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Two Singaporeans Reflect on the Icons of Chinese New Year

By Hosanna Swee and Joseph Koh

Hosanna Swee

Chinese New Year is often a time where Singapore is thrown into a frenzy. Homes are transformed into labyrinthian factory lines, shopping malls entice the horde with discounts, and the ether is rife with anticipation and anxiety. Our list of to-dos swells, from painstakingly slotting money notes into red packets to carefully picking the perfect outfit.

In the throes of this season, where everything calls for attention, our lives are overhauled to an extent that we may have let slip the meanings behind each festive custom. This photo essay, ‘Still’, is a meditation on the rich significance behind “icons” for which we might have taken for granted through the years.

Mandarin Orange

Hosanna Swee

This spherical fruit and its variants swathe the island, as the Cantonese pronunciation for ‘mandarin orange’ is analogous to ‘gold’, thereby signifying wealth and abundance. The act of blessing others with a couplet of radiant ingots is treated with great reverence by my mother: when I had once forgot to swop a pair of oranges with my friend and had departed from their estate, she dictated that I return as soon as possible to take hold of them. It has been some time now, but this vignette still lingers on my mind whenever Chinese New Year comes around; it has peculiarly enabled me to appraise this custom with the right heart posture.

Red Packet

Hosanna Swee

These seemingly innocuous envelopes are perpetually mired in the politics of giving. Originally conceptualised as tokens of good fortune, they may be tempered with transactional gestures today. “How much did Uncle Jon give you?” Mothers would often surreptitiously whisper into their child’s ear, in hopes of ascertaining the quantum required to return the favour. As I embark on giving out red packets, I’ve realised that with each occasion I face a choice: shrivel into a mindset of scarcity or unfold my heart towards generosity.


Hosanna Swee

While the main motivation behind ensuring that our homes are pristine is plausibly to impress others, the act of spring cleaning centres around turning our backs on the past and priming ourselves for the future. The origin of this ritual is traced to “dust” being a homophone for “old” in Mandarin, therefore sweeping the floor would concomitantly dispel evil spirits. As you spruce up your humble abode, akin to drawing a line in the sand, may it pave the way for a fresh start to new and meaningful relationships. The old has gone; the new has come.


Hosanna Swee

The first day of Chinese New Year is the only time of the year where I would prostrate myself before my parents. Growing up, my brothers and I would ensure that the execution was nothing short of snappy, even as we fumbled with the canonical idioms. Today, as mortality rears its head with greater presage, I’ve begun to grasp this tradition: a sacred time of expressing my gratitude and affection, as they have lovingly allowed me to stand on their shoulders all these years.

Pussy Willow

Hosanna Swee

The Chinese name for these catskins, yin liu, is aurally reminiscent of ‘money flowing in’. They also bud during springtime, in which this efflorescence shall usher in good fortune. Even though we do not experience the changing of seasons in Singapore, whenever I come across a pussy willow, I’m musing on rebirth — of new beginnings and high hopes in 2019.

Photographs by Hosanna Swee
Words by Joseph Koh
Creative production by Haikel Shah