Each year, in present Singapore, as the Chinese New Year approaches, bustling night market stalls in Chinatown become even busier than usual, thrown into a frenzy of activity by the annual street light-up of colourful fairy lights and temporary street archway lit up with traditional Chinese red lanterns along the key streets in Chinatown - Eu Tong Sen Street, New Bridge Road, South Bridge Road, Pagoda Street and Garden Bridge. Hundreds of stalls selling traditional foods such as sweetmeats, waxed duck, and cookies, flowers, Chinese handicrafts, and customary New Year decorations compete with each other for business and patronage in a noisy but orderly manner. Although this annual happening is as old as Chinatown itself, I still think it is quite different from my memory, growing up in Singapore when it was a British colony. Chinatown was lined with wholesale produce shophouses together with families living in crowded quarters in the side-streets and alleyways. From a pigeon's eye view (I have long suspected that pigeons were commonly kept not as pets but as a food supplement instead), the old Chinatown with its orange brown terracotta roofs and people milled around,disappearing then reappearing among the stalls was a gigantic pasar. Beside the terraced shophouses, the streets were lined with stalls selling fruits, fish and meat and other household sundries and goods. Countless small lorries and private-chauffeur driven Austin cars with tai tai and their black and white uniformed amahs doing their rounds of daily marketing were there too. Here and everywhere, trishaws, push-carts, baskets slung on bamboo poles summoned into the important task to load and unload their wares and produce were tangled into a chaotic scramble. People were shouting and bickering and vehicles were honking, demanding to pass, everything either moved at a snail's pace or was stuck in a total knot. Amid those noises and activities crescendoed towards the Chinese New Year, the typical daily greetings between between my mother and other housewives at that time were "Are you getting ready for the New Year?' or Are you done with your tee kueh (nian kuo) ?''
Gee, the Chinese New Year is upon us again soon. We haven't prepared any traditional goodies yet, but my wife is going to prepare kueh bulu this weekend for the makan session we are having for the New Year celebration with friends and relatives from home. I'll keep you posted with the recipe when it is done.