Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 12 February 2021



Chong Koh Ping

Feb. 11, 2021 11:15 am ET

This week, Chinese people all over the world will usher in the Year of the Ox with family and friends, lucky foods and customs all designed to bring good fortune after a tumultuous year.

In tightly controlled Singapore, the government is letting the festivities go ahead during a time of Covid, but its leaders are imploring the nation to exercise restraint when verbalizing Chinese New Year phrases, or risk fines and jail time.

“Emphatic uttering of auspicious sayings” isn’t allowed at restaurants, according to the country’s recently updated legal statutes, which flag a popular ritual called “Lo-Hei,” a Cantonese phrase that means tossing up good fortune.

Common in Singapore and Malaysia, the custom centers around a dish called Yusheng that is a mélange of shredded vegetables, preserved fruit, raw fish, crispy strips and seasonings. As ingredients and condiments are added, individuals gathered around the dish call out for abundance, love, career success and good grades. The group then uses chopsticks to mix and toss the ingredients into the air to herald in the New Year with more hearty wishes, in what is typically a boisterous and messy affair.

In the lead-up to the Year of the Ox, which begins Feb. 12, ethnic Chinese residents—who make up the majority of Singapore’s 5.7 million population—typically have multiple meals featuring the colorful dish.

“If tossing Yusheng, please keep your masks on and don’t shout the auspicious phrases—say them in your hearts instead,” Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Jan. 23, which marked the one-year anniversary of the country’s first confirmed coronavirus case. The small city-state has since recorded close to 60,000 cases, including 29 deaths. It loosened some rules on indoor and public gatherings at the end of 2020 after new cases fell sharply.

Scientists say the coronavirus spreads most easily during close, in-person interactions, particularly in poorly ventilated areas and when people are talking loudly, shouting or singing. To that end, Singapore has also outlawed toasting at weddings and “any verbal exhortation of goodwill or honor about any other matter” at food and drink establishments in its Covid-19 regulations.

Koh Beng Liang, an IT consultant, took matters into his own hands. He created a mobile website that lets users play voice recordings of numerous phrases, including exclamations of “Huat ah!” which means “Let’s get rich!”

Tossing for good luck quietly, with masks on is mandated by the Singapore government in times of Covid. Diners at this seafood restaurant are encouraged to use a web-based app to help them 'shout.' VIDEO: Chong Koh Ping/The Wall Street Journal

Several local celebrities including a television actor, a radio deejay and a former newscaster quickly mobilized to record their voices for Mr. Koh’s site in Mandarin and six other Chinese dialects.

Karen Mah, a 21-year-old administrator, arrived at a seafood restaurant this past weekend to celebrate the coming new year with six family members.At her table was a printed and laminated barcode for quick access to Mr. Koh’s website, and a wireless speaker to amplify sounds from mobile phones. Both were supplied by the restaurant.

“I had a little urge to shout ‘Huat ah!’ ” said Ms. Mah, but she managed to restrain herself. “It’s good to have the speaker as it sounds louder,” she said, deciding that tossing the dish quietly was better than not doing it at all.

The Lo-Hei ritual is an essential part of Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore, and it has become increasingly popular, said Ng Kong Ling, a food blogger. The platter of raw fish, shredded vegetables and condiments originated in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi in China. In the 1960s, four Singapore chefs made some improvisations, and restaurants started the practice of calling out auspicious phrases to drum up the celebratory mood, added Ms. Ng.

Preparing for a bump in business, Yum Sing, a restaurant that serves up Yusheng, earlier this year prepared large posters encouraging patrons to “Toss like a boss while shouting auspicious words,” and explaining that “The higher you toss, the more you prosper!”

The sign was still displayed at the venue’s entrance, even though diners are no longer allowed to verbalize phrases such as “Nian Nian You Yu,” which means “Abundance throughout the year” when adding the raw fish slices, or “Bian Di Huang Jin,” which means “May the floor be covered with gold,” when pouring deep-fried flour crisps on top of the shredded vegetables.

“This is a real bummer for us,” said Eugene Lim, Yum Sing’s 46-year-old assistant general manager. Still, to create a joyous and celebratory atmosphere for diners, he and his crew of servers decided to make a continuous audio recording that could be played when the dish was served and ingredients individually added.

It took numerous rehearsals, with some servers pretending to be diners with the actual dish in front of them, to get the sounds, timing and musical effects right.The harder part, Mr. Lim, said, has been preventing restaurant patrons from shouting during meals. “When they see us serving the dish, they get excited and stand up and get their chopsticks ready,” he said, adding that some individuals will inevitably blurt out auspicious phrases. His servers now go through the rules beforehand to remind diners of the laws.

Bernice Yap, a 32-year-old business-development manager, was at the restaurant last weekend and had her first taste of a silent Lo-Hei. “It’s very weird because the whole experience is about tossing and saying the well-wishes,” she said, adding the server also had trouble keeping up with the restaurant’s audio recording while preparing the dish.Her husband Glenn Argent, a 41-year-old strategy manager, recalled fondly the previous years when auspicious phrases were shouted with gusto. “When you do it, there’s a lot of excitement. And the Lo-Hei tastes so good after that,” he said.

This time, after the dish was served, the family looked at each other and clapped, concluding it was probably for the better. “Otherwise, we would be trying to hit the ceiling with the tossing and make a mess,” Mr. Argent added.

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