With Singapore being so diverse in cultures and religions, and having a high number of public holidays, I got to participate in a range of different festivals throughout the year.
In October my friend took me to Little India in anticipation of the Hindu festival Deepavali, the “festival of lights”. For Deepavali, Hindus celebrate the victory of good over evil, and light overcoming darkness, most commonly based on the tale of Lord Krishna’s victory over the tyrant King Narakasura. Right when you get off the MRT (train), you feel like you are entering another world: much more crowded, noisy and chaotic than other parts of Singapore. With only a few days until Deepavali, it was even more crowded than usual and it smelled of flowers (which people buy to put on the altar), marigold, rose, jasmine and incense.
Many people made some final purchases at the street stalls before the start of the festivities. In addition there was a bazaar selling traditional handicraft, lamps, clothes, jewellery and garlands, and stalls offering henna painting. My friend and I particularly liked the partitioner depicting scenes from the kamasutra. Later, we also visited a Hindu temple with special music and singing for Deepavali.
This is another Hindu festival I attended in January. My friend and I went to Little India to observe the procession of devotees seeking blessings, fulfilling vows and offering thanks. First, we went to see the ceremony at a temple, and then the walk of the devotees to another temple. The devotees carry milk pots and Kavadis (burdens) as offerings to Lord Subrahmanya. Kavadis are decorated structures that can be balanced on the shoulders of the devotee. Some of the devotees, which have prepared themselves by living in abstinence for a month, even carry spiked Kavadis. Those are carried by piercing the skin with skewers. On their walk of a few kilometers, the devotees are accompanied by friends and family saying prayers and chants. It was really interesting for me to observe this ceremony, especially what the devotees are willing to endure to offer thanks.
Chinese New Year
With the majority of Singaporeans having a Chinese background, this is the biggest festival lasting several days. This year it was in February, but for weeks in advance you could see advertisements and decorations everywhere in the city.
An important element of CNY is the thorough cleaning of the house to “sweep away” bad luck. Families will also buy and wear new clothes to welcome the new year. During this time, families will visit their relatives and friends and have a big reunion dinner. This year marked the beginning of the year of the goat/sheep according to Chinese zodiac.
In the weeks leading up to CNY it was especially fun to visit Chinatown to see the street light-ups, the night market and the decorations. I especially liked the beautiful papercuts. Another popular event in Singapore is the River Hongbao, held at the iconic Marina Bay, with lanterns, fireworks and street performances. There are also parades and traditional dragon and lion dances in the streets and temples.
Some of my favourite traditions for CNY are:
– Mandarin oranges: They are symbols of abundance and good fortune and they are given as gifts to relatives and friends when visiting them. They are also used as decoration.
– Hong bao: These are red envelopes that are given to children and unmarried adults. They contain money, which has to be in an even number. Unfortunately I didn’t get any, but some of my friends used their red packet money to gamble.
– Lo Hei: As an appetiser, people stand around a bowl of “Yusheng” (raw fish salad) and before eating it, toss it around with their chopsticks while shouting auspicious well wishes in Chinese, e.g. the words for prosperity and fortune. It is supposed to bring an abundance of wealth and long life. This was very fun to try out although the salad really flew everywhere. It also tasted very good.
Hari Raya Aidilfitri
This is the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan, the fasting month. Technically I missed this holiday as I had already left Singapore by then, but during Ramadan, I still had a chance to visit the Hari Raya Bazaar in Geylang Serai. This was a good opportunity to see more of the Malay heritage. There are street light-ups, decorations and many stalls selling pretty much everything. Although most stalls sell handicrafts, carpets and clothes, we even found some selling cars and flats! I personally love the traditional Malay textiles with their intricate patterns. Something I found particularly cute is that some families wear matching outfits during Hari Raya. At the bazaar, there were families of mannequins wearing clothes with the same patterns. However, the highlight of the bazaar is the food of course. Many people come here after sunset to break the fast. They also sell Malay pastries (kueh), such as pineapple tarts and onde-onde (rice cake filled with liquid palm sugar).
As my friends told me, on the day of Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Muslims will go to the mosque and visit graves. Then they visit relatives and friends and have a feast. The main celebration usually lasts 2-3 days, although it can extend over a whole month. Similar to the red envelopes for Chinese New Year, children get green envelopes containing money.