Chinatown businesses brace themselves for a subdued Chinese New Year amid COVID-19

Chinatown businesses brace themselves for a subdued Chinese New Year amid COVID-19

Chinatown 2021
Chinatown Street Market on Jan 27, 2021. (Photo: Chew Hui Min)

SINGAPORE: Chinese New Year decorations adorn Pagoda Street in Chinatown which, for a Wednesday (Jan 27), is busy with browsing shoppers. 

Customers are still buying - anything from bright red paper cuttings to snacks and pomelos - but stallholders who spoke to CNA said the crowds are a far cry from previous years.

Around this time of the year, the market around this central node of Chinatown usually transforms into a festive hub thronging with people and bustling with stalls peddling Chinese New Year goods.

This year, with COVID-19 restrictions still largely in place, the mood is noticeably subdued.

Although street lights for the Year of the Ox are up, the opening ceremony and light-up on Saturday was a closed-door affair that was streamed online. There will be no festive street bazaar and no countdown party.

Pedestrians wait along a street intersection decorated for Chinese New Year
Pedestrians wait along a street intersection decorated for Chinese New Year in Chinatown, Singapore on Jan 19, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Authorities had announced last week that families celebrating Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb 12 and 13 this year, must only have a maximum of eight visitors a day to their homes.

People should also limit themselves to visiting a maximum of two other households a day as much as possible, said the Ministry of Health.

READ: Rules on visiting and tossing yusheng: 7 things to note this Chinese New Year amid COVID-19

Chinese New Year decorations are seen in Chinatown, Singapore
Chinese New Year decorations are seen in Chinatown, Singapore on Jan 19, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

A few Chinatown shops and stallholders said they expect sales to fall 30 to 50 per cent, but some said it was too early to tell. 

Ms Angelia Lim of Feng Sheng Shui Qi, a shop selling Chinese New Year decorations, said that crowds this year are the sparsest in the 18 years she has been in business.

Chinatown Street Market 2021
Feng Sheng Shui Qi, a shop at Chinatown Street Market that sells Chinese New Year decorations. (Photo: Chew Hui Min)

“In the past, at this time of the year, we’d work past 11pm and there will still be customers. Now it’s quiet around 10pm,” she said in Mandarin. “Not having a festive bazaar is a big factor.”

She has observed that customers also tend to avoid crowds and will leave after making a purchase. In the past, they would spend more time browsing in the shop and comparing prices with other vendors.

SALES MOVING ONLINE

Ms Nant Tin Tin Naing, operating manager at Orchid Chopsticks, was busy serving customers when CNA visited the shop selling Chinese traditional ornaments and at this time, Chinese New Year decorations as well.

But she said the number of people visiting could have fallen as much as 50 per cent this year. They now have two shops along the Chinatown Market area, down from four last year.

Chinatown 2021 Orchid Chopsticks
Orchid Chopsticks, which sells Chinese traditional ornaments and New Year decorations, in Chinatown Street Market. (Photo: Chew Hui Min)

They are pinning their hopes on online sales, which they began on various websites last year.

“Maybe because of the pandemic people don’t want to come out and browse around … now we concentrate on online sales,” she said.

Mr Yip Wai Keong, a stallholder selling Chinese sausages, said he has scaled down his stall front and didn’t hire any additional workers this year. 

Chintown 2021 sausages
A stall selling Chinese sausages at the Chinatown Market Street. (Photo: Chew Hui Min)

Because people are not travelling abroad, he has seen some new customers patronising the stall, but he does not expect this year’s sales to be better.

Mr Yip has ordered only half the goods he normally does and will see if there is demand for them before he orders more, he said.

Across the road at People’s Park, another familiar sight in the lead-up to Chinese New Year is conspicuously missing - snaking queues at Lim Chee Guan bak kwa stall. A sign on the shop shutters reads: “We will be temporarily closed from 20th January - 9th February”.

While they have three other outlets open, the shops are stocking only prawn rolls and pork floss.

Lim Chee Guan People's Park
No queues at the Lim Chee Guan bak kwa shop at People's Park this year as sales have moved online. (Photo: Chew Hui Min)

A spokeswoman from Lim Chee Guan told CNA that they decided to switch to online sales for the well-being of their customers and workers. Earlier, when they launched sales online, the overwhelming response had crashed their website and by now, the bak kwa is sold out.

“It’s our first time doing online sales, and there were a lot of hiccups during the first launch ... We strive to work better the next year,” she said, apologising for the glitches.

SUPPLY WOES

The popular bak kwa vendor said they could not tell yet how sales were compared to last year, but their production has been affected by COVID-19 safety measures. Not only do they have fewer employees, the workers are also on alternate shifts, resulting in lower production.

They are not the only business hit by supply woes. Shops selling Chinese New Year decorations said they have faced higher shipping fees and delays from disruptions due to COVID-19.

But Ms Lim is grateful her shop is now open in time for the festive season after a bruising year when they have had to close for months due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“We’re still quite lucky, at least we are open for business,” she said.

The Chinatown Business Association, which manages Chinatown Street Market, said that the precinct has been seeing a steady increase in visitors in recent months and businesses are “in the process of recovery”.
 
“Our vendors and stakeholders have adapted their businesses to cater to the change in target market – from being tourist-centric to serving local shoppers,” said a spokesperson.

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Source: CNA/hm(gs)

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