The lanterns for this year’s Chinese New Year light-up in Chinatown is about the alpha male and his family. Endearing, even when it reminds us of some scary beasts in a ’70s theme park along Pasir Panjang Road
When the Chinese-style lanterns in the shape of tigers (虎) were lit this evening, a throng had gathered outside Chinatown Point to take photographs of them. In real life, tigers are the largest living cat species known. On the road divider between Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road, the tigers appeared to be live-sized. They struck an imposing figure. Most of the spectators across the intersection were pointing the camera on their smartphone at the subject; some were more seriously equipped—with DSLRs and tripods. The silent tigers were a clear draw, like those in a zoo. However, a woman, not snapping, was heard saying, “一点都不可爱 (yi dian dou bu ke ai, not cute at all).”
Unlike in Japan, we have never placed a premium on cuteness. We do not have or enjoy a culture of kawaii—where in the land of Pokémon, is itself a pop culture phenomenon. Through the years, the light-ups in Chinatown have banked mostly on a conventional Chinese aesthetic that borders on the run-of-the-mill. It has not been an interpretive depiction that conveys a sense of the adorable. Better be zhun (准, accurate) than cute. In their seriousness to be culturally on-the-dot (although not specifically appealing to any elite currency), the organisers of the Chinatown light-ups have frequently drawn criticism for their aesthetic faux pas, such as the manly and pregnant moon goddesses during the Mid-Autumn Festivals.
Before the LED lights did their controlled magic, the tigers looked— from a distance—grey, stony, and somewhat menacing, even when the adult beasts were standing on clouds and the brood frolicking with a gold coin and an ingot. In the light of an overcast day, the trigonal set-up was rather evocative of those hellish dioramas in Haw Par Villa (虎豹別墅, aka Tiger Balm Gardens) of the ’70s, then a major local attraction (without the influence of a pandemic) and now considered a cultural heritage. As dusk approached, the shadowy creatures looked the antithesis of an approaching festive season.
There are five tigers in the main display. We wondered if the quintet is to show the size of a family that is now encouraged in view of our shrinking population. Or, to match the number of people allowed in social interactions or to dine out. Could it also be to denote the five elements in Chinese philosophy: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Come 1 February, we will be welcoming the year of the water tiger (and so that you are not mistaken, blue ripples underscore the scenes of posing and prancing tigers along Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road). As soft as that sounds, the tiger of the Chinese Zodiac is a symbol of strength and confidence. The water tiger is not a tamed beast; it is believed to possess a self-esteem that is considered strong. Perhaps, that is why the organisers of the Chinatown light-up have avoided cute?
But soft is the pull elsewhere in Chinatown. Away from the light-up, inside the shopping streets, large quantities of bulaohu (布老虎 or stuffed cloth tiger) are available in many gift shops and those offering CNY decorations in staggering bulk. These made-in-China toys bear a cute countenance, compared to those now populating the main street outside People’s Park Complex. The bulaohu is a traditional folk handicraft that has been made and used in China since ancient times. Aesthetically, these seen in Chinatown may look different from those of the past, but its feline form is unmistakable, and is deliberately simplified to trot out its facial adorableness, and that grin!
The tiger, placed third in the Chinese Zodiac, was both worshipped and feared in ancient China. Known as bai shou zhi wang (百兽之王, king of beasts), it was also considered to be efficient in warding off the three domestic disasters of more rural times: fire, burglars, and evil spirits. But in the pandemic era of an urban world, the fierceness and courageousness of the tiger are somewhat played down. From tiger buns at Ikea to T-shirts emblazoned with “Gucci Tiger”, the king of beasts is not quite kingly, and is taking on a decidedly less ferocious role. Do they even roar anymore?
Photos: Chin Boh Kay