For most in Singapore, Chinese New Year is a time for hong baos (red envelopes), pineapple tarts, and door to door family visits. About three quarters of the country’s population is ethnically Chinese, so while other parts of the world are trying to get over end-of-the-year celebrations, January is usually a time we gear up for another round of festivities. But the country is also made up of various races and cultures so for mixed-race kids like me, the holiday is slightly different.
My dad is Singaporean of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, while my mom is Singaporean of Chinese Teochew descent. Because I’m mixed, people often can’t pinpoint what my background is. I get mistaken as Malay, Filipino, or Pakistani often, but the confusion is amplified whenever Chinese New Year rolls around. I kid you not, even my own family doesn’t recognize me.
Sure, these are relatives I only see once a year, or ones I’ve only met as a baby, but still. One Chinese New Year, when I was about 13 years old, my family traveled 45 minutes east of the island to stop by a block of flats where my mother’s relatives lived. As we got out of the car and headed towards the lift, I could hear that every apartment on their floor was filled with laughter from the simultaneous parties. This was the fourth house in our New Year tour that day so, out of routine, I walked up to my mysterious auntie’s apartment, removed my shoes and added it to the mounting pairs by the front door, and walked in without knocking. The entire living room fell silent. All eyes were on me. You could literally hear a pin drop. I was confused because I didn’t recognize anyone at all, and the feeling was mutual. They must have thought that this brown-skinned boy walked into the wrong house.
Thanks to six years of learning Mandarin in primary school, I managed to understand some whispers from elderly women in the corner. “Who is he?” one said to another. After what felt like millennia, my family opened the door behind me and walked into the house. Once everyone in the flat caught sight of my mother, there was a huge eruption of laughter. “Ohh! So you’re Evelyn’s son,” the elderly woman said, sounding relieved. Cue the overwhelming hugs and greetings. But I was so disoriented that I was still left processing what happened even after mandarin oranges were exchanged. Heck, I still remember it to this day — a memory that makes me laugh and cringe at the same time.
I like Chinese New Year just as much as the next guy; I look forward to the big reunion dinner where my soft-spoken Chinese grandmother would suddenly become the life of the party, screaming her lungs off when we take part in the yu sheng (prosperity toss). But growing up, I was unsure of my identity. I am dark-skinned but speak Mandarin. I'm not a fan of spicy food and I love eating zi char. It felt like two versions of myself were always at war. It didn’t help that casual racism was very common — it still is in some ways, although things have improved. In primary school, I was one of only three brown-skinned students and was called “chocolate chip” and “brownie boy.” Thankfully, I’m more comfortable with myself now and celebrate both cultures I grew up with.
Mixed marriages have been steadily rising in Singapore for the last 10 years. In 2008, 16.7 percent of marriages were between people of different ethnicities, and by 2018 the number was at 22.4 percent. And, it turns out, that other mixed-race kids like me have varying views and experiences about Chinese New Year too. Some look forward to reuniting with family (even virtually), others like that they get a few free days to kick back and relax, and most wish to collect a sweet stack of red envelopes.
Dana Nejad, 23
Chinese New Year is a time of a thousand annoying moments. My relatives are shocked when I eat pork because they all think I’m Muslim because of my darker skin tone, which really made me feel extremely out of place. When I would visit people to bai nian (wish people a happy Chinese New Year), I was usually the only dark-skinned person in the room, apart from my brothers. It made me insecure as an individual but as I grew up, I began to be OK with the insensitive comments [from relatives]. I realized that people were just joking around with me. At first look, I definitely don’t seem like someone who would celebrate Chinese New Year, just because the shade of my skin is different.
Now, at 23, this festive season means a lot to me because I get to collect hong baos and eat awesome steamboats (hotpot) with relatives that I don’t get to see often. Family means a lot to me.
Lila Tan, 18
As a bi-cultural teenager, I have been exposed to both Asian and European lifestyles. However, because of this, I was never immersed into one culture, specifically. At times, I feel like I have various identities. For instance, in Singapore, I would be considered ang moh (white person), even though I am a Singaporean holding a Singaporean citizenship. This made me feel extremely out of place, but gradually, I began to adapt and learn that I was in a unique space to enjoy both cultures.
I lived in Shanghai for 14 years and I only came back to Singapore for good in 2020. Because of this, Chinese New Year for me has always been very special. I usually travel back to Singapore and visit my dad’s side of the family. I would visit my ah ma (grandmother), my aunties, uncles, and cousins. Sadly, my ah ma passed away last year, so 2020 was my last Chinese New Year with her. What this special occasion means to me is family, love, and gratitude. It also means an abundant amount of hong baos and mouth-watering food. The pineapple tarts, prawn crackers, and kueh bangkit are my favorite snacks for sure.
Jonathan Cheng, 20
I dread this time of the year. I am not a fan of the music or any of the decorations because it’s just too much hustle and bustle for me. However, I do enjoy visiting my close relatives because it’s one of the few occasions in the year that everyone makes time for. I spent my whole life growing up in Singapore and I would say I am 100 percent Singaporean. So Chinese New Year to me just feels like another festivity.
Carmen D'cruz, 21
Chinese New year is an important time for me. Family is the number one priority in my life and Chinese New year just reinforces that fact. I would always visit my extended family on my mother’s side because she’s Singaporean Chinese, but last year my dad’s side of the family decided to join in the fun too.
The Indian side of my family all came over to my place last Chinese New Year to have yu sheng and steamboat. The ladies came in cheongsams (traditional Chinese dress) and even gave out hong baos. This showed me that in this day and age, festivities like this have no borders nor boundaries. I guess we are living in a world where ethnic fusion will one day be inevitable.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.