Sunday, February 11, 2007

Year of the Pig

Today was Joey’s birthday, so tonight we celebrated by going into Singapore’s Chinatown to absorb the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of the Lunar New Year festivities for the upcoming Year of the Pig. The actual event isn’t until next weekend, but going then is the equivalent of standing in Times Square while the ball drops...with about twice as many people packed into half the space. And in the weeks leading up to the holiday itself, the celebration reaches its peak.

We rose out of the MRT station into a riot of reds and golds, crowds of shoppers, music, noise, and huge outdoor shopping and eating stalls decked out with Buddhas with pig noses and fake firecrackers (real ones are no longer allowed). The focus of Chinese New Year is prosperity - even McDonalds has something called a “prosperity burger” - so people buy anything and everything to celebrate. Moving slowly through the packed streets, we watched parents grabbing fistfuls of candy for their children and eagerly choosing clothing, amulets, wraps, jade, decorations, sausages, meats, baked goods. Couples were posing for pictures in front of giant flower arrangements under sparkling lights strung through the trees. Old men were busking on the corners, singing Chinese folk songs for coins. Everywhere you could hear the beat of a dragon dance; we didn’t see the dance itself, but full-size dragon heads swayed in every shop entrance, and salespeople bounced adorable miniature dragon marionettes in time to the music.

When our senses began to be overwhelmed by the scene and the smell of incense wafting through the air, we wound back through the shops until we found a quieter line of food stalls where we could sit for a while. In a typically Singaporean mix, regional street foods were on the menu right next to the traditional Chinese New Year foods, and we couldn’t resist buying a couple rolls of popiah (similar to a spring roll, but with crisper, more intense flavors and served cold instead of deep-fried). The Chinese woman who served us took great delight in our enjoyment of the dish, and she told us so in perfect, unaccented English - a surprise to me, after the Chinatowns in the States.

We headed home soon after that, exhausted by the crush of people, the commotion of music, the frenzy of activity that overheated the streets even on a cool, breezy night. Afterward, we realized we’d forgotten to take pictures. We might try to go back for a few photos, but I doubt we could capture the excitement, the chaos, the blaze of lights and colors.

You just had to be there.

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