While the whole world welcomes the Gregorian year of 2018, for the Chinese, a yet more important year awaits. The year of the Dog. There has been and will always be confusion as to when the Year of the Dog starts. Should it be on the day of Li Chun 立春 (in the Chinese solar calendar of 24 seasons) or when the Chinese Lunar New Year starts (first of the Lunar First Month)?
This year, Li Chun falls on 4 Feb 2018 (as in most years). Chinese New Year falls on 16 Feb 2018. So, will the Year of the Dog starts on 4 Feb 2018? The debate rages on.
In the Singapore Chinatown (as popularly known to the English speaking world and tourists, and locally known as Niu Che Shui 牛车水 literally translated as Bullock-cart-water), the month or less before the Chinese New Year is a time when many would flock to buy up stuff for the Chinese New Year celebrations.
As the younger people would tell you that they thought Singapore is one big chinatown, the Singapore Chinatown has its heritage, tangible and intangible, locked into a small space. It is in danger of disappearing over time. The old folks value this place because it reminds them of the old (young) times, despite the poor living conditions. It tells of a time when life was a struggle but yet the spirit was strong. Life was simpler and maybe one tended to be more philosophical about life. For those younger people, especially those whose parents or grandparents did not live here, they have almost no means to understand what the Chinatown was like.
While one could get most things in any neighbourhood estates, the Chinatown has its own draw. Like other big wet markets in Singapore, the wet market has all kinds of fresh food under one roof. It used to be along the streets like Trengganu St, Pagoda St, Smith St and Sago St, where the Cantonese part of Chinatown is. There was the Teochew market, mainly dried stuff, by the bank of the Singapore River and the Hokkien market by China St.
Grandma (especially) would be visiting Chinatown soon to pick up all the dried stuff to prepare for the Chinese New Year Eve Reunion Dinner (if she has not been persuaded to go to one in a restaurant. Depending on the dialect group and traditions (knowing that over time, there has been many cross-dialect marriages, not to mention interracial marriages), different dishes might be prepared. For the Teochew and Hokkiens, sea cucumbers with duck might be a popular dish. Yes, Kiam Chye Ark (Duck in pickled Mustard Green soup), Steamed/boiled Chicken (many old Cantonese would remember the kai-lard - mustard - which seems to have all but disappeared), Braised Duck (from ground zero, much of the spices need to be bought), Chap Chye for the Hokkiens and Babas, Chinese style (Hainanese?) Curry Chicken, and lots more.
Grandma might buy the dried sea cucumber to start preparing them a week or so before CNY Eve. It could be a smelly affair preparing them. For stir fried dishes, Grandma might need hae-bi (dried prawns), dried scallops, dried cuttlefish and Ikan Bilis (anchovies). Especially for Cantonese, the "lard" stuff such as waxed duck, sausages, pork strips and Yunnan Ham are the seasonal food, especially in tropical countries like Singapore. You get to see them appearing in Chinatown during this time of the year.
While many might have migrated from the family dining room to the restaurants' dining halls, some die-hards prepared the home prepared food. Grandma prefers to cook for her extended family with love. You bet, her grandchildren would prefer it too. But no ones like to wash up after that! And so, her children are likely to suggest a restaurant. Good for the local economy though, a different one from the wet market.
So, where would you be having your CNY Eve Reunion Dinner? And what's cookin? :)