It was that time of year again–for pineapple tarts and bak kwa, red packets and pussy willows, revelry and family. The Year of the Goat had breezed into town, and nowhere was the pulse of a new spring more deeply felt than in Chinatown.
In the middle of the day, a steady tide of visitors was already coursing up and down the length of Temple Street–a sign that the annual Chinese New Year bazaar was gearing up to full swing. For a while we retreated into the shelter between the wooden walls of Mei Heong Yuen Dessert’s flagship store, spooning up milk pudding and black sesame paste as we watched faces roll by, with some stopping for brief moments to exchange the fleetest of smiles, the storefront of a man selling preserved persimmons. When we stepped into the crowd, we found ourselves being swept along, and occassionally engulfed as the stream of human bodies–made up of as many middle-aged men as young ladies, tourists as there were locals, and grandchildren as there were grandparents–closed around us.
All sorts of vendors had decided to seize the oppurtunity to make a quick buck. Stands of cherry blossoms and rows of potted orchids gave way to stacked jars of almond cookies and bags of Taiwanese fruit jellies and dried kelp. Across from a man selling oranges attached to leafy branches was another surrounded by pendulous glowing red lanterns. Old women sitting amidst pairs of beaded slippers and wooden clogs would be replaced by stores selling Chinese-surname-themed brushes and zodiac plush dolls around the corner. The crackle of coffee-roasting chestnuts wafted alongside rows of deep green Buddha’s fingers and hourglass-shaped gourds. In the opposite street bristled all manner of New Year decorations in festive shades of red and gold, as sacks filled to the brim with peanuts and melon seeds beckoned to passers-by. No matter what they were selling, each stall-holder went about their job with an almost fevered determination, spurred by competition with their neighbours and the frenzy of activity around them. The mishmash of colour from their juxtaposed wares and the hollers that’d periodically pierce the air above us seemed to be harbingers of the beginning of yet another festive season.
On our way, we encountered a shabbily-dressed old lady wheeling a metal trolley purposefully past the stalls, the only one in the crowd who didn’t seem to be caught up in the heady bazaar atmosphere. As we watched, she approached the nearest bin and lifted the lid, looking in for discarded cardboard boxes which she could hope to sell for a meager sum of cash. As she returned to her trolley, my mother pressed a ten-dollar note into her hands. With a sudden warmth she began speaking profusely in Cantonese, “Thank you, miss! Happy New Year! Best of health!” Looking to me, she added, “Is this little lady your daughter? May you have progress in work!” before we again went our separate ways.
In their own ways, our encounter with the old lady and the presence of the street market appear to befit the Lunar New Year. The latter is a celebration of the pragmatism and entrepreneurship that had characterised the Chinese for many a generation, while the other serves as a reminder of the need on such a family-oriented time of year to really bring festive cheer and fortune to the people and places it’s most needed.