This year’s annually held Chinese New Year (CNY) bazaar at Chinatown was finally back to the pre-Covid norms. Unlike the previous two years, large social gatherings are now allowed, more tourists are also visiting with restrictions on foreign travel lifted, and there are no safe distance ambassadors on-site to catch you for not wearing your mask.
Yet the party, which had begun at the start of the year, had to stop when the clock struck 1 am on 22 January 2023. As people hurried back home from their last-minute shopping, the makeshift stalls made way for the street cleaning trucks that swooped in to clear all signs of such an event.
But not all is forgotten. As we celebrate CNY, this writer recounts the different types of businesses that operated at the CNY bazaar during his visit a couple of days ago.
#1 Rabbit Plushies And Sparklers
According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, this year’s Lunar New Year, which falls on 22 January, will mark the Year of the Rabbit – the fourth in the 12-year cycle of animals.
While we adults may be hoping for Singapore’s economy (and the stock market) to “hop” to greater heights in 2023, the kids at least could look forward to receiving cute bunny plush toys as gifts. There were a few types to choose from, including bunnies with and without carrots!
Another children’s favourite has got to be the sparklers, which were being sold at $2 each. While we may not be able to set off fireworks on our own like our neighbours in Malaysia, at least these sparklers would allow the children (or those of us young at heart) to start the festive celebrations with some bang!
#2 Assorted Jelly, Candies, And Drinks
Not many stalls in the CNY bazaar were as colourful as the snack stall selling various types (at least 20 types that I counted) of jelly and candies. It certainly appeared to be a good deal, considering they were selling 100 grams for $1, which was similar to previous years’ pricing despite the higher GST rate.
Another common sight at most of these street bazaars are drink stalls. The one that I found sold 11 types of drinks, such as mango, bird’s nest, water chestnut, rose, plum, and my favourite, Thai milk green tea, for just $2.50 each. While this is no recommendation, but such flavoured drinks are something that you usually tend to get only when you’re at bazaars.
#3 Festive Cookies
Festive cookies are a must-have, especially if you have family and friends visiting you for CNY. But if you have not braved the journey to cross the causeway to buy your festive cookies, then a trip to the CNY bazaar would definitely be the next best choice.
Looking at the variety on display and the prices, shoppers who came specially to get their festive cookies would hardly be complaining about the lack of choices or affordability.
Besides my personal favourite—pineapple tarts—there were also black sesame cookies, cashewnut cookies, peanut cookies, peanut puffs, and kuih bangkit—all were being sold for just $1 per box, down from the initial price of $2.50. If there’s ever a bargain to be had, this, in my opinion, wins it hands down!
#4 Nuts And Sunflower Seeds
Aside from the festive cookies, peanuts and sunflower seeds are other must-have snack items for CNY. As such, nut sellers were a common sight at the bazaar. So much so, there was at least one stall at Sago Street, Smith Street, and Temple Street selling an assortment of nuts.
As I eventually learned out of curiosity, certain nuts, like peanuts, symbolise vitality, longevity, riches, and honour. This nutritious snack is always served unshelled during CNY. Similarly, sunflower seeds symbolise having many sons and grandsons in traditional Chinese culture, and I’m guessing they will be served to newlyweds? Wonder how much one needs to eat for it to work.
Though I confess I’m not someone who likes nuts, I felt like a frog in a well when I realised there were actually different flavours of peanuts, like milky, lo mei, orange peel, and salty. These were being sold for between $10 and $15 per 500 grams. That being said, there was also the good old offer of “buy 1 get free 1”!
#5 Seasonal Fruits – Durians, Pomelos And Mandarin Oranges
Prices of durians have been considerably lower than in past years due to a healthy supply of crops from Malaysian plantations and lower export-demand. Though durians are not a traditional CNY-food item, this seasonal king of fruits is one that most Singaporeans—young and old—can’t say no to. One deshelled packet of musang king was being sold for $18 and one packet of black gold king for $30. And this writer succumbed to his cravings to try the latter—without regrets!
Another fruit that cannot be missed at the CNY bazaar is the pomelo. At the time of my visit, they were being sold for a marked-down price of $6 each. A fruit that symbolises abundance, prosperity, having children, good health, and family unity is something that can’t and shouldn’t be left out at any CNY celebration.
Speaking of fruits that shouldn’t be overlooked, mandarin oranges are undoubtedly the main fruit for CNY. Given out to individuals in pairs, these mandarin oranges represent good luck and are meant to bless one with prosperity. There were a few stalls with many boxes of oranges waiting to be sold. Some were selling 10 oranges for $5, whereas another stall sold one box of oranges for $20.
#6 Food With Special Meaning – Abalone, Chinese New Year Cake (Nian Gao) And Dried Persimmons
Other special foods that cannot be missed for CNY are abalone, the Chinese New Year cake (Nian Gao), and dried persimmons. These food items combined also represent prosperity and good luck. I am certainly all for embracing this indulgence if it’s going to make me wealthy in 2023.
The most expensive item among the three is the abalone, which was selling for around $50 a set. As for the (medium-sized) Nian Gao, which is made of glutinous rice, was sold for $1.60 each. While the dried persimmons were sold for $5 per 500g or $8 for 1kg.
#7 Nostalgic Favourites – Chinese Sausages, Roasted Chestnuts And Mushrooms
Other nostalgic favourites that round up the food stalls at the CNY bazaar consist of those selling Chinese sausages, roasted chestnuts, and even shiitake mushrooms. For shoppers, this makes it convenient to get all their CNY food items in one place.
#8 Pussy Willows, Lucky Bamboo, And Decorative Plants
If you have a green thumb, the decorative plants that were on sale at the CNY bazaar could have been of interest to you. There were the usual lot, from pussy willows to tangerine plants, lucky bamboo (also known as Kuan Yin Bamboo), and even orchid plants.
Instead of making a trip to the nursery, this was an alternative option for those who wanted to get one or two plants to decorate their homes.
Though I didn’t get any plants, I did enjoy the colours and sights of the different plants on sale, which were somewhat soothing to the eyes.
#9 Pillow Cushion Covers And Home Decoration Items
Sticking to decorative items for one’s home, the CNY bazaar had anyone needing last-minute pillow covers, coffee mats, and bed sheets covered. Some of these pillow cases were being sold for as much as 2 for $14 and as little as 4 for $20. The CNY-themed pillow covers on sale would certainly accentuate the festive mood in the living room.
For the more creative of us, there were also stalls that sold decorative items like red lanterns and wall hangings. Simple decorations like this could liven up a
boring plain house and bring out the festive spirit.
#10 Chinese Calligraphy And Sketch Artist
For those who preferred a personalised decorative item, there was also a stall that sold handwritten calligraphy, or chun lian – for one piece, and dui lian – for two-pieces. Though I’m guessing it might be cheaper to get printed copies, it’s heartening to see a few people support such artists at the CNY bazaar. Unsurprisingly, these calligraphies, which are usually sold in pairs, contain messages of good health, wealth, and business success.
Another freelance artist that you could have easily missed at the CNY bazaar was a busker who operated on Pagoda Street. A small crowd soon formed to marvel at his drawing, as did I. I can only wish to have talent like that, which also brought back (unwanted) memories of my failed attempts at drawing in my secondary school days. Thankfully, I’m not required to draw for a living!
#11 Cheongsam And Clogs
Though no longer worn as a daily outfit, the cheongsam and clogs are part of the traditional wear of Chinese ladies. Some stalls were selling both traditional cheongsams and modern blouses catering to the ladies.
I was also intrigued by a stall that sold what it claimed were made-to-order wooden clogs. In general, prices ranged between $24 and $30, which didn’t seem like a high price to pay if it’s made to order. Nevertheless, I do wonder about the comfort of such wooden clogs.
#12 Bak Kwa
Lastly, though these stalls weren’t part of the CNY bazaar, it’s hard to leave them out as they are, for some, the main reason for coming to the Chinatown bazaar. There’s no CNY celebration without Bak Kwa, also known as barbecued pork.
Well-known franchises in Chinatown include Bee Cheng Hiang, Lim Chee Guan, and Fragrance. This popular food item is also given out as corporate gifts during CNY. There are various flavours and types of bak kwa – i.e., chicken and even fish!
Gratefully, my bosses gifted me with a packet, so I had little reason to queue for one. But I was a bit surprised at the (lack of) crowd at these outlets, as usually there would be a long queue for them. Perhaps it was the timing of my visit?
Support Local Businesses
As my visit to the CNY bazaar comes to an end, it was good to see small businesses thrive once again at such bazaars as we move on in this post-COVID environment. As consumers, we could look to support these local businesses so that some of these old practices—like the festive bazaar—can continue instead of switching completely to e-commerce.
Read Also: Is It Fair For Businesses In Singapore To Impose A Surcharge On Goods And Services For Chinese New Year?
Image Credit: Shashi Kumar
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