SG50 Icon - Huat Ah
“I’m not sure if I can keep my balance much longer,” I told Ah Boon, as I tightened my grip around his waist.
“Me too. My right foot is all numb,” Ah Boon said, and sank the weight of his arm over my shoulder.
I looked down at my feet, half covering the round surface of the wooden stool. Ah Boon was literally standing on one foot. The stool was obviously too small to accommodate the two of us; we would risk falling if we were to continue perching on it that way.
“We should get down,” I suggested.
“If we do that, we won’t be able to see with all these heads blocking us.”
“Why don’t we take turns then? I’ll step down first.”
I had just gotten off the stool when Ah Boon shouted suddenly ”Oh wait, look! It’s going for the lettuce now!”
I climbed back up and clung on to Ah Boon; we watched with eager expectation.
Dong-Chiang! Dong-Chiang! Dong-Chiang-Chiang-Chiang-Chiang-Chiang!!!
The beating of drums and clashing cymbals and gongs rose to a crescendo. With an energetic prance and a precise leap, the Lion pounced at the high pole and snatched the hanging lettuce, with its red ang bao and Mandarin oranges, into its mouth. Landing on its feet, it began to gobble up its captured fortune.
With our anticipation at its maximum, Ah Boon and I, together with the entire crowd, scrutinized the Lion’s every gesture, waiting for that crucial moment.
It was the 70s, in the vicinity of Commonwealth Crescent. We lived in a block of one-bedroom HDB flats, where I spent my childhood. It was the second day of the Chinese New Year celebrations. My neighbour Ah Boon and I had gathered at Kopi Uncle’s coffee shop to watch a lion dance troupe perform. Kopi Uncle had commissioned the traditional Lion Dance to ward off evil spirits and to get rid of any bad fortune that might affect his business. It was believed that the rousing dance of the lion would usher good luck and abundance to his coffee shop in the coming year.
Ah Boon had brought along a wooden stool for the two of us to stand on in order to have a better view of the spectacle. A maddening crowd had turned up for the auspicious show and there was much jostling about. Most people were there for the entertainment; the children, like us, were rooting for the distribution of free sweets and goodies, and all those present harboured the hope of getting lucky and striking it rich: “Huat Ah!” which means ‘Prosperity ah!’ was on everyone’s mind. For at the end of the lion dance, four 4D numbers would be revealed by the troupe.
Playing games of chance for money is a Chinese trait; gambling is in our blood, and to be prosperous is our universal aim, especially during the Chinese New Year period. Singaporeans love to bet: 4D, Toto, Mahjong, Horse races, Football matches, casinos, and so forth. And punters have no lack of avenues for picking the ‘lucky’ numbers: from car plates, birth dates, death dates, I/C numbers, passports numbers, phones numbers, even price tags and clothes sizes.
In our family, my mum was known as the champion ‘guesser’ of lucky numbers. She had a knack for picking and selecting winning 4D numbers, and could assign a specific number to anything, living or non-living. For example, a man means number 12; a woman signifies the number 11; dog is 9; car is 4, and her preferred numbers were 3, 6, 9 and 8. Her winnings, however, were modest and she would soon use her small windfall as stake for her next bet. Like most gamblers would.
To ‘Huat Ah!’ – meaning, ‘prosperity ah!’ - was every person’s hope that day.
After the traditional custom of ‘cai qing’ (harvesting the green) was performed and having devoured the lettuce, the Lion spat and scattered pieces of the raw vegetable at all of us: blessing us with good fortune and prosperity for the year ahead.
As pieces of lettuce, sweets and mandarin orange peels rained down on us, instantaneously, the crowd chanted, “Huat Ah!” A few sweat-clad uncles and aunties who were standing behind us began to surge forward, impatient for the unveiling of the four auspicious numbers.
Then it happened. The lion had just finished arranging four 4D numbers with segments of mandarin oranges on the ground, when the frantic crowd burst into incessant cries of “Huat Ah!” again.
Shoved. Tugged. Pushed. Toppled.
“Huat Ah! Huat Ah!” “Aaargh!!!”
More cries of ‘Huat Ah!’ filled the hot and humid air as Ah Boon and I crashed onto the ground after the frenzied mob knocked us off the stool, and stormed towards the four 4D numbers on display.
The lion might have brought good luck and fortune to Kopi Uncle’s business that day, but it had eluded Ah Boon and I. Between us, we suffered a sore bottom, three bruised knees and two bleeding elbows, plus a few scratched. Come to think of it, perhaps my mum could have interpreted our injuries and deciphered four 4D numbers out of them.
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Singapore-born Angie lives in Paris with her French husband and their son. She is a short-story writer (her stories have appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore) who also dabbles in film editing and photography. By far, Angie’s greatest challenge is being a Stay-at-Home-Mum to her son: of how she confronts her parenting dilemma with a mix of Asian values, kiasuism, French liberty and their savoir vivre motto.