Increasingly, many celebrants of Chinese New Year are not in their best dress when visiting family and friends. Festive finery is no longer part of the hongbao season
By Lester Fang
I am not aware that I have been overdressed these past two days of Chinese New Year. Until this afternoon. I just got off the bus at Toa Payoh Lorong 1, on my way to my uncle’s. In front of me at the bus stop is a family of five. Each of them—the parents and their three teenaged kids—are dressed indentically. Yes, exactly the same: a red T-shirt and a pair of plain black shorts. They could be off to the NDP if not for the very obvious seasonal red paper bag each of the adult is carrying in which to bring along pairs of mandarin oranges. The citrus duos are certainly more attired! Below those mini carriers, the whole family wears slippers; yes, every member. I suddenly became self-conscious of my very covered legs and feet. I feel the fabric on my limbs and it seems more than a tad excessive. Divan cover when the bedsheet would have sufficed?
The encounter with the family in shorts makes me become aware of other families in shorts. In fact, everyone doing their rounds of bainian (拜年) showing more leg, if not whole legs. And very quickly, I see that, this year, if a CNY dress trend is to be discerned, it is the ferocious presence of shorts, a ubiquity that would no doubt greatly please fans of abbreviated trousers, such as environmentalist Ho Xiang Tian. There is apparently no transgression of CNY visiting norms, not when, in the lift after leaving my uncle’s flat, a grandmother happily adopts the unclothed space between ankle and crotch for herself. All manner of shorts are out this chuer (初二) and, presumably, on the first day, including Daisy Dukes, high risers, boxers, and those usually worn to sleep in, and they all share a common attribute: they are far from dressy. Only pineapple tarts look fancier.
The omnipresence of shorts on two days of the year when looking dressed up should be preferred is an unavoidable sign of a cultural shift, a pandemic-era combination of can’t-be-bothered and the demise of sense of occasion. No garment is inappropriate for any time, any setting, any festival. There is no more distinction between what is worn to 7-Eleven to buy beer for an uncle expecting more than Yeo’s chrysanthemum tea for the fat hongbao he has given and the garb chosen to visit other relatives for more of the enveloped bounty. Many dress as if in the presence of a TikTok recording, and no one considers if what they have on would be deemed disrespectful to the people they are visiting. Is that even a consideration any more? That’s why, for the same reasons, colours do not matter either: funereal is as good as festive. As-I-please is paramount. Casual is king.
I am in Bugis Junction for a late lunch. The body-to-body crush is more intense than I expect. People are out in groups, sometimes larger than the five that we are supposed to keep to. As with what is worn on CNY, who cares? This place in most days is a shorts-and-slippers magnet. Every other person that passes me is dressed to suggest that the mall is an extension of their living room. The trendiest—and showiest—I see is a trio of girls contrasting shorts (so short the pocket bags are brought to light) with sleek handbags from Celine, Saint Laurent, and, Dior. Yet, they do not differentiate themselves from their peers who are disinclined to show less leg. I think that there is a general believe that going to a relative’s or a friend’s home during CNY is not the same as going to a wedding at Capella. As many CNY visits bring one (or five) to a flat not necessarily air-conditioned to mimic springtime temperatures, there is a compelling reason to be more casual. Comfort, as the AccuWeather notice (today, 32°C; Real Feel: 33) would remind us, ranks above everything else.
I walk into Cold Storage. Between cheeses and Chardonnays, a woman suddenly appears before me, taking money out of a large hongbao (less hong [red], more jin [gold]), and counting, presumably to see if she has enough to pay for the bottle of wine she is holding in her hand. But it’s not the quick relieving of the red packet of its content in full public view that amuses me. She is wearing a cropped, pastel, tie-dyed top with a pair of studded-at-the-hem denim shorts so torn, the integrity of the fabric is questionable. The jersey micro-whatever is equal in length to her cut-offs. And, black rubber slippers. In the left front pocket of her shorts, a long, bulky wallet peeks. She’s probably in a festive mood: torso and thighs, too, fiercely greeting the Year of the Tiger, unhindered. As she walks away, two women, both also in short shorts, look at her admiringly, the scantiness likely tacks memory to it.
For two years in a row, we have to celebrate CNY with social restrictions. Not that I mind. It does help slow the flow of visitors to my flat, and limit the numbers, to the point, in fact, that many of my relatives, unable to come as a mighty village, decide to opt out of the ponkan (椪柑) and bainian ritual. Those who have not, come acalling with the enthusiasm of children tasked to do spring cleaning. I sense that for this reason, no one is motivated to dress nicely or in styles that, in past CNYs, would be considered festive necessity—and respect. Curious, I asked one of my Toa Payoh uncle’s kids, who was leaving for an appointment in a slip-top and a sliver of shorts, why skimpy is CNY-worthy. “I don’t know.” Who are you visiting, I pursued. “My boyfriend’s family,” she offered reluctantly. Should you not respect the old folks there？“Respect works both ways. They have to respect how I want to dress.” She stopped by a side table at the entranceway, scooped up a stack of hongbaos she had collect up till then, stuffed them into her Baguette, and left. Money during this season, conversely, has on more—even fetching—clothes: scarlet, embossed, and hot-stamped.
Illustrations: Just So