How to Have a Roaring New Year: Lunar New Year Celebrations Around the World

We invite members of the Singapore Global Network to share the different ways in which they are ushering in the Year of the Tiger in Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney and Singapore.

20 Jan 2022 / By SGN

Members of the Singapore Global Network

Mark Namiki in Tokyo

Festive goodies at a Singaporean cafe

Mark and Melissa
Mark and Melissa run Little Merlion, a Singapore-themed cafe in Tokyo.

Just a two-minute walk away from Nishiarai Station in Adachi, Tokyo is a food haven for Singaporeans longing for a taste of home.

Little Merlion, a cafe run by Mark and Melissa, serves Singaporean favourites such as laksa, nasi lemak, and carrot cake. But it’s not just Singaporeans who patronise the cafe regularly; the majority of customers on weekdays are Japanese.

“We get great feedback from locals, including Japanese people who have been to Singapore,” Mark says. Together with his Japanese team, Mark adjusts the flavours of these timeless favorites to suit local palates better.

The couple has been living in Tokyo with their daughter Maia for around 4 years – longer than originally planned. “I came here on a one-year contract to work at a hostel, but we ended up falling in love with the community, the lifestyle, the sights, and the four seasons,” he says.

After that first year, Mark decided to open Little Merlion, working with his former team from the hostel to introduce Singapore flavours and create a hangout for locals, Singaporeans and foreigners to mingle.

Little Merlion Singaporean classic dishes
Little Merlion dishes up Singaporean classics like laksa and nasi lemak.

Since the nearest Chinatown is in Yokohama, south of Tokyo – where festivities include a lantern light-up, parades, firecrackers and lion dances – Mark and Melissa hope to bring some festive cheer during the Lunar New Year, especially to Chinese Singaporeans living alone in Tokyo.

The cafe offers yusheng – a raw fish salad, unique to Singapore and Malaysia, that is communally tossed with chopsticks (a practice known as lohei) while proclaiming auspicious phrases for prosperity and good luck. What also keeps Mark busy during this period is the production of handmade festive goodies like pineapple tarts, peanut cookies and kueh lapis. “Our hard work is all worth it when we see it put a smile on our customers’ faces,” he says.

To express their gratitude to the staff, Mark and Melissa hand out red packets (angpow) and mandarin oranges, and gathers the team for a lohei session.

This year, however, celebrations will be a little different for the Namikis, because a new member of the family is on the way. Melissa has flown back to Singapore to deliver the couple’s second child, while Mark manages the cafe his own.

“Our baby girl is due in March and they will likely return to Japan in June,” he shares. “I will probably be spending a lot of time in the kitchen, baking lots of goodies, and do a video call home while our family is having reunion dinner.”

Mark and his staff at the cafe
Mark is grateful for his staff at the cafe and gives them angpows and mandarin oranges during the Lunar New Year.

Yuan Wenling in Shanghai

Keeping family traditions strong

Ling and her family have lived in Shanghai for almost ten years.

Nearly ten years has flown by since Ling and her family moved to Shanghai.

They relocated there in 2012 so that her husband could start a luxury fashion retail business with a friend. “I used to handle retail operations, marketing and e-commerce, and had the opportunity to travel around China and to fashion shows in Paris, Milan and London,” Ling shares.

Since then, her two children have grown up – her son has completed his National Service in Singapore and resumed his studies in Shanghai – and she is now a full-time homemaker who is a leader of STUCK! (Singaporeans Together, United in Care and Kindness), a community of Singaporeans based in China.

“Due to the pandemic, this will be the second year many Singaporean families have to spend the Lunar New Year in Shanghai,” Ling says. In 2021, STUCK! organised a celebration at Singaporean restaurant JUMBO Seafood, which included the traditional lohei and yum seng – a hearty toast involving a long, collective cheer with glasses raised. In view of a recent outbreak of local cases, however, this year’s gathering is still on hold.

The Shanghainese similarly celebrate the Lunar New Year with reunion dinners and house visits (bai nian), albeit in a slightly different fashion. Ling says that, rather than offer mandarin oranges, they buy expensive gifts, and their red packets come in more generous amounts, starting from around ¥500 (USD80).

On the other hand, Singaporeans in Shanghai conduct house visits bearing their usual mandarin oranges and Lunar New Year goodies, while taking turns among friends to host.

Lunar New Year dinner in 2021 organised by STUCK!
STUCK! organised a Lunar New Year dinner in 2021 for families unable to return to Singapore.

Beyond gatherings with friends and family, Ling strongly believes in upholding Lunar New Year traditions to keep her children connected to their roots. “The Lunar New Year has always been a festival close to our hearts,” she says. “Despite living away from Singapore, it is crucial for my children to fully appreciate the culture and traditions.”

As a family, they gather for reunion dinner on the eve and stay up to watch the countdown programme on Channel 8, Singapore’s free-to-air Chinese language channel. The following morning, Ling and her husband are offered mandarin oranges and festive goodies on a tray as well wishes are exchanged and the children receive red packets.

Still, there are some things about Lunar New Year celebrations in Singapore that cannot be replicated in Shanghai.

“Although we have many Singaporean friends in Shanghai, and goodies like pineapple tarts, love letters and bak kwa are increasingly available, we miss seeing our extended family, as well as the festive atmosphere in Chinatown that you can never find in China.”

Luci Ozcan in Sydney

Leaving the lights on is a must

Luci, president of Temasek Club in Sydney
Luci (3rd from left) is the president of Temasek Club in Sydney.

Growing up in Singapore, Luci fondly recalls making midnight trips to Chinatown with her mother after reunion dinner on Lunar New Year Eve.

“We would buy fresh flowers and festive goodies at hugely discounted prices,” she says, “as the stallholders wanted to sell off their goods before the two-day public holiday.”

Even though the Lunar New Year is a major festive occasion in Sydney – with markets, concerts, fireworks, dragon boat races, and lots of restaurant feasting – Luci says she misses the unique festive atmosphere that can only be experienced in Singapore.

Currently, she lives with her daughter in Sydney, while her son is in Singapore. “Being away from home for the past 25 years, we continue to preserve traditions like spring cleaning,” she says.

“Leaving all the lights on in the house past midnight on the eve is a must-do – to usher in a bright and prosperous year ahead and chase away the bad luck of the previous year – as is the tradition of lohei for prosperity.”

Besides working in the financial services sector and being involved in various cross-cultural business associations, Luci is the president of Temasek Club, a social group that connects Singaporeans living in Sydney.

“We host two major annual events, a Lunar New Year dinner and a Singapore National Day celebration,” she explains. “In between, we also come together for golf, mahjong, picnics, and networking events. This year, inspired by Singaporean world champion Loh Kean Yew, we will be starting badminton sessions as well.”

Annual Lunar New Year dinner for Singaporeans in Sydney  organised by Temasek Club
Temasek Club organises an annual Lunar New Year dinner for Singaporeans in Sydney.

With the recent surge in COVID cases, the club is making adjustments to this year’s Lunar New Year event.

“We are moving our potluck celebration to an outdoor venue at Cahill Park,” Luci says. “We can expect a wonderful variety of Singaporean favourites like satay, char kway teow, curry chicken, mee goreng and curry puffs – not forgetting yusheng platters to toss for prosperity.”

Millie Tan in Singapore

A second taste of yusheng

Millie and family
Millie’s family documents their explorations of Singapore on their YouTube channel, Wonderlust.

Although Millie’s family moved to Singapore from the UK less than two years ago, her husband Jonty has roots that run deep here.

“Jonty refers to himself as the local immigrant, as he was born in Singapore and relocated to the UK with his parents at a young age,” she explains. “After visiting family in Singapore over the years, we ran out of reasons not to live here.”

With 8-year-old Milo and 6-year-old Aspen in tow, the Tans enjoy the wide variety of family-friendly activities, affordable food, and ease of getting around.

“The 365 days of summer and humid weather are the first things to get used to, but this suits us as an outdoorsy family. Any day is a beach day!” she says.

Since moving here, the family documents their fun explorations of the island on their YouTube channel, Wonderlust, visiting a new place almost every weekend.

This coming Lunar New Year, they are looking forward to trying lohei – the traditional ‘prosperity toss’ of yusheng – again. “Last year, we were introduced to yusheng, a colourful Cantonese-style raw fish salad that is tossed to bring in prosperity and abundance.”

The children have also requested to decorate their home for the festive season. “We’ll head to Chinatown for some decorations, catch the lights in the evening and invite people over for a potluck dinner,” Millie shares.

Millie and her family decorating the home for the Lunar New Year
The children are looking forward to decorating the home for the Lunar New Year.

As for advice to families relocating to Singapore, Millie says to look up YouTube (including their channel!) to get a glimpse of various neighbourhoods. To aid apartment hunting, she recommends making a list of desired features or amenities (such as a balcony, play park, or swimming pool) and taking note of public transport to work and school.

“Lastly, be brave and get involved in Facebook groups, and reach out to Instagrammers and YouTubers for advice and friendship.”

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