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A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

Feb 22, 2019

Young Generation of Singaporeans Who Grew Up Without Firecrackers

Usually on the first day of Chinese New Year, most streets were carpet with thick red layers of burnt out crackers. And on the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, cracker wars are staged in streets so tycoons from rival groups can display their wealth and reputation by letting off strings of crackers just to see who can outlast the other.

I have written on this topic as a guest blogger in the blog "Good Morning Yesterday" with courtesy of my blogger friend Mr Lam Chun See.

I was born in Bukit Ho Swee kampong in 1948 when Singapore was a colony under the British rules.  A pioneer generation before the independence of the Republic of Singapore and have grown up with the sound, sight and smoke of firecrackers during the Chinese New Year.

My mind was tickled with a question:  "How did a younger generation of Singaporeans who never had the chance to celebrate Chinese New Year to hear the sound, the sight, the smoke of firing crackers decades ago before firing of crackers was banned in Singapore.

When asked by the young generation of Singaporean after 1971, they said that Singapore is known for its strict regulations and laws in place to maintain peace and order.

Lighting firecrackers may be an auspicious activity for Chinese Singaporeans as part of their culture, but the loud, cracking act has been banned in Singapore.  Today, Singaporeans are only able to set off firecrackers during festive seasons.  If we are hoping not to miss a pyrotechnic display, be sure to travel to Singapore closer to its National Day celebrations and witness its majestic firework display as part of the celebrations.

In 1957 when I was 9-years-old on Chinese New Year day, I had the first experience of playing with fire ..... playing with firecrackers.  Early that morning when the family were still sleeping, I sneaked out of the house in Bukit Ho Swee, I brought a few firecrackers and a joss-stick.

I have seen older neighbourhood boys firing the crackers and thought that it wouldn't be difficult to do it.  There was nobody to guide me how to use the firecrackers with a loud bang and the fun to play this game.  With one hand holding a lighted joss-stick and another hand holding a firecracker (the bigger one in red), I lighted it and held it for too long that the firecracker just blew it.  Blood ooze out from the finger and I had a shock.  I quickly ran home and my mother used a cloth to stop the bleeding.  She did not scold or beat me.  She knew I was in shock and told me the danger of the firecrackers and don't play with it.  I was dumbfounded and did not know what was happening to me.

This is my personal experience and childhood memories to play with fire without telling anybody this kind of game to play as a child.  Was I foolish or just curious?

In 1971, the Year of the Pig and synonymous to prosperity for businessmen, did not go off with much of a bag.

Reason:  16 big importers of crackers and fireworks did not import any that year because of the government's ban on 30 different brands from Hong Kong, Macao and China.

The only firecracker manufacturer in Singapore, Forwin Fireworks (S) Pte. Ltd., was producing mainly for export.

The government's firecracker restrictions were applied because of the tragedy in 1970 when 6 people died after being burnt in traditional cracker wars.

Chinese business tycoons, who usually take part in massive cracker wars in the Chinatown areas, were viewing last year's celebrations with a tinge of sadness.

"Don't forget reasons why firecrackers were banned"

I would like to point out the fallacy in Mr Andy Tan's argument, "Bring back those noisy, wonderful crackers" (ST, Feb 3, 2000) to bring back firecrackers.

He believed that firecrackers will "strengthen emotional bonds", and will induce Singaporeans not to go on overseas vacations.

I think these reasons are without foundation.

Surely, it is too simplistic to think that a noisy and dangerous ritual will have a profound emotional impact on Singaporean culture.

As for keeping Singaporeans at home, I think he is wrong again.

I am old enough to remember the time when the sound of firecrackers went on all day and all night.

My young children were kept awake all night, crying from fear and exhaustion.

Firecrackers were bursting right next to their window, having been thrown down from the upper floors of our apartment.

In addition to the serious noise pollution, it caused injury to people as well.

I was working at the Singapore General Hospital in those days.

The casualty department was filled with burn patients every Chinese New Year.

The Fire Department was also kept busy when Chinese New Year came along.

As for Singaporeans going abroad for holidays, firecrackers had the opposite effect.

At that time, firecrackers made Singaporeans go abroad to escape the noise pollution and the danger.

When the Government banned firecrackers, Singaporeans heaved a great sigh of relief.

The majority of rational Singaporeans were behind the Government in its enlightened move to do away with a superstitious and dangerous ritual.

Please don't repeat past mistakes by re-inventing the wheel.

If you play with fire you will get burned.

We have experienced what it was like.

I will not recommend it nor wish it on the future generation.


[Quoted this letter in the Forum Page, The Straits Times, 4 February 2000]

Why Singapore banned firecrackers in 1972

I refer to the letter "Bring back those noisy, wonderful firecrackers!" (ST, Feb 3, 2000).  During the Chinese New Year (CNY) festivals in February 1970, firecrackers killed six people, injured 68 and caused over $350,000 worth of damage to property through explosions and fires.

Because of this, the Government, in March 1970, imposed a partial ban on the firing of crackers.

During festive occasions like CNY eve and Chap Goh Meh, the firing of crackers was permitted for adults in certain refined areas and within specified hours.

However, sections of the public did not cooperate or observe the conditions under which firecrackers and fireworks could be discharged.  The result was more tragedies.  In 1971, nine persons were injured during the CNY festival.

In 1972, during CNY, members of the public became even bolder.  There were 376 incidents reported about crackers being fired indiscriminately outside stipulated places and times.

Despite vigorous police action, the firing of crackers still resulted in 26 being injured.  In addition, two unarmed policemen were attacked brutally when they tried to prevent a group from letting off firecrackers.unlawfully.

The loss of life, limb and property as a result of firing crackers was senseless.  It led to much grief and unhappiness for those who loved ones were killed or injured.  There was a public outcry for the ban on firecrackers.

Alternative way to create the sound of firecrackers

Although the young generation today did not play with firecrackers, please see how they have invented an alternative way to create the sound of firecrackers in this video . This is a safe and innovative way which is not illegal.  The loud sound of the "balloon crackers" would also bring prosperity for every festive occasions.

Feb 9, 2019

Virtual New Year Reunion

London-based photographer Timothy Wee, 26, joined his family in Singapore via Skype for a virtual reunion dinner on Chinese New Year Eve in 2013.  With his image projected on the dining room wall, he got into the spirit of tossing the 'yusheng' with (from left) Wee Kiat Sia, 55, mum Sandra, 53, brother Matthew, 21, and his grandparents, Mr & Mrs Wee Cheng Ho, 85 and 76 respectively. "I didn't want to miss another Chinese New Year with my family," he said.
(Source:  Straits Times, 10 February 2013).

'Virtual' means unreal or an illusion, but with Internet online technologies today, Timothy was able to use Skype from London to create this photo of the family together for the 'lo hei' at the same time.  He holds a pair of chopsticks but he could not taste or smell the food.  Interesting!

Keeping alive traditions
Imagine what the Chinese New Year would be like without the family reunion dinner, the hong bao and the other age-old customs that go with it.  While there is no immediate danger that the Chinese New Year in Singapore will lose its traditional flavor and meaning, there appears to be a gradual and perceptible diluting of Chinese New Year customs with each passing generations.  In many instances, Chinese Singaporeans have found the traditions less attractive, perhaps even a bother.  For they do not, or make no attempt to, understand the meaning behind them.  For instance, some people my see the giving of hong bao as simply a ritual offering of pocket money and forget the connotations of good luck that go with it.

It is somewhat disturbing that such a trend has started to develop here.  From the years of learning to co-exist in harmony with people of many different cultures, Singaporeans have learnt to be tolerant.  So tolerant, it seems that, even where it concerns their own culture, they have become inclined to insist that traditions be maintained.  In larger, and basically homogeneous, societies such as Korea and Japan, traditions die hard.  When everyone else does the same thing at festival time, there is more pressure on the individual to conform.  However, even in these societies, while traditions are far less likely to disappear, they are no doubt slowly evolving with the times.  A busier lifestyle, coupled with increasing Westernisation, makes its harder for people to keep up with the old customs.

For most Singaporeans, however, an erosion of their cultural heritage is likely to result in a blurring of cultural identities.  Singaporeans have long been imbibing and learning from the wisdom and cultures of other countries.  This they must continue to do, not only to survive economically but also because it has generally helped to enrich the country culturally and spiritually.

What has to be borne in mind, however, is that the new ways should add to the existing cultural stock and not gradually displace the customs and values that have made Singaporeans what they are.

Perhaps most Singaporeans are still too occupied with making a living to worry about the preservation of their cultural heritage.  Yet, paradoxically, greater affluence has spawned a new and increasing class of people who spend their Chinese New Year holidays overseas just to get away from what they see as the burden of observing tradition.  Singaporeans of all races will only be the poorer for it if their Chinese New Year holidays become, in time, no different from other holidays in the year.

In many other countries, the passing of the old year and ushering in of the new is marked by celebrations of special significance that distinguish them from other festivals.  Singaporeans will have to make a greater effort to keep old customs and practices alive if the Chinese New Year is to retain its uniquely traditional flavor.  Learning about these traditions will be a good start.  This Chinese New Year is as good a time as any for Chinese Singaporeans to begin.

In 1955, a family reunion dinner photo with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore below:

Singapore's Grand Old Man Dr Lim Boon Keng with 25 members of his family for the annual Chinese New Year reunion dinner on 13 February, 1953.

The task of preserving tradition is not easy

On 1 March, 1984, Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said:

"The future of our children cannot depend on happy recollections of crackers and special flowers and fruits, and new clothes connected with Chinese New Year, however much joy these memories may bring.

"The relationships between children and parents, between brothers and sisters, between husband and wife, and the rights and duties of parents and children, these are crucial to the continuity of any civilisation."

The Prime Minister's remark is earnest and well-intentioned.

He means that consolidation of family ties is more important than happy recollections of festive occasions.

The joy and happiness of the Lunar New Year not so much because of such things as the sound of crackers, the special flowers and fruits and the new clothes as because of the closer ties brought about by the festive mood among family members and relatives and friends.

Having reunion dinner on Lunar New Year's Eve, paying New Year visits, exchanging New Year gifts, giving red packets to children and wearing new clothes, all specially meant for the festive occasion, have resulted in closer ties between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, between husband and wife and friends and relatives.

At the same time, they will also come to understand the rights and obligations between them.

A poet confesses that he is twice as homesick on festive occasions because festive occasions can best evoke family love and affection. 

As Mr Lee puts it, language is not synonymous with culture.

But without these characteristics, how are we going to show our festive mood and joy?

The various features of the festive occasion are similar to those of the religious ceremonies.

Without the church and the prayers, the religious feeling will naturally be diluted.

I am not suggesting that the fire crackers should be restored.

But I do cherish the memory of such fading festive mood and joy, just as I cherish the memory of the changing family ties.

This is because I am afraid that once these festive characteristics disappear altogether, the traditional family ties will also follow suit.

If, for pragmatic reasons, the Chinese allow their language and customs to die out on the one hand and hope to preserve certain fine traditions in their community on the other, it is feared that the task is not so easy as one imagines.

I am afraid that by then, even if we are still able to study Confucianism in English and even quote the classics, we would already have changed, and for the worse.

Yusheng Prosperity Toss during Chinese New Year

Yusheng Prosperity Toss, also known as lo hei is a Cantonese-style raw fish salad.  It usually consists of strips of raw fish, mixed with shredded vegetables and a variety of sauces and condiments, among other ingredients.

Today, the common form of yusheng is the 'qicai yusheng' (seven-coloured raw fish salad") or 'xinnian yusheng' ("Chinese New Year raw fish salad") was said to be created in the 1960s by chefs Lau Yoke Pui, Tham Yu Kai, Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai, together known as the "Four Heavenly Kings" in the Singapore restaurant scene.  The recipe included ingredients such as shredded white and green radish and carrots, ginger slices, onion slices, crushed peanuts, pomelo, pepper, essence of chicken, oil, salt, vinegr, sugar and more.  To enhance the taste, the chefs began the practice of pre-mixing the sauce in order to ensure a balanced taste for each dish as compared to the past when diners mixed the sauce themselves.  This new way of eating yusgheng was not readily accepted until the 1970s when younger diners embraced it.  From then on, the popularity of this yusheng recipe soared and spread overseas.

Key ingredients and what they represent:

*  Carrots -  good luck
*  Green radish -  eternal youth
*  White radish -  good job opportunities in the coming year
*  Raw fish  -  symbolises abundance and prosperity
*  Pomelo -  luck
*  Crushed peanuts -  a sign that your home will be filed with many valuable possessions
*  Sesame seeds  -  the hope that your business will flourish
*  Golden crackers -  symbolises wealth
*  Plum sauce -  a key component that binds the salad together, it represents stronger ties among family and friends
*  Pepper and cinnamon powder  -  signify the wish for wealth
*  Oil -  often drizzled onto the salad in a circular motion rather poured over.  This is to symbolise that money will come from all directions.

Every mother who cooks with love for her children will know what they like their favorite food or what food they dislike.

Please watch this meaningful and touching video in Chinese here