Commentary: Why tradition still trumps tech this Chinese New Year
Precious family quirks and traditions still have value as they hold a fast commercialising festive season at bay, says Cherie Tseng.
SINGAPORE: Growing up, Chinese New Year’s (CNY) eve was riddled with my mum’s “standard operating procedures”- odd things that she needed us to do.
At the stroke of midnight, Dad, as head of the household, would dutifully open the front gate to symbolically welcome good luck.
My sisters and I would be sent to switch on all the lights in the house, to signal a year filled with brightness and light.
THE LOGIC OF TRADITION
Years later, my sister and I still repeat this ritual – at our respective households – to usher in the new year.
LISTEN: Heart of the Matter - Will you give an e-hongbao this Chinese New Year?
Of course we wondered the need to do so in the first place, and whether leveraging technology could simplify the process. With smart homes today, it wouldn’t take much to programme all the lights to be switched on at midnight.
But yet, despite these conveniences, we still continue these sometime illogical rituals.
There’s a part of me that wants to pass on these traditions from my elders – who are not getting any younger – to my kids. There is hope that, just like me, they too will unquestionably preserve these traditions and guard them like a family heirloom.
DEFEND THE KITCHEN
Take CNY food for instance. Many families have made the switch to catering instead of toiling in the kitchen, given the convenience of food delivery apps.
From popular hotpot stalwarts Haidilao to western bar-grills like Brotzeit, you can enjoy high-quality restaurant food in the comfort of your home.
READ: Commentary: The 'variety effect' explains why we overeat most holidays
My family has stuck with tradition though.
So that’s why, my grandma’s cooked mee sua (longevity noodles) served with a hard-boiled egg is still a must do. “Must eat so you will always have food to eat in the new year!” she would belt out in Hokkien.
“You are getting old, Ah Ma, let’s just cater”, a cousin said last CNY, even showing her the yummy bowls of mee sua available online.
She balked at our suggestion. “It’s not the same!” she exclaimed, "It’s not made in my kitchen!” And she’s right. With our busy schedules, a considerable amount of our food consumed daily already comes from outside.
I too relish the opportunity every CNY to taste grandma’s cooking peppered with her maternal love.
BAK KWA PIETY
Similarly, one of the highlights of my snacking frenzy at grandma’s place undoubtedly involves a packet or two of bak kwa (roasted sweetmeat), which a grandchild queued for hours to buy.
In an age where e-commerce and food delivery are commonplace, it is half-baffling that snaking long bak kwa queues are still a thing. “My queued-for bak kwa tastes better because its flavoured with filial piety,” my cousin would exclaim.
READ: Commentary: Why is Chinese New Year so stress inducing?
These days, bak kwa piety can even be bought by paying for someone to stand in queue for you. Apps like iqueue and even Telegram chat groups help you get that done for a small fee.
I doubt the un-queued for bak kwa tastes any less sweet.
READ: Commentary: Christmas shopping has changed over the years - with more power to the shopper
Yet, the rush of heading to your favourite bak kwa outlet amid the last-minute cleaning and shopping, along with the opportunity to make small talk with other shoppers on all things CNY, is just a part of the overall festive atmosphere you can’t miss.
Convenience has its place, but sometimes it has to take a back-seat to more emotive causes.
I use the same line of thinking when it comes to the ubiquitous red packets (hongbaos). At grandma’s house, regardless of marital status, everyone gets a red packet.
Like other Chinese families, the horde of us would queue up to wish grandma well and she, in turn, would bless us as she hands us our hongbaos.
Grandma’s memory is failing. Several years ago, she lost track of who had collected and who hadn’t. Someone quipped that she should consider giving out e-hongbaos so that she can track and trace and go cashless.
I am glad to say that on this side of the pussy willow, e-hongbaos are, thankfully, not quite fashionable yet even if reports suggest a gain in popularity.
In China, platforms like WeChat and Alipay give out e-red packets at festive seasons that people can e-snatch by clicking on their app. Over 45 billion are given out each year, with Alibaba-owned marketplace, Taobao, announcing plans to give out 2 billion yuan (S$390 million) in cash during the Spring Festival holidays in 2020.
Ride-hailing company Grab has a similar game where gifting a S$1 Grabpay e-red packet could win you as much as S$288.
DBS launched a new iteration of loadable QR red packets that “would allow users to preserve the traditional act of giving and receiving physical red packets, while eliminating the use of cash”.
READ: More red packets recycled due to specialised efforts, increased digital transfers over Chinese New Year
Despite all these incentives, I will pass on the opportunity to look “cool” and technologically-sophisticated in front of my cousins this year.
Instead, I opt to join the family queue to receive grandma’s blessings – all the while eagerly anticipating what her wisdom has in store for me this year. A woman of few words otherwise, her blessings reveal what she does not get to say for the rest of the year – how she is happy that you have a new job, or how she wishes that you would come learn her mee sua recipe.
NO RUNNING AWAY FROM TECH
It would be naive of me to think that CNY, like other traditional festivals, would remain immune to the advent of technology.
Already, you can pretty much commandeer all your needs from your smartphone.
Spring cleaning? Select from a host of home cleaning services on platforms like Page Advisor, a real-time mobile-commerce marketplace platform.
Need groceries? Between, NTUC, Lazada and Shopee, you can buy virtually everything and anything. You can even rent a boyfriend on Carousell to help stave off that nosy-parker aunt.
So, between tech and tradition, huat gives?
As much as I want to hold on to these passed-down family traditions, in some areas pragmatism has to take precedence.
For instance, traditionally, CNY is a season where many out-of-town family members make the long trek home - a time when family and friends reconnect and catch up.
In recent years, however, many opt to skip the annual pilgrimage. “Too far. So expensive. I’ll video call.” Even though the catch-up over FaceTime is brief, seeing their happy faces squashed in a small screen brings a smile to grandma’s face.
READ: Commentary: There is nothing inherently sustainable about going digital
That can’t be all bad. Perhaps this is what the spirit of CNY means to me – to go that extra mile to preserve traditions, renew relationships and create new memories. If tech helps us do that, there is certainly some place for it alongside existing family traditions.
As for me - someone who sits at the confluence of technology and storytelling - I find myself mildly scrambling to hold on to small moments that make this season personally meaningful to me, like precious family quirks that hold a fast commercialising festive season at bay.
So I know that at the close of this CNY eve, I’ll be reminding my husband to open the front gate and hustling my sons to go turn on all the lights.
Cherie Tseng is Chief Operations Officer at a local fintech company, a mother of three and editor with The Birthday Collective.