Archive for February, 2010

Reminiscing Those Chinese New Years

How I reminised those good old Chinese New Years days when I was young. I wonder how many of us still remember?

1. Collection of Swill

When I was staying with my godmother at Beatty Road in the 60s and 70s, I remember there was no rubbish chute in the house. So everyday, a man will come to collect those leftover food for use as pig swill. Of course in the 60s and probably early 70s, there were still pig farming in Singapore. As usual, just before the Chinese New Year the man who collected the pig swill will bring a live chicken for my godmother as a token of appreciation for giving him the leftover food. That was the common practice then and slowly as farms were phased out in Singapore, and rubbish chutes built in new houses, collection of pig swill is no longer practised. Of course my godmother will do the slaughtering of the chicken on the Chinese New Year Eve.  

2. 守岁(shǒu suì) , Keeping vigil during Chinese New Year Eve

I remember my godmother told me to “守岁” (keeping vigil by not sleeping early) after the reunion dinner on the Chinese New Year Eve. My late godfather told me that “守岁” by the children will lengthen their parents’ lifespan. The elders who  “守岁” means to rid off the old year and welcome the new year, and also treasure the time (not to waste time).  “守岁” was actually known as “熬年” (áo nián), endure the year if I literally translate it.

This legendary story was told by my late godfather and many other elders about “熬年”. It was believed that many many years ago, there was a monster called “年” (nián) that came out to terrorise villagers on the Lunar Year 30th December, or Chinese New Year Eve. So all the villagers will locked themselves up at home early that evening, dare not to sleep and keeping vigil until the next morning. In order to endure the long cool night, they drank and ate throughout the night. So this practice became customary and became “守岁”.

I must confessed that the latest I stayed up was after the Chinese Lunar New Year variety show ended, probaby by 2am or earlier…This year when my son and daughter wanted to “守岁”, I told them to sleep when it was around 11pm plus. I can tell from their eyes that they were sleepy though they said no. They usually sleep at 8.30pm and wake up at 5.30am to 6.10am, so they don’t get use to sleeping late even during the school holidays. How many of you still “守岁” ? I know that some will after the reunion dinner, go down to Chinatown to do some last minutre shopping for the New Year goodies or to the  nurseries to get some flowers and plants.

3. 压岁钱 (yā suì qián), Sui Suppressing Money

No this is not the common Ang Pao (red packet containing money) gvien on the 1st day of Chinese New Year onwards. This “压岁钱” are given by parents to their young children during the Chinese New Year Eve night. The parents will put these “压岁钱” under the pillow of their children secretly after they fell asleep. I was told that the origin of  “压岁钱” and “守岁” were quite similar in their storyline. Again in the past, there was a monster but this time called Sui, “祟”. This monster will come out during the Chinese New Year Eve and touch those sleeping children’s forehead. Those children whose forehead had been touched by the Sui, “祟” will become retarded or insane. So to prevent this from happening, parents will stay up late to watch out for the Sui, “祟” and thus this is another origin of the “守祟” or “守岁”.

There was one couple who loved their son dearly and wanted to keep their son awake during the Chinese New Year Eve by playing with him the coins wrapped in red paper. But both parents and the child fell asleep and the coins fallen beside the boy’s pillow. During the night, The Sui, “祟” came and wanted to touch that child’s forehead but luckily a light flashed from the coins scarying the Sui “祟” away. From then on, the village people believed that having coins wrapped in red paper and put under the children’s pillow will frighten off the Sui, “祟”. This customary practice was carried on and the coins wrapped in red paper are now termed as “压岁钱” or Sui Suppressing  Money. since the word Sui(祟) sounds similar to the word “岁” thus the term “压岁钱”.  For now, people believed this “压岁钱” would keep their children safe for the rest of the year.

As usual, my mother gave my children their “压岁钱” after the reunion dinner (团年饭). Of course my mother couldn’t put these “压岁钱” under their pillows as we are not staying with my parents. I remember last year or so, I put the “压岁钱” under my children’s pillows secretly during the Chinese New Year Eve, but this year I just gave it to them while watching the TV programmes. Maybe I’ve forgotten the customary practice of putting it under the pillow. I must remember it again next year! So do you give your children their “压岁钱” on the Chinese New Year Eve? Under the pillow or openly?

4. Fire Cracker

How I missed the sound and smell of fire cracker. Yes the smell of fire cracker is really unforgettable! Too bad, I can only experience that for 8 years since birth (1962). The fire cracker was banned in Singapore in 1972. It was some 40 years ago since I last held a fire cracker in my hand. When I was younger staying with my godmother, she didn’t allow me to play with the fire crackers worrying about my safety. I yearned to grow up faster so I could play with it, but as I growed up the government banned it. So really, I don’t have much experiences playing with it.

So what caused the ban of firecrackers in Singapore? During the 1970 Chinese New Year celebrations, setting off firecrackers caused 6 deaths, 68 injured and at least S$400,000 damages. Since then, a permit is required for setting off firecrackers in Singapore. In 1972, 2 unarmed policemen were attacked as they attempted to prevent celebrants at Upper Serangoon Road from letting off firecrackers without a permit. This resuled in the ban of firecrackers in Singapore in March 1972.  About 34 years after the ban, some 10,000 firecrackers were set off to mark the start of the Chinese New Year bazaar at Chinatown on 3 January 2004. Despite the ban, the police does allow setting off of firecrackers on a case-by-case basis, where audience have to be at a safe distance and fire extinguishers and first aid are present.

I also remember that not long after the ban, some Singaporeans would go all the way to Johor Bahru just to play with fire crackers during the Chinese New Year period. Now I think Malaysia side also ban the fire crackers too.

5. Stocking And Queuing Up

In the past, probably in the 80s or so, I remember I had to queue up during the Chinese New Year Eve to top up my car petrol. There were unusually long queue as the petrol kiosks were not be opened during the Chinese New Year period. Now you don’t need to as all petrol kiosks are opened 24 hrs a day, everyday. You only see the long queue now when certain petrol stations launched their promotional offer.

Also stocking up food was a common practice as most food and market stalls will not be opened for business for at least 3 to 7 or more days during the Chinese New Year periold. There were not many fast food outlets then and in fact some stalls even closed for 15 days throughout. Now I can see that many food stalls still remain opened, and also many supermarkets are opened  thoughout the Chinese New Year period, so there is really no need to stock up.

So during the Chinese New Year period in the past, the best thing to do were visiting relatives and friends, going to tourist attraction places with friends, playing cards and majongs and watching movies in cinemas. Remember I used to queue up to buy movie tickets up to 3 days in advance for the Chinese New Year, but now who still do that??

Happy New Year to all readers.


What my father wrote;

Big Pore and Small Pore of Singapore

“Big Pore and Small Pore of Singapore”, don’t quite make sense but if I will to say it in Chinese “新加坡的大坡, 小坡” and “going down town” in Chinese or Cantonese “下坡 or 落坡” – it means a lot to the older generation. Maybe I should rephrase it as “Big Town and Small Town of Singapore”. I remember in the 60s and 70s, my godmother would always got her daugthers to 落坡 or to 大坡, 小坡 to buy something. We are Cantonese so we said “落坡” instead of in Mandarin “下坡”, but both means the same. Chinese New Year is coming soon, most elderly generation will usually 落坡 (go down town) to buy some Chinese New Year’s goodies. So where exactly are  “大坡, 小坡” and “落坡” means going to where?

In this post, I will explain;

– why the name “大坡, 小坡”  and what does “下坡 or 落坡” means?

– where are “大坡, 小坡”?

As early as Raffless’ time, Singapore town was simply divided by the Singapore River. Why would I said that? From history, we knew that Raffles returned in 1822 (3 years after he found Singapore) for the last time and he and Lt.Philip Jackson drafted the Raffles Town Plan or the Jackson Plan (Singapore first development town plan).

This plan divided the town into different areas for different ethnic groups as opposed to today, probably Raffles believed that people of the same race would like to stay together. In fact long before Stamford Raffles, there already existed a small Chinese immigrant population cultivating gambier and pepper. As more immigrants flocked here, the population increased.

The Raffles Town Plan allocated the Chinese to the Southern bank (or South-West) of the Singapore River and the European mainly to the northern bank of the Singapore River. The South Bank (or left side of the River) and the North Bank (or the right side of the River) are shown below;

A simple Raffles Town Plan;

Credit : Above 2 Singapore University Press

The detailed Jackson Plan 1822;

Thus the Boat Quay which is South-West bank of the Singapore River, was designated a Chinese Kampong (the British spelled it Campong as seen in some old maps). This Chinese Kampong slowly grew and became homes to many Chinese immigrants then, and that was how Chinatown was evolved. In fact we can said that this was probably the first settlement of Chinese here and it as it grew bigger, thus known as “大坡”. The “大” here may also mean “first”.

But why use the word “坡”? After some “Googling” and visit to the library, the Chinese word “” (pō) was actually used mistakenly for the word “” (bù) due to the similar Hokkien pronunciation and the lack of Chinese word knowledge in the past. The word “坡” means “slope” and the word “埠” is commonly used in Southern Min language, 閩南語, (Min Nan or Hokkien)  means harbour, port or market place along the bank of the river. As the Boat Quay area was first developed and a busy trading place, it was referred to as “大埠”. As time passed by, those who spoke in Min Nan language mistaken the word for “大坡” due to lack of education and similar in Min Nan pronunciation. It was believed that at that time, most Chinese porters spoke Hokkien.

Another explanation was the old generation used the word “坡” as “place”. In olden times, Singapore was known as “石叻坡” by the Chinese. “石叻” is a direct translation from the Malay word “Selat” (Sit-lat) meaning “Straits”. So the Boat Quay area soon became a “Big Place” – “大石叻坡”, while the north bank of the Singapore River became the “Small Place” – “小石叻坡”. But the phrase were too long, and people shortened it to “大坡” and “小坡”. Some also said that “坡” means “Urban District” (市区).

So now where exactly is “大坡” or what are the places in “大坡” ? “大坡” include areas along the South Bridge Road and New Bridge Road like Raffles Place, Market Street, Malacca Street, Pearl Hill, Cross Street, Upper Cross Street, Telok Ayer Street, Phillip Street, Church Street, Circular Road, Amoy Steet, Tanjong Pagar, Chinatown, Hong Lim, etc.

An old 1862 map by Moniot showing  “大坡” ;

Credit : Ong Chwee Im

No one knows when the term “大坡” and “小坡” was used, but as early as 68 years (1887) after Raffles founded Singapore, there was a record of the place “大坡” and “小坡” in the book “新加坡风土记” from China.

As more and more China immigrants came to Singapore, the “大坡” became overcongested, so these immigrants “overflow” to the North Bank of the river. Though Raffles allocated the European and the Government buildings to the North Bank, the Chinese immigrants slowly “overflow” to this North Bank. The richer European began to relocate to Katong and Tanglin area. So those later Chinese immigrants were located at “小坡”.

An old Raffles Town Plan map showing the “小坡” in general;

An 1900 map showing the area between North Boat Quay, Hill Street and High Street;

Credit : Above 2, Yoke Sum Wong, Lancaster University

“小坡” (Small Town) include Hylam Street, Tan Quee Lan Street, Bali Lane, Bugis Street, Sultan Gate, and Beach Road area. In the olden times, there existed an “grey area” between the “大坡” (Big Town) and “小坡” (Small Town), which was known as “水仙门” (area between North Boat Quay, Hill Street and High Street). See above map. These area were not part of “小坡” nor “大坡”, and I will blog about “水仙门” separately. 

To some, the Singapore River is used to divide the”大坡” (Big Town) and “小坡” (Small Town) while others use the Elgin Bridge and Coleman Bridge.

An arial view of the Elgin Bridge and Coleman Bridge and part of the “大坡”;

Credit : Editions Didier Millet, National Archives of Singapore

If we used these methods, the “小坡” (Small Town) will include the “grey area”. So using the Fort Canning Rise and Coleman Street seemed more accurate to divide both town, but later Stamford Road was used. So “小坡” area were from Stamford Road to Rochor River in the past, even include Serangoon Road (Litte India). Since “小坡” (Small Town) consisted of two main roads – Victoria Street and North Bridge Road, thus using the Stamford Road as a divider is more accurate.

An old 1956 map showing “小坡”;

Credit : SIT, Survey Dept.

As more and more immigrants came to Singapore, besides the European, we also had Arab and Malay immigrants residing at the “小坡” (Small Town) area.

So are you going to “落坡” to prepare for the Chinese New Year? And where are you going, “大坡” or “小坡”?


What my father wrote;
Wishing all my Chinese Readers a “Happy Tiger New Year!”

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February 2010