags, as we use cloth bags for our groceries!]

5 PM: We leave Visit #6, laden with clothespins and clean, folded plastic bags – a very practical gift from one of KMN’s uncles. He ‘patrols’ his HDB (apartment) estate for orphaned clothespins that fall from the upper stories (people hang clothes out the windows), disbelieving that they don’t run downstairs to fetch a single fallen pin. [Truly, though, the gift is useful – Mum uses the pins, and we all need the plastic bags for garbage bags, because we use cloth bags for our groceries!]

6 PM: What would Chinese New Year be without a stop at McDonald's?  Kidding.  It was one of the very few places that was open, where we could sit and wait for the fifth great-aunt to return home.  [That's one problem with so much visiting by so many people - sometimes the person you want to visit is...still out visiting!]

6 PM: What would Chinese New Year be without a stop at McDonald’s? Kidding. It was one of the very few places that was open, where we could sit and wait for the fifth great-aunt to return home. [That’s one problem with so much visiting by so many people – sometimes the person you want to visit is…still out visiting!]

7 PM: Visit #7.  One of KMN's great-aunts keeps a gorgeous garden around her home - completely with lots of orchids.  Her property feels like an oasis in the middle of a bustling city.  Also, she gave me red worms for vermicomposting.  More on this in another post.  SOON.

7 PM: Visit #7. One of KMN’s great-aunts keeps a gorgeous garden around her home – completely with lots of orchids. Here, KMN and his Dad admire part of this oasis in the middle of a bustling city. Also, she gave me red worms for vermicomposting (!!!!). More on this in another post. SOON.

8 PM: Our eighth, and final, visit of the day - dinner with some of Pa's (my father-in-law) family.  Here we are in parking garage #Idon'tevenknow for the day. I am SO THANKFUL that Pa chauffeured us around all day!

8 PM: We head in to our eighth, and final, visit of the day – dinner with some of Pa’s (my father-in-law) family. Here we are in parking garage #Idon’tevenknow for the day. I am SO THANKFUL that Pa chauffeured us around!

9 PM: I conned a few family members into a group photo.  Cue mad group selfie skill on my part, and good-natured compliance on theirs.

9 PM: I conned a few family members into a group photo. Cue mad group selfie skill on my part, and good-natured compliance on theirs.

10 PM: Empty glasses, mostly-eaten dessert, and a dirty napkin...the night is drawing to a close, folks.

10 PM: Empty glasses, mostly-eaten dessert, and some Mandarin orange seeds – See? We don’t just gift them – we eat them, too!

11+ PM: KMN's parents drop us off at our place.  Exhausted, but happy, we head upstairs for showers, a nightcap, and bed!

11+ PM: KMN’s parents drop us off at our place. I feel so grateful for how easy it is to visit extended family, when everyone lives on the same small island. However, our introvert selves are utterly exhausted, so we head inside for showers, half a glass of wine, and BED.

The second day of the new year is also a popular day for visiting – but we only do a very small bit of visiting that day, so our Day #2 was considerably less hectic. But, that’s another story for another post.  For now, I hope you enjoyed traveling with us through our Day 1 visits!  Please do come back for Day 2. 🙂

Any questions?

Does this match or conflict with anything you’ve seen or read about Lunar New Year celebrations?

Is there anything here you’d like to read more about, that I can elaborate on in a future post?

Chinese New Year 2014, Day -1

Well folks, I’ve been a little MIA in the blog world lately (although slowly working my way through my back-logged Feedly, see constant updates on Twitter!).  I’ve been teaching a lot, developing some new RWH programming, and – of course – preparing for what is easily the most important and widely celebrated holiday in Singapore: Chinese New Year.

Today (Thursday, Jan. 30) is the eve of the New Year in the Lunar Calendar.  So, in addition to the usual weekly activities, the last few days have been filled with…

1. Washing ALL THE RED THINGS:

In Chinese culture, RED is associated with good fortune.  Good fortune is pursued vigorously during the New Year celebrations, as you'll see over the next few days.

In Chinese culture, RED is associated with good fortune. Good fortune is pursued vigorously during the New Year celebrations, as you’ll see over the next few days.

2. Filling ang bao packets:

'Ang bao' (literally, 'red packets') are filled with money and given to younger relatives, single relatives, retired relatives, and parents...or some combination of those folks, depending on exactly who you ask. Basically, Chinese New Year is an expensive time to be a young, married, working adult.

‘Ang bao’ (literally, ‘red packets’) are filled with money and given to younger relatives, single relatives, retired relatives, and parents…or some combination of those folks, depending on exactly who you ask. Basically, Chinese New Year is an expensive time to be a young, married, working adult.

3. Acquiring plenty of Mandarin Oranges:

Just a small part of our collection.  We spend the Lunar New Year season giving and accepting Mandarin Oranges - passing someone two Mandarins symbolizes wishing them prosperity and good fortune for the new year.

Just a small part of our collection. We spend the Lunar New Year season giving and accepting Mandarin Oranges – passing someone two Mandarins symbolizes wishing them prosperity and good fortune for the new year.

I don’t want to repeat things that I’ve already shared, so if you want to know a bit more about  other preparations (including the pre-new-year cleaning), check out my Chinese New Year Preparations! post from last year.

With all of that, and our last bits of work for the Year of the Snake, completed, KMN and I got cleaned up and headed over to his parents’ house:

CNYEve2014

Don’t ask me why he isn’t wearing red…

There, we met with some of his close family for Reunion Dinner.  We started off with the tradition Yusheng (my first of the Lunar New Year season!):

Yusheng is a special good-luck salad eaten during the Lunar New Year celebrations.

Yusheng is a special good-luck salad eaten during the Lunar New Year celebrations.

You can read all about the components and symbolism of Yusheng in my Chinese New Year Day -1 post from last year.

After Yusheng, we enjoyed a tasty dinner before heading back home.  And now, it’s time to get some sleep – Lunar New Year celebrations extend for about two weeks, but the first day is definitely the busiest.  We have lots of family to visit tomorrow!!  So for now, I’ll leave you all with a very hearty:

Gong Xi Fa Cai!!!

What’s on your schedule for today?
[This is such a festive, celebratory period that it’s hard for me to remember that it’s still business as usual for you folks in the West! So remind me!!!]

Any pressing questions about Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year, Days 8-15 and Cooking A Whole Fish

“The Jade Emperor is like the big poobah of Heaven.  The Kitchen God is like the snitch.”  -KMN

That pretty much sums it up, folks.  In traditional Chinese religions, the Jade Emperor is the ruler of Heaven, and the Kitchen God…well, the Kitchen God sits in the kitchen (surprise!) and watches over the daily activities of the family.  Each year, he reports to the Jade Emperor, who then decides whether the family should be rewarded or punished in the coming year.

The eighth day of the Chinese New Year is the eve of the Jade Emperor’s birthday.  At midnight  on this day (going into the ninth day), many people celebrate by burning incense and offerings to the Jade Emperor.  KMN and I live across the street from a large housing estate, and on this particular night, we saw at least 10 different groups of people in the small parking lot outside, lighting fires and burning incense and offerings.  Celebrations of the Jade Emperor’s birthday continue through the ninth and tenth days (details depend on heritage and religion), but in Singapore, they pass without much public recognition.

Apparently, on the thirteenth day of the new year, people eat vegetarian food, to cleanse their stomachs after nearly two weeks of eating and celebrating.  However, this isn’t a practice that I know from experience – it’s one that I read about during my CNY research, and I don’t think we actually ate vegetarian that day.  Ooops?

The holiday draws to a close with the celebration of Chap Goh Mei (literally, “the fifteen night”) on – you guessed it – the fifteenth day of Chinese New Year.  So maybe I lied when I said it was a two week holiday….it’s actually two weeks + 1 day.  Chap Goh Mei is also called a Lantern Festival (there is a different Lantern Festival in the fall), when people parade with lanterns, and hang them outside their homes to help guide wayward spirits home.

I'm married, though - so no phone number on this one...

I’m married, though – so no phone number on this one…

In some places -particularly Malaysia and Singapore, Chap Goh Mei is considered a kind of Chinese Valentine’s Day.  Apparently, long ago, this was the one time that young maidens were permitted to dress up and walk outside their homes (with chaperones).  Today, (supposedly) single women write their phone number on mandarin oranges, and throw them in a river or lake, while single men fish them out and eat them.  I don’t know what they do with the number.  I haven’t actually seen this happen in Singapore – and I somehow think that people would get arrested for littering, if they were caught throwing oranges into the Singapore River – but heck, Singaporeans, correct me if I’m wrong!

Sometimes, one branch of KMN’s family celebrates Chap Goh Mei with a big family dinner, but that didn’t happen this year.  Instead, KMN and I participated in URun 2013 in the early morning, did church/errands in the late morning, then relaxed and worked in the afternoon.   Then, KMN prepared us a two-person Chap Goh Mei dinner (not really, it was just regular dinner).

The smallest pomfret we could find.

The smallest pomfret we could find. You wouldn’t even know this guy is missing his innards (but he is). Just remember that the fish on display at the Fairprice fish counter aren’t gutted – but ask, and they’ll do it for you.

For weeks now, KMN has been talking about cooking a fish.  Like, not a pretty little fillet, but a genuine whole fish.  Now, I have no problem eating a whole steamed fish – this is a common preparation/serving style here.  I’ll discuss how to tackle that in another post one day.  But I’ll admit that I was feeling a bit leery of actually cooking a whole fish.  Growing up, my Mom cooked fillets.  But KMN’s Mom cooked a whole fish.  So I let him take charge – with a little help from Irene Kuo’s The Key to Chinese Cooking (which I’ve written about before, here).

In a pan large enough to fit the fish – good thing we got a small fish (Note to self: Buy bigger pan!) – he brought some water to a boil, and added fresh ginger and a chopped onion.  Once the water reached a solid boil, he slid the fish in:

The pan and pomfret are the same color, so not too much interesting to see, except the pomfret fit popped up as soon as it hit the water.  Do you see it?!?  The biologist was intrigued by this phenomenon.  More research will be required!

The pan and pomfret are the same color, so there’s not too much interesting to see, except the way that the pomfret’s fin popped up as soon as it hit the water. Do you see it?!? The biologist was intrigued by this phenomenon. More research will be required!

He immediately turned the flame as low as it would go and covered the pan.  We let the fish cook for about 15-20 minutes (Kuo suggests cooking until a knife “goes in easily and no pinkish liquid seeps out”), then slid it onto a serving plate.  KMN served the fish with rice and blanched greens, and a selection of dipping sauces: soy sauce, chili sauce, and vinegar.

The fish came out really, really well – very soft and tender.  Pomfret isn’t a very fishy-tasting fish, and admittedly – most of the flavoring came from the sauces.  But this was an incredibly simple and nutritious way to prepare fish – I’m glad KMN headed the effort to try it.  I’ll definitely be preparing fish for us this way again soon!

And that, my friends, is the end of the Chinese New Year series of posts.  If you missed the earlier ones, click to read about Chinese New Year PreparationsReunion Dinner, Visiting Days 1 and 2, Chinese New Year Treats, and Chinese New Year Days 3-7.  And with that, we’ll return to non-CNY posting.  But don’t worry, I have plenty to share.  [I know you were really nervous about that, right?]

Have you ever thrown a mandarin orange into a body of water on Chap Goh Mei?

Have you ever cooked a whole fish?  How?

Chinese New Year, Days 3-7 and Birthday Festivities at The Dunearn

Well, it’s February 27, and the two-week Chinese New Year holiday is official over.  All the shops are open, and the bright red decorations are coming down. However, we’re only on Day 3 of the holiday, in blog-time.  Never fear, though – the first 2 days are when the majority of celebrations occur, and I’ve already talked about them, and our family traditions, here and here.  Days 3-15 will go much faster, and in fact, most of this post is really about a delicious meal we had at The Dunearn (scroll down if you want to skip the CNY parts).

In Singapore, the first two days of the new year are public holidays, and usually, most people go back to work on the third.  However, since the first day was a Sunday this year, the two-day work holiday was Monday and Tuesday (actually the second and third days of the New Year).  However, the third day is traditionally a “bad luck day”, so no one visits.  We laid low and recovered from a busy few days.

The fifth day is the God of Wealth’s Birthday, and in China, it is common to shoot off firecrackers on this day.  This is supposed get the attention of the God of Wealth, so he will bring you (oh yes) goof fortune and prosperity for the new year.  Firecrackers are pretty much illegal in Singapore, so that day passed quietly here.

The seventh day of the new year is when everyone grows a year older – in other words, it’s Everyone’s Birthday!  Coincidentally, this year, this day also happened to fall on KMN’s sister’s Gregorian (western) calendar birthday this year.  So we speculate that she may have turned two years older this year – like the opposite of being born on a leap year or something – but she doesn’t look it a bit!

Either way, it was a day to celebrate, and we planned to do so at The Dunearn (at the Guild House) on the NUS campus in Bukit Timah.  And thus began the greatest navigational failure of our time in Singapore, to date.  For the first time since moving here, Google Maps completely failed us.  Like, totally, 100%, at least a mile off FAILED us.  [Note to Locals: Do not trust Google Maps in the Cluny Road area!!]  We looked up directions before leaving the apartment, and KMN was surprised by where Google Maps directed us – but we took its word, hopped on the Circle Line to Botanic Gardens, and settled in for a 20 minute walk across the park.  Thirty minutes later, we were hot, sticky, standing exactly where Google pinned the address of the Guild House, and looking at trees.  We walked ahead, and back – no dice.

Finally, we admitted defeat and called KMN’s Dad – and realized that KMN’s initial inclination had been correct, and we were not where we needed tobe.  We tried to hail a cab, but there was not an empty one to be found in that quiet area, so we ended up walking all the way back to campus.  Needless to say, we’d worked up quite an appetite by the time we arrived!  We started the meal with a special Snake Year yusheng (previous post describing yusheng is here):

Fancy Year of the Snake Yusheng!

Very fancy Year of the Snake Yusheng!

Of course, this guy wasn’t very long for this world.  First, we tossed. Then, we ate.  I found a long and super curly piece of carrot, and made KMN take a picture:

3 Super curly carrot

Looks like I’m going to live a long (and twisty?) life!

We all opted for the Choose-Your-Own-Set menu (from anything on the regular menu!).  I was ravenous, and enjoyed the following:

Do you want to know what happened when I opened up that lava cake?  Of course you do:

Tastiest lava EVER.

That’s some pretty tasty lava!

Perhaps it was all the walking we did before dinnre, or the running from that morning, or the double birthday celebration – but I thought this was some of the best Western food we’ve eaten in Singapore, and at a pretty fair price ($49 SGD for the three-course set plus coffee/tea).  The soup had a good mushroom flavor, and was thick and creamy – and not too salty.  The ravioli were tasty, the curry sauce was flavorful but not too rich, and the scallops on top were tender and delicious (and I don’t always love scallops).  And the lava cake…  Well, do you even have to ask??

We sang, celebrated, and had a great time with family.  THIS is (one of several reasons) why we’re back in Singapore, folks.

Thanks for sharing your birthday with us, SL!

I love both of ’em! I’m quite a lucky wife & sister-in-law.

If you could put any filling into a chocolate lava cake, what would it be?
[The white, slightly fruity stuff in mine was good…but I might have preferred straight-up hot fudge, or maybe something peanut buttery instead…]

Google Maps led you astray lately?

Let’s Talk About Food: Chinese New Year Goodies!

Finally: It’s time to talk about Chinese New Year treats!

Previously, I described a bit about our schedule and habits for Chinese New Year visiting, which inevitably includes the consumption of plenty of Chinese New Year goodies.  These treats start popping up everywhere: in supermarkets, in retail stores, and at kiosks in malls and hawker centers, just after Christmas.  Although there are only 10-15 different kinds of treats, there are many different producers/bakeries, and everyone has a favorite brand of their favorite treat.

On the second day of the new year, we did some familial visiting in the morning, then invited some of KMN’s non-Chinese co-workers over for a little party/pseudo-CNY-visit.  Many of them ended up being called in to work – but we enjoyed a small gathering anyway, and had fun sharing these treats, talking about CNY culture/traditions (and plenty of other things), and relaxing.  So, what kind of treats did we have? Let’s start with the savories:

This is bakkwa - a salty, sweet preserved meat (usually pork, but can be made with other meat).  The meat is seasoned, then dried on big racks at 50-60 C.  It is sold in sheets (~6" square).  We cut these pieces a bit smaller.

This is bakkwa – a salty, sweet preserved meat (usually pork, but can be made with other meat). The meat is seasoned, then dried on big racks at 50-60 C. It is sold in sheets (~6″ square). We cut these pieces a bit smaller.

See, I TOLD you that bakkwa was made out of all sorts of meat...  (Beef and mutton are more popular alternatives than Crocodile, though!)

See, I TOLD you that bakkwa was made out of all sorts of meat… (Beef and mutton are more popular alternatives than Crocodile, though!)

Honestly, the Crocodile tasted mostly…like bakkwa.  To me, the meat doesn’t matter much – it all pretty much tastes like the salty/sweet seasoning, and a little bit chewy.

Prawn rolls!  These actually look like miniature egg rolls (~1.5" long), and are filled with dried shrimp product, and probably lots of preservatives.

Prawn rolls! These actually look like miniature egg rolls (~1.5″ long), and are filled with dried shrimp, chili, and spices.

In my opinion, these are the most popular salty snacks.  Shrimp crackers are also popular – think of the big, flat white/yellow-ish crackers you sometimes get at a Chinese restaurant.  The ones that, if you stick your tongue out, and press the cracker to your tongue, it will stick.  [Nah, I never did this.  Especially not in a random Chinese restaurant in the Spanish seaside town of Cádiz, in January, with a few other Drewid ladies…]  *ahem*

Anyway…on to the sweets!

Love Letters are very thin, crispy treats that are imprinted with a design before being rolled.  They are crispy, light, and hard not to like!

Love Letters are very thin, crispy treats that are imprinted with a design before being rolled. They are crispy, light, and hard not to like!

The trickiest thing with Love Letters?  Keeping the, crispy, once the container is first opened.  This is the standard package size for Love Letters...

The trickiest thing with Love Letters? Keeping them crispy in a humid climate, once the container is first opened. This is the standard package size for Love Letters…

Small cookies made of tapioca flour mixed with coconut milk.  They are sweet, and have a crumbly/powdery texture that's unlike anything else I've ever eaten.

Small cookies made of tapioca flour mixed with coconut milk. They are sweet, and have a crumbly/powdery texture that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever eaten.

And last, but not least…

Pineapple tarts!  These are my favorite Chinese New Year treats - sweetened, partially dehydrated pineapple mixture is set atop (or within) a crumbly, slightly-salty, flaky pastry.

Pineapple tarts! These are my favorite Chinese New Year treats – sweetened, partially dehydrated pineapple mixture is set atop (or within) a crumbly, slightly-salty, flaky pastry.

And there you have it, folks!  This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but some of the most popular treats, and the ones that we had (and served) over this Chinese New Year.

8 Pineapple Tart Box

Which one would you like me to send you to try?  🙂

-or, if you’re in Singapore –

What’s your favorite CNY treat?  Did I leave out anything important??

 

Chinese New Year, Days 1 and 2

Ang bao packets.  Read on!

Ang bao packets. Read on!

So we should probably get back to Chinese New Year, before the whole holiday is completely over, huh?  My last CNY post left us at “Day -1”, on the Eve of the New Year.  Let’s go back there for just a moment…

At the risk of overlooking the hard work of some prominent Chinese entertainer/personality, I’ll venture to say that there is no Chinese New Year equivalent of Dick Clark’s (now, Ryan Seacrest’s) New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.  Readers from outside the US, here is how to imagine New Year’s Rockin’ Eve:  Think of the “happening-est” city in your country (New York City!), and pick the biggest, craziest, most iconic street corner in that city (Times Square!).  Now close it off to traffic, pack in as many people as possible, and have a huge party hosted by an entertainment legend.

Anyway, there’s no such pomp on Chinese New Year’s Eve, as far as I can tell.  I believe there was a fireworks display and celebration along the river/shore, but in our neighborhood, I heard no crowds, rowdiness, or excess noise.  Granted, we live in a pretty residential area – no one is bar-hopping down our street – but still, although everyone’s windows are open, I heard no cheering, no drunken party-goers, and none of those pesky noise makers.  I’d guess that, in all likelihood, everyone was resting up for the first day of the New Year.

The first day of the New Year holiday dawned quietly. Very, very quietly.  Like, more quietly than I’ve ever heard (not heard?) Singapore.  I walked out of our bedroom and into the common area of our apartment (which faces the road and a hawker center), and I was struck by…the silence.  Even at 8 AM, there were virtually no cars on the road, no people walking about (yet), and no shops or stores open.

Singapore closes for Chinese New Year the same way that a city in the US might close up for Thanksgiving, or perhaps Christmas Day.  I’ve spent two Chinese New Years in Singapore so far, and both times, I found the quiet…disconcerting. While the restaurants and shops stayed closed for the next two days, soon the streets became busy with people out visiting.  Chinese New Year is the time to visit with family and friends.  The majority of this visiting, especially in Singapore, occurs on the first two days.

Don't forget to wear your red!  The color red  is a "good luck" color in Chinese culture, and is thought to scare off evil spirits and bad fortune.        Even better if the clothes are new: New clothes for a new year!

Don’t forget to wear your red! The color red is a “good luck” color in Chinese culture, and is thought to scare off evil spirits and bad fortune. Even better if the clothes are new: New clothes for a new year!

Chinese culture places a high value on respect and deference to elders – so typically, you’ll find the younger generations/siblings visiting the older.  For example, my generation visits the grand-generation, our parents’ generation (aunts/uncles), and any of our older siblings. KMN and I do our visiting with his parents.  Both of them are the youngest sibling in their respective families, so they, too, must visit all of their siblings (KMN’s aunts and uncles).

The coordination of all this visiting seems overwhelming to me – with so many people to be visited, who also must go visiting – I have no idea how we manage to find everyone at home.  But there is an elaborate choreography within the family, honed over many Chinese New Years, so by tagging along with his parents, we manage to see just about everyone.  Tremendous kudos to KMN’s Mom for helping orchestrate this whole endeavor.

On the first day, we start the visiting with KMN’s Mom’s side of the family.  This is how a typical CNY visit goes:

  1. Someone roots through his/her phone, address book, or little scrap of paper to find the correct address (we only visit some of these people once a year).  Meanwhile, we have a brief debate over the correct Block number (apartments in Singapore are often grouped with 3-5 identical looking buildings in one complex).
  2. Find parking.  Especially parking that is legal on a Public Holiday.
  3. Discuss which elevator is the best one to take (each building is quite large, and often has several elevators).
  4. Find apartment.
  5. Remove shoes at the door.  [Woe is you if you fail to wear slip-on shoes on this particular day.]
  6. Enter.  Everyone who’s there already – including the inhabitants and anyone else who’s visiting at that particular moment, stands and comes to the door.  Hug, kiss, wish Happy New Year to everyone.  Get eyed curiously by strangers (if you’re the only Caucasian in attendance).
  7. Present 2 mandarin oranges to the oldest member of the household.  [You remembered your oranges, right?  Don’t ever forget those!]

    Mandarin Oranges 2

    The Mandarin word for “orange” sounds like the word for “prosperity”, so – here we go with language play again – giving oranges symbolizes giving prosperity for the New Year.

  8. Find a seat.  Make small talk and visit for 10-30 minutes.  Aunties quiz youngsters on school, grades, university plans, job prospects, girl/boy friends, marriage, and babies – depending on life stage.  [We get the babies one – but this year, no one patted down my abdomen. I’m calling that a WIN.]
  9. Accept some food – perhaps a small serving of an actual meal, or just a few Chinese New Year treats (more on these in another post).  Have a juice box of Chrysanthemum tea, whether you want it or not.
  10. A few more minutes of chit chat.
  11. Distribute ang baos.

    "Ang bao" literally means "red envelope".  These are cash gifts given by married, working people to younger, unmarried friends/family members (mostly kids).  And older, retired relatives.  And your friend's kids.  And the Security Guards in your building.  Chinese New Year is an expensive time for married, working people...

    “Ang bao” literally means “red envelope”. These are cash gifts given by married, working people to younger, unmarried friends/family members (mostly kids). And to their parents. And to older, retired relatives. And to the Security Guards in their building. Basically, we walk around for 2 weeks with a few envelopes with different denominations, just in case. Chinese New Year is an expensive time for married, working people…

  12. Announce, “Well, we’d better make a move!” [This Singaporean phrase cracks me up every time I hear it…]
  13. Everyone stands, and there’s more kissing, hugging, and Happy New Year-ing.  The host returns two oranges to you (not necessarily the same two that you brought).

    I secretly really want to add GPS trackers to some of the mandarin oranges sold during the Chinese New Year period, just to see how many moves each makes during the holiday period.

    I secretly really want to add GPS trackers to some of the mandarin oranges sold during the Chinese New Year period, just to see how far they travel during the holiday season.

  14. Scramble into shoes.
  15. Return to car.
  16. Repeat.

On the first day of the New Year, we made seven stops, plus one at the Chinese Temple, where the urns and ashes of some family members are held.  The temple is quite busy on these first two days, as families stop to pay their respects to deceased loved ones.

We ended the day at a party with many of KMN’s Dad’s relatives.  From an efficiency standpoint, this party is a great way to visit lots of people in one swoop.  Plus, they’re fun people, and I always enjoy hanging with them for an evening.  Finally, at midnight (13-14 hours after we started), we made a move (tee-hee-hee!) and headed home.

The second day of visiting is quite a bit lighter for us – being a bi-cultural couple means that we only have one set of Chinese family to visit.  In the morning, we visited a few more of KMN’s Dad’s family (who were also all gathered together – their side gets bonus points for efficiency!), then headed home for a quiet afternoon.

As someone pretty new to this whole thing, I happen to love the visiting period of Chinese New Year.  Even in this small country, people tend not to see extended families outside weddings, funerals – and Chinese New Year.  The addition of this holiday, to me, tips the balance toward more celebratory gatherings than somber ones. And I can’t help but adore a holiday that promotes visiting family, and eating lots of food.

However, some young Singaporeans aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the celebrations, and a few even make plans to be out of the country during this time.  Indeed, it is a busy time – and one that includes probing, personal questions from the Aunties, often exacerbated by the changing traditions, values, and ideas of generations. After 25 or 30 years, I guess I can understand why some youngsters might want a break. 🙂  Personally, we luck out in this regard, as KMN’s family tends to be pretty progressive, accepting, and dynamic.  I would’ve married him no matter what, but I really did win the awesome family lottery (plus, they’re a matriarchy – read this post)!

Now, I know a few of you are waiting for the post on Chinese New Year Treats.  But this post is already long enough, so that will have to wait for another day.  I also promise a higher photo-to-text ratio.  So stay tuned. 🙂

Honestly now (non-Singaporeans): If you were at a family gathering, and your mother-in-law stood up and announced, “Well we’d better make a move!”, wouldn’t you giggle?

Gadget Drama Continues, and Doing Yoga Without The Zen

So….President’s Day, huh?  Not exactly a celebrated holiday out here.

I briefly thought about using the holiday as an excuse to provide some background on Singapore’s government and politics – but honestly, that’s a rather weighty, controversial topic.  Furthermore, if I’m not careful, I could get myself in trouble discussing it.  So we’ll come back to it eventually (perhaps on another patriotic holiday), but for now, we’ll confine our holiday discussions to Chinese New Year celebrations.  Although, in the interest of not falling any further behind, I’m actually going to start with a recap of yesterday (which still involves some Chinese New Year, I promise!)

The excitement began even before lunch on Monday, I got to witness a Lion Dance happening across the street!  Lion Dances are a phenomenon specific to the Chinese New Year period.  During this time, troupes of dancers and drummers travel around the island in decorated lorries, to homes or business where they’ve been booked to perform.

Lion Dance troupe sighting!

Lion Dance troupe sighting!

Yesterday morning, one of the stores across from our apartment had a Lion Dance visit.  Basically, the dancers don a large lion costume and perform traditional Chinese dances, while other troupe members keep the beat with drums and cymbals.  The Lion Dance is thought to bring – yep, you guessed it – good luck and fortune for the coming year!

Zooming in across the street.  Those dressed in red are the drummers, and you can spy glimpses of the golden yellow dragon costume under the awning.  I'm determined to secure a better lion dance picture before the end of the season!

Zooming in across the street. Those dressed in purple are the drummers, and the golden yellow squiggles under the awning are part of the dragon costume. This photo isn’t awesome, but never fear – I’m determined to secure a better Lion Dance picture before the end of the week!

Dancers are thanked with a traditional “red packet” (red envelope with money), then they return to their lorry and move on to the next dance site.  Even while driving, the troupe’s percussionists often continue drumming, so Lion Dance songs are heard everywhere during the Chinese New Year period.

Perhaps I should have had them perform a dance for me – or more specifically, my electronic devices.  This week brings a continuation of my bad skill/luck with phones…my new iPhone (see that story here) has been wonky for about a week now (which is approximately 5 days less than I’ve owned it), and has been temporarily banished to a container of rice (in case it’s a moisture problem, although that’s debatable).  I’m using one of KMN’s old phones – which is a blessing to have, but I don’t get along with it very well.  I thought we were reaching a detente, then yesterday it refused to charge in its normal spot.  Almost simultaneously, the iPad developed the exact same problem at another charging station/outlet.  I was minutes from leaving the apartment when I realized that neither device had any appreciable charge, despite having been plugged in for hours.

To say I was displeased would be an understatement. I love technology, but only when it’s working properly. Not fair, but true.  So I wiggled cords, switched outlets on/off, unplugged/replugged, whined to KMN over gchat, and finally – in an act of desperation, switched the USB-to-outlet adapters for the two pieces of equipment.  Lo and behold, “do DOOO!”: both began charging.  I don’t even know.  Don’t even ask.  I think we might have device charging Gremlins around here.  Either that, or these two are causing mischief….

Meet Rhino and Ellie.  [Creativity in naming isn't our strong suit.  Any potential future children we have my very well be called "Child #1" and "Child #2".]

Meet Rhino and Ellie. [Creativity in naming isn’t our strong suit. Any potential future children we have my very well be called “Child #1” and “Child #2”.]

In the evening, I headed over to the Fusionopolis gym for BodyPump class.  My first introduction to BodyPump occurred when we joined the gym here – and I have to say, I’m already a BodyPump convert!  The class is a weight-training and light cardio workout.  Using a bar with adjustable weights, we work each of the major muscle groups (quads/glutes, chest, back, triceps, biceps, shoulders, all other leg muscles, and abs) for the length of one song.  The instructor leads “lifting choreography” – basically, a few different exercises done at different speeds – for each muscle group.  Don’t let my use of the word “choreography” deter you – the moves are very easy, and the instructor is always lifting too – so following along is simple.

The workout is comprehensive, varied, and fun – at least for me!  Plus, the emphasis is on the upper body, and I can easily use less weight during the two leg tracks, to keep my legs fresh for a run or spin workout, if necessary.  I try to Pump twice a week, and I’m definitely all-around stronger than I’ve ever been.  I’m likin’ the definition in my arms, too. 😉

One final word – if you’re new to BodyPump, you must give yourself a few classes to figure out the right weights for you. This is very individual, and although the instructor provides some guidance, everyone is different.  In the beginning, err on the side of “too light”, then go up a bit in your next class, if necessary.  You’ll get the hang of it soon enough!

I stayed on at the gym for a Yin Yoga class with my favorite yin instructor.  Last night’s class was a bit unusual, as we focused a lot on the hamstrings and back, rather than hips.  These are areas where I’m generally more flexible, so I was able to move through the poses a bit more comfortably than in the hip-focused yin classes.  Yesterday I was thankful for this, because although my body responded well to the movements, I was so far away from “quieting my mind” that I couldn’t even keep my eyes closed.

My brain was just running too fast to get quiet (and BodyPump might be a bit too stimulating for a pre-yin class!), and try as I might, it would. not. shut. up.  But I breathed, tried to relax, moved through the poses with good physical success, and left a little bit calmer than I went in – although I was still about a thousand miles from ‘zen’.  But sometimes, that’s how life (or a workout) is – every day is different, and I left the best I had last night on the mat.  That’s the most I can ask of myself.

I headed home for a late dinner with KMN – I’d set the breadmaker up before going to the gym, so we had fresh French bread, pasta with thawed sauce (I make it in large batches and freeze), and a salad:

A little light on the protein tonight.  That's what the cheese was for, of course!

A little light on the protein tonight. That’s what the cheese was for, of course!

This morning (Tuesday), I’m on a writing binge.  And, because the little things matter, I’m wearing these:

 

A much-loved pair of pants were "ruined" by bleach splashes at the cuffs, until Mom turned them into capris. Yay Mom!!!!
A much-loved pair of pants were “ruined” by bleach splashes at the cuffs (yay biochemistry!!!), until Mom turned them into capris. Mom ROCKS! 

Happy Tuesday, everybody!!
Any other BodyPumpers out there?  Which muscle group set is hardest for you?
[Triceps!!!!!]

Ever modify (or…err…have your mother modify) a favorite piece of clothing so you could extend its wearable life??

Chinese New Year, Day -1

Gong Xi Fa Cai!!!

[Pronounced approximately*: gong see fah tseye]
[Disclaimer: Phonics was my very worst subject in school, folks.]

As promised, it’s time for some Chinese New Year posts! Chinese New Year started on Sunday, Feb. 10, but let’s start by going back to Saturday, Feb. 9, to talk about Reunion Dinner.

Reunion Dinner is the traditional New Year’s Eve dinner, when close family gather to celebrate the start of the holiday season, before all the visiting begins in earnest.  Obviously, Singapore locals don’t have very far to travel on such a tiny island – but Chinese/Taiwanese/Singaporeans living overseas may make an effort to return home to visit their family for the holiday.  [Unfortunately, the timing of Chinese New Year in relation to the Christmas holidays and start of school semesters often makes this impossible.  Blog readers outside of Asia, be sure to wish your celebrating friends/co-workers a Happy New Year, and be extra nice to them, as they’re probably homesick.]

Although all of KMN’s immediate family lives in Singapore, we still gather for Reunion Dinner – or, in our case, Reunion Lunch.  So after our run on Saturday morning, we got cleaned up and headed over for lunch with his parents, sister, and Mom’s siblings.

My mother-in-law spent the previous week preparing the feast we enjoyed, which included macaroni soup (American chicken noodle soup), satay (skewered, grilled meat), and popiah.  Popiah is a local signature dish that requires lots of love (and time!) to prepare, and can be best described as a Singaporean burrito.  I actually wrote a whole post about popiah last year, for our travel blog, so I suggest you pop over here to ready about all the delicious details.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait.  🙂

The last dish that we enjoyed is called Yusheng (pronounce this one just like it looks), also called Lo Hei (pronouced low hay).  This is also a local (Singaporean/Malaysian) dish that is very specific to Chinese New Year celebrations.  Yusheng is basically a salad made of shredded carrot and jicama with lots of toppings.  The vegetables are shredded on the long axis, because there is a Chinese belief that eating such long things will bring you long life (for the same reason, they eat noodles on birthdays).

The salad is topped with candied orange peel, pickled ginger, cilantro, sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, honey, sesame oil, vinegar, raw fish, and little crispy fried crackers (and probably a few more things that I missed).    Each ingredient is symbolic.

Traditional Yusheng, before mixing.

Traditional Yusheng, before mixing.

The Chinese language is full of homophones, and the word play that results from so many similar-sounding words is an integral part of Chinese culture.  This is probably best explained with an example: The word “yusheng” actually means raw fish – but sounds very similar to the Mandarin word for “abundance”.  Thus, Yusheng is prepared and eaten at gatherings over the Chinese New Year period, to help ensure a year of good fortune and abundance for all.

The other ingredients are symbolic in the same way.  Part of the word “carrot” sounds like the phrase “good luck” in Mandarin.  Similarly, the jicama is to bring prosperity and promotion in business, the oil is to encourage money to flow in all directions, and the peanuts represent a house full of gold and silver.  Yes, indeed – there is a slight fixation on wishes for material wealth around the New Year.  When all of the ingredients have been added, it’s time to mix.  Everyone gets a set of chopsticks, and off we go:

Everyone participates by tossing or lifting the ingredients high in the air while saying wishes for good fortune and prosperity in the new year.  Allegedly, the higher you toss, the more good will come your way!

Everyone participates by tossing or lifting the ingredients high in the air while saying wishes for good fortune and prosperity in the new year. Allegedly, the higher you toss, the more good will come your way!

Finally, the Yusheng is portioned out – and everyone must eat until it’s gone, or risk having bad luck in the new year.  This was our first ‘Lo Hei’ of the Year of the Snake – but it certainly won’t be our last!!

After a filling meal and and some family time, and knowing Sunday would be a very full day, we hopped on a bus and headed home.  We rode the strangest bus ever.  I thought it was just a normal 167, but nooooo….I’m pretty sure that someone mounted the seats in this bus too high:

But I was also too tall!!!  I was sitting in a seat, but this strap knocked me in the noggin for the whole ride home.

But I was also too tall!!! I was sitting in a seat, but this strap knocked me in the noggin for the whole ride home.

 

Even I was too short - my feet didn't touch the ground!!!!

Even I was too short – my feet didn’t touch the ground!!!!

And that pretty much brought our Reunion Afternoon to an end. KMN and I did a little work, chatted with my family in the US, relaxed, and headed to bed to rest up for the first day of the New Year!  More on that to come…

Did you have to go look up the word “homophone”??  😉
[“homo” = same, “phone” = sound]

Do you “pre-workout” in anticipation of a big eating event/holiday?

And just in case you skipped the link about popiah, here it is again. You’re welcome!!

Chinese New Year Preparations!

The supermarkets are packed.  Chinatown is bustling.  Offices are quiet. Everywhere you turn, you see red. Ah, yes – the biggest holiday season in Singapore is upon us: Chinese New Year.

For those who don’t know, the celebration of the Lunar New Year (Chinese New Year) will start this weekend.  Chinese New Year celebrations traditionally last for two weeks, during which people travel back to their hometowns, visit family and friends, eat, laugh, reminisce, and open their doors to a brand new year and (hopefully) lots of good luck.

In Singapore, where ~75% of the population is ethnically Chinese, the Lunar New Year is by far the largest and most widely celebrated holiday.  Chinese New Year is a floating holiday, with the exact dates dependent on the lunar calendar.  But typically, the two week celebration falls somewhere between the last week in January and the end of February.  This year, the New Year starts on Sunday, February 10.

The Chinese New Year celebrations have a rich cultural history, and I invite you to explore it with me over the next two weeks, as we visit, eat, and celebrate with my Singaporean Chinese family… .

..and the experience actually starts a week or two before the New Year.  Traditionally, the days leading up to the New Year are spent doing a very thorough cleaning, to rid the house of bad luck/spirits (and dirt!), and to prepare a clean and open place to welcome the new year, and good fortune.  So last Sunday after church, we fueled up with a tasty Chinese lunch at Min Jiang @ one north [5 Rochester Park Rochester Park].  The restaurant does not offer traditional, push-cart dim sum, but does have a small selection of dim sum offerings available.

They are specifically known for their Peking duck (must pre-order!).  We shared half a roast duck around our table of four.  The staff takes all the work out of eating duck (I felt quite spoiled).  First, the duck is carved, table-side:

This isn't a great photo, but can you see the duck in the background??

This isn’t a great photo, but can you see the duck in the background??

When you order Peking duck, it is usually served in two ways (you get both).  At Min Jiang, they provide a few small slices of skin to dip in sugar and eat “straight” – this tasty but oily delicacy was a bonus.  Then, they take the sliced meat + skin, shown on the platter above, and wrap it with some veggie and sauce in a thin crepe.  Min Jiang offers both a traditional style and a Szechuan style wraps.  Finally, the remaining duck meat is fried with rice and veggies and served on a lettuce leaf.

Overall, the food was very good.  Min Jiang @ one north isn’t a regular dim sum restaurant.  The selections are far fewer, and and the dining experience is more refined.  Although the price point was certainly higher, we found the food to be quite tasty (even my mother-in-law approved!).  I was also pleased to find that we didn’t overeat they way we typically would at a traditional dim sum restaurant.  Each order provided enough for everyone to try, but not gorge.  We finished feeling satisfied, but not stuffed. Good thing, too – because now that we were properly fed, it was time to tackle some cleaning!  First, we waited out a tremendous rain storm that dumped rain juuuuust as we were standing up from our table:

This downpour kept us at our table, drinking cups of tea, for at least 30 minutes...

This downpour kept us at our table, drinking cups of tea, for at least 30 minutes…

Fortunately, the rain cooled things off, and we were glad for that.  We headed back to my in-laws house and spent the afternoon washing windows, cleaning the wrought iron gates that cover the windows, polishing teak, and doing any other miscellaneous chores that require climbing, ladders, and/or wiggling into small spaces.

Inside Looking Out. Hi honey!!

Inside Looking Out. Hi honey!! On these windows, the wrought iron swings open, so you can easily clean the windows.

Outside, Looking In: I have a few choice words for whoever designed sections of wrought iron/window combinations that don't allow the window to be moved from behind the wrought iron.  This is my least favorite window to wash.

Outside, Looking In: I have a few choice words for whoever designed sections of wrought iron/window combinations that don’t allow the window to be moved from behind the wrought iron. This is my least favorite window to wash.

Between the rain, my sweat, and buckets of washing water, I was soaked – but happy.   I do believe that physical labor is good for us, and the day was a welcome break from many spent sitting at the computer.  The drizzle continued throughout the afternoon, and helped keep the air cool.

Photography Time Out

Photography Time Out

After a full afternoon of chores, Mom rewarded us with a home-cooked meal:

Mama N's Cookin': (clockwise, from top) Cashew chicken, pork meatball with veggies, and a cabbage stir fry.

Mama N’s Cookin’: (clockwise, from top) Cashew chicken, pork meatball with veggies, and a cabbage stir fry.

We headed home, tired and thankful that our crazy life journey has brought us back to Singapore for the time being.  Come back soon, because the New Year celebrations are just getting started, and I’ve got lots more fun stuff to share!

What’s your pet peeve chore?

Any guess as to how many shots it took to get the rain drop photo above?