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Portrait Mode: The Chinese who work over Chinese New Year in S’pore, away from home

Thousands of mainland Chinese remain in Singapore for work over the biggest event of their year. These are a few of them, and their stories.

Rachel Ng |Angela Lim | February 4, 06:01 pm

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Portrait Mode is a new photo essay series of Singapore and all the people and things in it, seen through the lenses of our young photographers at Mothership.

We begin with a group of people who are often not noticed, but who work hard in all kinds of industries to keep Singapore going — be it selling essentials, filling your tummies or any other function the thousands of mainland Chinese living and working in Singapore perform as part of our economy. 

Here is their wide range of stories:

Photo by Rachel Ng

Name: Miss Liu
Age: 50
Occupation: Stall operator at Chinatown
From: Sichuan, China

She’s been in Singapore for close to three years, and works at a stall in Chinatown making handmade keychains and ornaments.

“I miss my parents the most, especially now because they’re old already. I want to see them and spend the new year with them and my loved ones. I would like to bring them over to Singapore to visit, but I’m very busy, so maybe I’ll bring them after the new year ends when I have time.

That’s what I miss the most. Because it’s the new year, of course I’d want to go home and reunite with my family.”

Photo by Rachel Ng

Name: Chen Yu Ying
Age: In her 50s
Occupation: Stall operator at Chinatown
From: Fujian, China

Chen sells Chinese New Year ornaments at a stall in Chinatown with her sister and has been in Singapore for more than 20 years. Her parents are both in Fujian.

“I just only hope that my parents are safe and sound. I miss them the most. We’ll only go back (to China) if something happens, or there’s a big event. Running a business here is very busy, and the rent is quite high, so we can’t go back for the new year. I would like to bring my parents here to Singapore, but they’re getting old.”

Photo by Rachel Ng

Name: Miss Lu
Age: 44
Occupation: Service staff at Chinese Sixi Restaurant
From: Shandong, China

Her cousin runs the restaurant she is working at. The restaurant has no rest days for Chinese New Year. She won’t be able to eat reunion dinner because the restaurant is too busy and full of people. Her cousin asked her to come to Singapore to help her with her work and she’s been here for a month. She cried while speaking to us about her children.

“I miss my husband and my kids back home in Shandong. But they can’t come over to visit me because they don’t have enough days — school is starting soon and the holidays are not enough. I want to go home, but the restaurant is so busy.

(in tears) They have no time. They need to go to school. My son is Primary 4 and my daughter is Secondary 1. I told my family I’m not used to it. But they told me that after a while, I’ll get used to it, and it’ll be fine.”

Photo by Rachel Ng

Name: Xiao Jun
Age: 29
Occupation: Hawker, selling Sichuan cuisine at People’s Park Complex
From: Jiangsu, China

He’s been in Singapore for 10 years now. 

“I don’t miss anything from Jiangsu. Not food. Not anything.

Singapore? Still okay ah. Nothing to rave about.

My family is all here. I don’t miss food from China because I am selling food from China, so….”

Photo by Rachel Ng

Name: Dai Jun
Age: 49
Occupation: Hawker, selling Sichuan cuisine at People’s Park Complex
From: Sichuan, China

He’s been in Singapore for over 10 years. His family is here in Singapore with him, but his parents are in Sichuan.

“We eat and make merry during the new year. Eat, sleep, and have fun! *yells* I’m from SICHUAN! So we eat Sichuan food! *speaks in Sichuan slang* Do you want to learn Sichuan dialect?

I miss everything from Sichuan. But especially my parents. I can’t go back because I have no choice, I need to work.”

Photo by Rachel Ng

Name: Miss Mu
Age: 45
Occupation: Hawker, selling mala at People’s Park Complex
From: Xi’an, China

She has been in Singapore for 15 years, and her children are in school in Singapore.

“How do I celebrate the new year? We are always working! We don’t go back to China. We will always be here running the business. Not even on CNY days. Everyone here (in the hawker) usually opens during CNY. Because the demand is high, from both the Chinese and the Singaporeans.

Now when we celebrate the new year, there isn’t the same excitement and energy. Back in China, we would have fireworks and firecrackers. But in Singapore, you can’t play with firecrackers. The feeling is not the same.

But we’ve been here for so long. We’re used to it. We’ll see the old folks maybe once, twice a year. But we’ll work during Chinese New Year. I miss the firecrackers the most. Those were the best.”

Photo by Rachel Ng

Name: Miss Yao
Age: 45
Occupation: Clothes seller at People’s Park Complex
From: Fujian, China

She has been in Singapore for the past six or seven years. Her husband and son live in Singapore, but her parents are in China.

“I miss the yummy delicacies in Fujian. Especially this dish, I don’t know how to name or describe it in Mandarin, but in Putonghua it’s called ‘bang se gui’. It’s filled with green bean paste, and the outer layer is glutinous rice. It’s quite famous over in Fujian.

I have one son, but he’s celebrating the new year in China right now. They prefer celebrating it there because it’s more lively. I can’t go back now, I only can go back after the new year because it gets busy at my shop so I have to be here.”

Photo by Rachel Ng

Name: Mr Yu
Age: 33
Occupation: Dumpling maker at Hao Wei Lai, People’s Park Complex
From: Jiangsu, China

He has been in Singapore for two years. He has two children, who are aged nine and two.

“I’ll be working over the new year. We cannot be closed. Because the working crowd won’t have anywhere to eat, if we close.

I’ve been here in Singapore for six years. I usually go back to China every new year, but I’m not going back to China this year, because I’m so busy and I have no time.

I miss my wife and children. They’ve never been to Singapore.”

Top photo by Rachel Ng. 

About Rachel Ng

Rachel prides herself as a true blue Singaporean auntie and a walking Google Maps. You can bribe her with kopi peng, broccoli, or peanut tutu kueh.

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