An Indian celebrates Chinese New Year


I first experienced Chinese New Year in Singapore in 1985. As an Indian who had arrived here the previous December, that experience helped to acculturise me early in the ways of multicultural Singapore. Of course, the annual occasion was (and is) celebrated in the Chinatown area of Kolkata, where I had come from.

However, those celebrations were area-bound and Chinese largely in character. In Singapore, Chinese New Year could be felt across the length and breadth of the island.

In 1985, I was amazed at how the country could break from its hectic economic schedule to take a festive pause. I realised that non-Chinese helped to keep the system functioning as many of their Chinese compatriots took a day off or two. Essential services, including hospitals, continued to cater to the country even as stalls in wet markets and hawker centres shut down, some for the better part of a week.

I thought to myself: This is how a nation should celebrate a cultural festival, by producing a transcultural division of labour that allows one community's deserved leisure to be underpinned by the work of others - so that other communities, too, get to rest in the assured knowledge that the Chinese will keep the nation going for all when non-Chinese holidays come around.

I had been initiated into the environs of Chinese culture in Singapore when a friendly colleague had taken me to Chinatown for lunch.

I had found it astonishing that Singapore, which is three-quarters Chinese, should need a Chinatown. The whole country could have been Chinatown.

But it was not. Singapore is not China writ small. Singapore is itself writ as large as its island geography will allow. Chinatown exists within that South-east Asian topography, as do Geylang Serai and Little India.

If the existence of a Chinatown even in Chinese-majority Singapore is emblematic of its multiracial space, Chinese New Year celebrations mark the coexistence of different traditions of calendrical time here.

The festive scope of Chinese New Year does not threaten the reach of its Western counterpart, which falls on Jan 1, or other culturally definitive festivals such as Christmas, Deepavali, Hari Raya Puasa and Vesak Day.

In this regard, there are immense differences between Singapore and Hong Kong in spite of their similarities as two comparably sized former British colonies that are largely or overwhelmingly Chinese.

Hong Kong has no Chinatown because the whole of it was geographically Chinese even before the British returned it politically to China in 1997.

To call Hong Kong the world's largest Chinatown (with Mongkok apparently forming a Chinatown within that Chinatown) is to display an appalling degree of cultural insensitivity towards the very idea of China.

There possibly cannot be a Chinatown within China any more than there can be an Indiatown in India or a Malaytown in Malaysia. Singapore can have a Chinatown precisely because it geographically is South-east Asian, not Chinese.

I worked in Hong Kong briefly before having come to Singapore. I spent Chinese New Year in Hong Kong in 1984. The occasion was pure joy. There was an invitation to a raucous office party where someone won the prize for being able to gulp down a pint of beer the fastest. The Cantonese delicacies that followed filled the stomach enough to last a Chinese eternity.

I left for home after dinner. The revelling streets outside announced the ritual renewal of seasonal faith in the everyday promise of life: The very air was thick with human lives.

Reeling from that happiness, I took the lift up to my modest rented room in a working-class block of flats. I was surrounded by smiles clad in cheongsams.

Even my fearsome landlady, who took turns to scold her husband, two children and me every day, was in a good mood. I went anxiety-free for three whole days.

Yet, nothing of what surrounded me was mine. It could not be mine. I was but an expatriate appendage of the Chinese way of life in colonial Hong Kong.

Even the British were tolerated as rulers: Most were not accepted as "one of us".

As someone from outside Britain, I could never hope to be a natural part of Hong Kong's rhythm of life, no matter how gregariously the Chinese behaved towards me (and they did).

That is where Singapore differs from Hong Kong as it used to be, as it is, and increasingly as it will be as a part of sovereign China.

In sovereign Singapore, Chinese New Year belongs to all, as do other festive occasions. Demographically, of course, some celebrations are more extensive than others but, culturally, all festivities equally are national.

My Indianness does not prevent me from going "Chinese" for two consecutive days of holiday. I am not obliged to do so. I want to.

Like Thaipusam, which has just passed, Chinese New Year will be subdued this year. Auspicious phrases voiced loudly, which complement the shared arrival of Chinese New Year, will be absent.

Restrictions have been imposed to prevent the re-emergence of infectious clusters that necessitate the imposition of another round of punitive circuit-breaker measures. Like other communities, the Chinese will need to fit the heritage of ages into the exigencies of the moment.

Yet, the coronavirus pandemic will recede, and the familiar march of the ages will resume.

This Indian Singaporean stands ready to welcome it.

Asad Latif is an editorial writer for The Straits Times.


அதற்குள்ளாகவா? இந்தச் செய்திகளையும் படிக்கலாமே!

இந்தச் செய்திகளையும் படிக்கலாமே!