Happy Year of the Pig!

Gong xi fa cai! That’s “Happy New Year” (or, more precisely, “best wishes on your getting richer”) in Mandarin. Chinese New Year — often abbreviated to CNY — is the most significant holiday on the island. Christmas may win the award for over-the-top decorations, but CNY merits two public holidays, many more store and restaurant closures, and a full fifteen days of eating and celebrating with relatives.

Retail centers do spruce themselves up for the occasion. The shopping center below my apartment complex offers this display:


This funny structure (which started its life back in November as a Christmas decoration) houses a tiny room filled with mirrors, fake pink flowers, and shiny balls:

IMG_9152.jpgOur building complex also hired someone to run around in a pig costume to give candy to children lat week, but by the time I caught up with him, he was on break:


But Chinese New Year is a gift that keeps on giving; I found someone wearing money bag costume at our building a week later:


Most of the rituals of Chinese New Year are private: eating with family, cleaning the house (to sweep away the bad luck and make room for the new), and praying for wealth and long life. But there are some public traditions that everyone can see, such as hosting lion dances …



… setting out orange trees …


… and shooting off fireworks!

It’s the Year of the Pig, the last in the 12-year Chinese astrological cycle. The story goes that when the animals were invited to meet with the Jade Emperor, the pig got lazy en route and lay down for a nap, so he was the last one to arrive to the party. That made him the last animal in the Chinese zodiac. People born in the year of the pig are said to be calm, realistic, wealthy, responsible, gullible, and somewhat slow.

Chinatown has pigs everywhere…



… and one sign in Chinatown offers this wisdom(?):


If you want a very different representation of a pig, you can head to the Asian Civilizations Museum, which has this Indonesian rendition on display:


Chinese New Year marks my now-annual pilgrimage to River Hongbao, which bills itself as “the largest and most anticipated Chinese New Year event in Singapore.” Given that it (1) runs over eight days and (2) is free, I suspect that their advertising is correct. River Hongbao is essentially a conglomeration of nightly performances, fireworks, and giant lanterns out on the Marina Bay Float:


River Hongbao has theme every year, and this year they offered “history” in celebration of Singapore’s bicentennial (well, the bicentennial of Singapore’s 1819 creation as a free British port by Sir Stamford Raffles — the country itself was established in 1965). So here’s Singapore’s history as told in a quick sequence of lanterns. First the Malays explore the area by ship …


… then Raffles comes and takes Singapore for the British after some fancy finagling with the Sultan of Johor …


… then Singapore develops, and in the mid-twentieth century, Samsui women (notable for their red head cloths and purple clothing) come from China and work in the construction industry …


… and now we’re all on our devices …


… and living with drones overhead:


The end.

You can actually learn a good bit of Singapore’s river history at this year’s festival — there’s a big display with old photos and lots of text — if you step into the enormous replica of a Singaporean junk:


Note that Singaporean junk, bumboat, and sampan owners often painted eyes at the front of their vessels that would enable them to see danger ahead.

Most of the other lanterns at this year’s River Hongbao focus on traditional Chinese symbols of wealth, power, and harmony. These include the peacock …


… the dragon …


… in several iterations …


… carp …


… and the God of Wealth (who spews out fake money every hour or so):


This festival also seems to have adopted the Japanese maneki-neko — popular with Chinese merchants — as its own …


… complete with little kittens:


And since we’re ushering in the Year of the Pig, there’s a giant pig (rather stern-looking, I think) front and center:


I love the attention to detail in these lanterns — from the flowers …IMG_9398.jpg

… to the archways …


… to the dragon’s tail …


… I think they’re just beautiful.

If you’re thinking of going to River Hongbao, here are a few pro tips:

1. It’s crowded. Really crowded. If you just want to see the lanterns, go early (shortly after 7:00) and try to get out by 8:30. You can avoid the crowds almost entirely if you’re able get there first thing on Chinese New Year’s Eve (when most people are at huge family reunion dinners), but note that the performances don’t start until 9:15 that night.

2. If you want to see the fireworks, you’ll need to stay up late (they began at 10:00 on the festival’s first two nights this year).

3. You’ll need to buy tickets if you want good seats for the performances (which are generally a mishmash of dancing, singing, and the occasional acrobat). If they have extra seats available, you can get them by standing in a first-come, first-served queue. Note that there’s no program available for the performances; you just go and see what you get.

4. They have poffertjes! If you’re a fan of tiny Dutch pancakes, this is one of the few times in the year when you’ll find them in Singapore. They have other snacks, too, but these are my favorite offering at the food stalls.

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