Immigrants, who had come to Singapore after Sir Stamford Raffles’s establishment of a free port here, were too poor to travel back home for Chinese New Year, said Mr Lee, adding that instead, they celebrated with fellow labourers and clan members, re-creating traditions such as eating auspicious foods, performing lion dances for good fortune and setting off fire crackers to drive away evil spirits.
Over the years, Chinese Singaporeans developed their own unique rituals and traditions for Chinese New Year, said Mr Lee, citing lo hei at reunion dinners and snacking on pineapple tarts and kueh bangkit – a “reflection of the Southeast Asian heritage of the Straits Chinese”.
Since the 1970s, Chinese Singaporeans have also stopped letting off firecrackers “because in a built up and dense city, this was dangerous to people and property”, Mr Lee said.
“In their place, to kindle the festive mood, we started holding Chingay Parades from 1973,” he said, adding that the parades have evolved from featuring mainly Chinese cultural items to becoming a “celebration for people of all races and ages”.
“The involvement of all races adds a special joy and richness to the festivities, and reflects our unique multicultural society,” said Mr Lee.
Mr Lee said that the way Singapore now celebrates Chinese New Year reflects how the Singapore Chinese identity has evolved and emerged over the years.
“Chinese Singaporeans have integrated into a larger, multiracial whole. In the process Singaporean Chinese have become distinct from Chinese communities elsewhere, both the Chinese societies of China, Hongkong and Taiwan, and the overseas Chinese minorities in the diaspora in Southeast Asia and the West,” he said.
Mr Lee said that “as new generations come of age and new immigrants join us, the Singaporean Chinese identity will keep on evolving”.
“The new arrivals will enrich our cultural heritage with their different life experiences and perspectives,” he added.
“At the same time, I hope that over time they will adjust their social norms to our local context, and embrace our uniquely Singaporean cultural habits, just as earlier generations did.
“This is the way for the Chinese community to stay vibrant, and for Singapore to be open, dynamic and resilient for many years to come,” Mr Lee said.