Chinatown. Chinese New Year. Hearing these two phrases uttered together is enough to strike fear into the heart of any crowd-loathing Singaporean.
In the run-up to every Chinese New Year the narrow lanes of Chinatown turn into a battleground for hordes of bargain hunters, who wield lance-like stalks of pussy willow and batter their way through the crowd with jars of love letters.
Ms Bubble Long, 26, is a sales assistant at Feng Shui Specialist, a shop located by one of the Chinatown MRT entrances. She says that during Chinese New Year, the number of people surges to “three to four times more than normal”.
To avoid the crowds, she suggests that those venturing out this year – the Year of the Water Snake in the zodiac calendar – should “come early in the morning or in the afternoon. Not lunch hour, but after lunch”.
Pushing past the dazzling festive lights and snaking queues for bak kwa (barbecued pork) can also be tiresome for a weary traveller, especially one not familiar with the twists and turns of the maze-like markets.
Ms Yuriko T., a tourist from Japan, visited Chinatown by herself on the first day of a week-long stay here. “It can be hard to get around. All the stalls are very close to one another and it is difficult to know who is selling what,” says the childcare teacher, who is in her 30s.
However, the allure of the carnival-like atmosphere is often enough to draw even the most crowd-phobic of individuals to brave the crush.
Housewife Quek Nee Kim, 54, does not do her Chinese New Year shopping in Chinatown because of the mass of people, but admits: “I come on Chinese New Year’s Eve with my husband to look around and soak in the atmosphere.”
Life!Weekend gives you some survival tips on how to snake through the crowd this year without the monstrous hassle of last year’s dragon chargers.
For many, Chinese New Year is an excuse to let the New Year’s diet resolution lapse just a little. Here is how to get your hands on the snacks without stress.
Go at the right time
The “right time” depends on what you want. For bakeries such as Thye Moh Chan (01-45 Chinatown Point, 133 New Bridge Road, tel: 6604-8858), pastries are made fresh every morning so “visiting the stores in the afternoon would be better as more variety is available”, says MsClara Lee, senior brand manager of BreadTalk Group, which owns Thye Moh Chan.
Thye Moh Chan at Chinatown Point
However, if you want to beat the crowd, mornings are your best bet as she says “it starts getting crowded from 11.30am”.
Know the shelf-life of your snacks
If you plan on buying longer-lasting snacks, you can do your shopping earlier and not have to jostle with the last-minute crowd. Remember to check the expiry dates so that your guests will not have to stomach stale tarts or musty melon seeds.
“The packaged crisps, pineapple pastries and egg rolls can be kept for a long period of time,” says Ms Lee of BreadTalk Group. “As for tau sar piah (red bean pastry), we recommend it be consumed within a week.”
Take goodies from top of the stack
If you are buying jars of cookies or tarts from the street market, the temptation is to choose an untouched one from the middle of the stack, as the ones on top might have been shaken about by a fickle customer.
However, the newest stock is always kept on top of the pile, so if you are looking for freshness, be sure to aim high.
Mr Xie Zhong Ye, 21, is a worker at Ah Kee Market Produce (tel: 6453-9548), which has a temporary stall at the street market on Smith Street. He explains: “The ones on top are the best, because the stock is constantly being replenished. Once the stack is halved, we top it up again.”
Sample before you buy
Faced with sacks of sweets and walls of snacks, shoppers may be inclined to just grab whatever catches their eye. However, this could mean being stuck with heaps of unpalatable cakes or too-salty crackers.
Many stalls, especially those at the street market, offer samples of their wares. At Ching Yong Fruits Trading (tel: 6744-5232), which has a temporary stall in Smith Street, its worker, who wanted to be known only as Mr Wong, 28, says: “You can taste as many as you want, don’t be afraid. If you do not try, then how do you know if it’s nice?”
Haggling is easier than you think. Most vendors are willing to knock a few cents off the listed price if you buy more than one item, even if a discount is not mentioned anywhere.
This applies not just to food, but also to other items on sale at the street market. “If you buy in bulk, you can usually get a discount. Even if you are buying only two of the same thing, don’t be afraid to ask,” says Mr Winson Tan, 19, a shop assistant at a temporary stall outside People’s Park Complex that sells Chinese New Year decorations.
Order your goodies beforehand
There is nothing worse than making the trek to Chinatown only to find out that your favourite pastries are sold out.
Ms Lee says that “for bulk orders or to check on the availability of the products that you want to purchase, you may call stores in advance”.
Now, shoppers can even order bak kwa online, eliminating the need to brave the crowds. Bee Cheng Hiang (www.beechenghiang.com.sg) offers free delivery in Singapore for orders above $50, and a delivery charge of $8 for orders under that.
It is not only shopping in Chinatown that is a hassle – getting there is an epic task in itself. Drivers should take note of the time and location of road closures (see map).
Avoid driving through busy streets
Although roads such as Smith and Temple streets remain open during the day, cars will only be able to crawl through them at a snail’s pace, squeezing past wandering shoppers on either side.
Mr Vincent Tan, chairman of the Chinatown Chinese New Year Celebrations 2013 organising committee, advises people to avoid the roads completely as they “will be very crowded with a large number of shoppers and festive stalls on both sides of the roads”.
Bus route diversions
While driving to Chinatown may not be a great idea, commuters should also check for route diversions before they hop on a public bus.
Bus and MRT services’ operating hours are extended during the festive period.
For example, the last train from City Hall interchange will depart at 12.30am on Jan 27 and Feb 3, about half an hour later than usual.
Whether you are shopping or jostling to the front of the crowd to catch a lion dance performance or haggling over the price of a trinket, here are tips on how you can navigate the streets and soak up the festive atmosphere.
Look before you walk
Diving headfirst into a throng of people may seem like the only way to get around the Festive Street Bazaar, but knowing the layout of the markets can give you a headstart.
Mr Vincent Tan, chairman of the Chinatown Chinese New Year Celebrations 2013 organising committee, advises: “Walk along the main roads of New Bridge Road and South Bridge Road to see which inner streets are less crowded.”
He also advises shoppers to be wary of narrow streets, where foot traffic can be extremely slow-moving.
“Trengganu Street is closed to vehicles and it is flanked by two rows of shophouses. It can be a bottleneck if there is a sudden build-up of people walking towards Smith Street,” he says.
While nothing can stop the tide of people from pressing in on you, wearing the right threads for a comfortable evening is half the battle won.
Mr Tan suggests that revellers attending the Chinese New Year countdown party “wear comfortable walking shoes and casual clothing as there will be lots of standing and walking”.
He also says that as it will be very crowded, you should not bring valuables, but do bring along ponchos or umbrellas in case it rains.
Take along your own seats
“If you want to get a front-row seat at the nightly stage shows, plan your schedule and go early,” says Mr Tan. Go to www.chinatownfestivals.sg for programme information.
As a limited number of chairs are available, he says that you can take your own foldable chair along and “seat yourself at a good spot”. The shows are best viewed on weekdays, when it is less crowded.
NIGHTLY STAGE SHOWS
What: Be enthralled by lively Chinese cultural, festive song and dance performances by local entertainers and troupes from China.
When: Now to Feb 9, 8 to 10.30pm
Where: Kreta Ayer Square
FESTIVE STREET BAZAAR
What: More than 500 stalls selling a wide variety of Chinese New Year goodies, including cookies, decorative items, preserved fruit, potted plants and clothing.
When: Now to Feb 8, 6 to 10.30pm daily; Feb 9, 6pm to 1am
Where: Pagoda, Smith, Sago, Temple and Trengganu streets
CHINATOWN CHINESE NEW YEAR COUNTDOWN PARTY 2013
What: Usher in the Year of the Water Snake with live performances and a countdown in the heart of Chinatown. Be entertained by a medley of festive songs, skits and interactive games as the countdown culminates in a rousing display of firecrackers and fireworks.
When: Feb 9, 9.30pm to 12.30am
Where: New Bridge Road and Eu Tong Sen Street
This story was first published on January 25, 2013 on StraitsTimes.com. To read more, visit: http://sph.straitstimes.com/archive/friday/premium/life/story/cny-crush-your-survival-guide-20130125.