When I was very young, living in the village, I liked Lunar New Year more than any other festival. My mother made new clothes for me, using all new materials. My father came back from work in the Town and bought us nice food. They gave me a hongbao (red packet) containing 50 cents each year till we moved to the County.
Poverty could be seen all around the village, but the villagers were happy, as we didn’t see many floods or droughts, and the field usually provided us enough crops. We also had pork and poultry, which were scarce because we all raised our own pigs and chickens, and they were only meant for offering to ancestors, gods and fairies during festivals. Every family had at least two strings of firecrackers to burn. I can still vividly recall the sound and the smell when the whole village was immersed in the smoke and flying red paper strips.
On the new year’s eve, I bathed early, put on the new clothes my mother made for me, and waited for the most important dinner of the year to begin. My grandmother sat at the chief seat. My uncles, aunts and cousins sat freely around the huge table. Different from Northern China, we did not emphasise on the presence of fish dishes or dumplings. We did have fish, but the main item was the hotpot. The traditional hotpot we used was aesthetically beautiful and scientifically unhealthy: we used charcoal as fuel, the smoke after which combustion raised up and went through the short chimney at the centre of the hotpot, while soup and food were boiling in the pot around the hot chimney. The small windows of our old houses were all high up, leaving the room dangerous of carbon monoxide concentration. Yet no one ever died of that, and therefore no one ever thought of that.
I moved to the County when I was 4, and still went back the village during Lunar New Year, till I entered primary school.
Firecrackers were illegal in the County due to the density of buildings, but we could still hear them scattering around the neighbourhood. Pork and poultry were now very common in daily life, and the traditional hotpot had been replaced by a mini gas oven with a stainless steel pot.
There was more and more money in the hongbaos given by my parents, justifiable by inflation and the increment of my age, but I often paid the school fees with it. But I no longer longed for the new year to come.
I started to hate the crowd and noise during the festival. I hated the smell of cigarets when my relatives and my parents’ friends came to my house. I hated the faked smiles and insincere flatteries of the guests.
I started to spend the Lunar New Year week in the bookshops. I knew every single bookshop in the County. I knew their locations, specialties, rare items, discounted items, speed of restocking books, service attitudes and business hours. I would buy one or two books if I had enough money left after deducting the school fee from my hongbao, otherwise I would just read books in the bookshops.
The number of bookshops shrank dramatically with the widespread of the Internet. In 2003, I was at home during Lunar New Year, and I could only find two bookshops remaining.
I spent my Lunar New Year in Singapore from 1999 to 2002, went back to China in 2003 because I was waiting for my A Level results and there was no schooling. Then from 2004 till now I did not go back any more. I spent 14 Lunar New Years in Singapore. The number is overwhelming. But it is true that Lunar New Year means less and less to me. Most of time it is just an excuse to have a good rest and friend gatherings. Sometimes I cannot even have them.