Happy Lunar New Year!

Happy lunar new year! I’ve been to celebrations of Chinese New Year in Chicago and Singapore, and this year I added London to that list. A couple friends and I staked out a spot on the parade route before 10am (on a Sunday! me! I’m surprised, too).

img_0013

In perfect London form, the weather was chilly but dry right up until the parade came by us — at which point it started raining. It didn’t matter, we just kept moving. Unlike other parades I’ve been to, this one was small enough that at the points where the route turned a corner, the dancers would do an extended routine on the corner and the rest of the parade just stopped until it was over. This made it easy to walk backwards past the floats and buses containing soggy dignitaries and businessmen, to find the lion dancers and adorably costumed schoolchildren.

After the parade, we lucked into seats at a busy establishment for delicious dim sum, and as we walked away from the restaurant we passed an elaborate dragon dance in Trafalgar Square — an auspicious start to the new year.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A Happy New Year in Singapore

When I landed in Singapore, I realized I’d had it mixed up with Hong Kong in my mind. I pictured Singapore as a concrete jungle packed with skyscrapers, but actually the tall buildings part of the city is contained to a small part of the waterfront. The rest of the city is made up of the small shophouses of the colonial era and the large department stores of the modern age. I met up with my friend Emily and she took me on a walking tour of the Geylang Serai neighborhood (she plotted out the walk just for me–isn’t that sweet?). We walked when it was dry, and ducked into eateries each time the rain started up again. A lot of the rowhouses are a bright pastel, and we found a little alley with some houses in vibrant colors too.

Rowhouses of Singapore

Rowhouses of Singapore

singapore

We stopped in the Katong Antique House and looked at some Peranakan artifacts. The Peranakan are descendents of Chinese and Malay in Indonesia and Singapore; they have a particular style of dress and set of customs found only here.

singapore

That night, I joined up with my friend Mindy for more delicious street food and a quick walk around the Bugis neighborhood, which was pulsing with people shopping for the holiday and eating with their friends. We met up with Mindy’s husband Alan and went to the 70th floor of the Swissotel. We sat in the bar and admired the view through the rain-streaked windows while a singer serenaded us. Mindy and Alan generously treated me to a drink in this fancy place, and given my location, what could I choose but a Singapore Sling?

Oranges for luck at the Chinese New Year--with Alan and Mindy

Oranges for luck at the Chinese New Year–with Alan and Mindy

On the eve of Chinese New Year, everyone has a family dinner. Many people travel long distances to make it home in time, and there are rituals to start the year off right. I was honored to be invited to dinner with Alan’s family. After they showed me Chinatown, Alan and Mindy took me to his mom’s high-rise apartment.

Auspicious phrases!

Auspicious phrases!

The dinner started with the stirring of the big fish dish. Alan’s sister sprinkled ingredients signifying certain things over the dish, and then we all used our chopsticks to stir the dish in the center of the table, while shouting out auspicious phrases. By the end, we were just yelling good things in whatever language came handy–“Success! Good relationships!” I added “good studies” for Mindy (she’s working on her PhD), and she added “safe travels” for me. Alan’s mom gave me two oranges–a traditional gift I’d meant to bring for her–and even a red packet! It was a great evening.

Colorful new year

Colorful new year

The next day, I met up with Emily at her great-aunt’s house. On the first day of the new year, you visit around to various family members, and Emily invited me along for this stop on her circuit. I was graciously received by a couple dozen relatives, given more red packets, and plied with so much food. This time I remembered to bring two oranges, which was a great success. I watched three generations play round after round of blackjack, which just about everyone was betting on. I talked with Emily’s teenaged cousins and elderly great-aunts, and I was glad I wore red, the lucky color of the day, because I could tell it made a good impression.

Emily and me

Emily and me

On my last day in Singapore, I saw a lion dance outside the converted shophouse apartment I was staying in, and then took the train to the Gardens by the Bay. I knew last year I wanted to check this place out, and I was lucky: it rained pretty much the whole weekend I was in Singapore, but for the few hours I was at the gardens, it was all sunshine. The supertrees were pleasingly imposing in person, and I liked the mini-gardens surrounding the central hub, which were all devoted to different styles–Malay, Chinese, colonial.

The shop owner hired these dancers (and musicians out of frame) to do the lion dance outside the shop. The kids dig it.

The shop owner hired these dancers (and musicians out of frame) to do the lion dance outside the shop. The kids dig it.

Supertrees!

Supertrees!

For being a small island, there’s a lot to do and see in Singapore; I didn’t even get up to the pool at Marina Bay Sands, or out to Pulau Semakau or the Southern Ridges, as I’d planned. I know I keep saying it about everywhere I’ve been on this trip, but it’s true: I’ll have to come back.

Marina Bay at night

Marina Bay at night (pretend it’s blurry because of the rain and not my lack of camera skill)

Feasting in Singapore

Singapore is known for its heavy fines for any number of minor offenses, and for its high residents-to-shopping-destinations ratio, and for its endless variety of foods. It all seemed to be true on my four-day visit this past weekend, especially the food part. I ate so much and so well in Singapore, and I think almost every single thing was something I’d never eaten before.

My culinary guides in this adventure were native Singaporeans I’d hosted separately through Couchsurfing back in Chicago. They were eager to explain how things were made, and the different combinations you can make in different dishes, and which dishes are their favorites. This is the way to see Singapore!

Here are some pictures of What I Ate, and my best guess on remembering what they’re called:

breakfast at coffee shop

Tea with milk; kaya spread on bread; soft-boiled egg carefully cracked over saucer containing some of the hot water from making the tea, with soy sauce and pepper

slurping my egg

Slurping my egg as instructed–although then my friend ate hers with a spoon!

Delicious potato cake, not quite like a samosa, a different kind of dense

Delicious potato cake, not quite like a samosa, a different kind of dense

Egg tart, especially popular at the Chinese New Year

Egg tart, especially popular at the Chinese New Year

Duck and brown rice, soup, braised peanuts, and eggs

Duck and brown rice, soup, braised peanuts, and eggs

Beef noodle soup with cilantro

Beef noodle soup with cilantro

Delightful drinks: soursop, sugarcane, and water chestnut

Delightful drinks: soursop, sugarcane, and water chestnut

Eating all the Chinese New Year snacks like a good guest--prawn crackers, pineapple tarts, and much more

Eating all the Chinese New Year snacks like a good guest–prawn crackers, bak kwa (pork jerky, so good), pineapple tarts, and much more

Soup, preserved sausage, fish ball, veggies

Soup, noodles, preserved sausage, meatballs and mince, fish balls, veggies

Two kinds of chicken

Sea cucumber, two kinds of chicken, broccoli

Not pictured: the durian cream puff I ate (tasted kind of like onions), the Singapore Sling I drank (yum), and various other tasty things