Does Red Still Matter?

CNY Red 2019Embroidery on H&M sweatshirt

By Mao Shan Wang

Chinese New Year is red no more. Well, not with what I have been seeing. I come from a relatively big, extended family and CNY is very important—red-letter days, if you will— to us. This means that on the two measly days of public hols that we get to guo nian, I have the chance to meet many relatives at my parents’ gaily-decorated xiqi yangyang flat. Most of them I see only once a year, so with each visit, the young gets older, the older gets older, and the oldest gets a walking stick. In years of the distant past, both young and old were always careful not to call on us in sombre colours, but these days, peer into our flat, and you might think our guests have been doused in squid ink.

My parents are not particular about what colours those who visit us during the CNY season wear. My grand parents—both paternal and maternal—were. But since they are no longer around, the juniors are emancipated from what, to them, is a silly, superstitious, and selective chromatic tradition that bears no relevance to fashion’s unceasing love for the deeply dark. Red, even Valentino red, is no match for the light-absorbing black. And, this year, the colour associated with the grim reaper dominated my parents’ living room, as well as many parts of our island, with as much cheer as fatt choy braised in the company of macerated shiitake mushrooms.

The festive-lite window display at Louis Vuitton

When did red lose favour among the Chinese doing their rounds during Chinese New Year? I don’t know, but I did notice some years back, about eight perhaps, that stores were starting to do away with windows dominated by red. Since 2015, I began to seriously observe. Many, including Louis Vuitton, Dior, Prada, and Fendi, have not bothered with a CNY window, just as they have forgone Christmas. There, too, has been little in terms of merchandise that is red or can be considered gaily festive. Sure, brands know they have to cash in during this period, hence animal-themed offerings to the reflect the Chinese zodiac year, for example. But these are mostly gimmicky rather than trendy, corny rather than snappy. And, they are not as heavy with meaning as red.

Like most, I was never told the true significance of red during CNY. My mother was not big on the colour and wore other brights that didn’t blend in with fire engines or anti-riot vehicles, the ang chia. To the young I, red was an auspicious colour, but from whom I learnt that, I have, hitherto, no idea. It was not until much later, as a young adult, did I read about nian the beast of pre-history China (not nian the year), one so ferocious and life-threatening that only fire, cacophony, and the colour red could send it back in defeat to wherever it came from. Red, synonymous with fire and itself a loud colour, became the choice of those who need to be rid of whatever beastly in life or are in celebratory mood.

At mass market label Iora’s Wisma Atria flagship, main store display shows that red is easily outnumbered

About a week before CNY, I saw a young girl looking admiringly at a plain, flaccid, black dress at Iora in Wisma Atria. I asked if she was buying that to wear as a new outfit for the festive season, she said yes. When I asked her if her choice could keep nian away, she replied with a question: “who’s nian?” I rephrased: why not wear red? Because, she told me—with furrowed brows, none of her friends do and that “it is not cool”. For sure, red is a warm colour and usually with enough heat to be considered passionate. But who, in wanting to look cool, is projecting warmth, passion, intensity, zeal, or energy any more these days? For many now, you may agree, CNY visiting is plain boring. Why bother to meet when you can simply send a WhatsApp message or greeting, if you bother? Or partake in your cousin’s festive fun via his/her IG posts, if you’re interested enough? No new dress required, red or otherwise.

According to one store buyer I know, the colour of chilli was once so in demand that “stores can’t stock enough of red. Nowadays, people don’t bother unless it’s the red that’s within the box logo of Supreme”. She told me that buyers now don’t consciously seek out red to stock in the month of February. It would appear that red is not an important colour in the planning of a collection at all. It isn’t the dominant colour at Louis Vuitton, it is shy at Burberry, and it stands away for the colours of night at Saint Laurent. A look at the men’s collection shows no difference. Kim Jones’s Dior has red conspicuously missing. Even the Kaws pink BFF character (called a “a masterpiece” by the media) dons a black suit! And over at LV, Virgil Abloh’s all-white Keepall, sans pop-up store, has its pride of place in the expensive, faintly psychedelic window.

CK Calvin Klein’s dour black boar

Red is also competing against the equally ancient Chinese sheng xiao zodiac, specifically the 12 animals that purport to predict the ups and downs of one’s life. Until the past five years or so ago, few thought of wearing something bearing the creature that corresponds with their birth animal. I know I never have. But this year, for example, retailers are going big on pigs (CK Calvin Klein is possibly the most prolific), not with charm or pull in every case. Those born in the Year of the Pig are not the only ones wearing porcine prints on their chest, or carrying on their bags. Others of other years do too. Frankly, I can’t reconcile a rat wanting to be a swine.

People are also looking at what colours zodiac masters such as Joey Yap tell them to wear, which means even the bleached of hue such as white may bring you luck on the first day of the Lunar New Year. Sometimes, red is not recommended because it may be too bright, too strong, too potent for an individual. Red may be the colour of luck, but it may not be lucky for you. One of my cousin who came and the only one in non-black wore a supremely dull shade of red that her fortune teller declared most ideal, hence auspicious. It was what I would call puce, that old colour with a history that dates back to the clothing of Marie Antoinette. It’s been described as the shade of dried blood. Or, to be more precise, “brown and maroon with only a hint of pinkish-gray”, according to another description. Apparently, when King Louis XVI saw his wife in a silk dress of said colour, he exclaimed “une puce”! That’s flea!

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

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