I was lucky enough to spend 10 days in Singapore over Chinese New Year. Fully told that it would be a madhouse, I actually found it to be pretty restrained, given the number of people taking part. No worse than Christmas and New Year's rolled into the same holiday week, and everything was pretty orderly.
The food and the markets do change fairly obviously, with a lot of holiday items making an appearance, and simple fruit being elevated to an exalted position. Typically because their name sounds like a word to describe prosperity, or more abstractly because they are yellow, orange or red, and thus symbolise wealth.
To say that the Chinatown market - at which we spent two hours on Chinese New Year's Eve - was packed, would be a gross understatement. It was ludicrously busy, and just about every vendor was decked out completely in red and gold. Here's a little photo-blog of the experience.
Simple foods such as peanuts and other nibblies for your guests become big ticket items. The endlessly creative manufacturers ensure that these are available in a huge range of flavours and coatings. Little jelly cups seemed to be popular, but we did spy wasabi-pineapple melon seeds.
The durability of these saucer-sized pumpkins make them desirable decorations for homes and businesses. Their round shapes represent the unity of family while the rich yellow shades imply golden fortune.
Even the gods get in on the celebration. A shopper buys a golden rice-flour cupcake, a modern iteration of the more traditional and sticky "nian gao", the sweet, leaf-wrapped glutinous rice flour cakes seen in the background. These will be offered on the domestic shrine to the Kitchen God as a bribe to ensure only sweet things are said when he makes his annual household report to the celestial bureaucracy.
Entire legs of prized Jinhua ham, complete with furry hoof and stamped labels of provenance, hang from the rail in a waxed-meats stall. The wind-cured, fatty meats are included as part of "Lap Mei Fan", a long-keeping Cantonese rice dish traditionally eaten over the festive period when families are too busy to cook.
Sprays of budding blossom are de rigueur decorations, more so as they mature and open up over the weeks-long New Year period, symbolising new life and fertility. In the past, families would decorate potted live trees with red packets and ribbon. In the metropolitan tropics however, branches of pussy willow and plum are imported in large numbers and at great expense.