In one city’s Chinatown, red lanterns swing over empty streets that normally teeming with revelers. In another, crowds, though smaller than usual, bite into barbecued pork jerky, trade red envelopes and pick out jars of crumbly pineapple tarts in a scene almost resembling normal.
With coronavirus restrictions still limiting life a year into the pandemic, many wondered whether Chinese New Year’s celebrations would be recognizable. A look at the Lunar New Year Festival in two neighboring capitals found that while Singapore’s is more subdued than usual, things are downright desolate in Kuala Lumpur.
We took a stroll through both cities in the days ahead of Chinese New Year and found a striking disparity in how residents, despite living only about 300 kilometers apart, are ushering in the Year of the Ox. The contrast in the street reflects where both nations are at in managing the outbreak.
Cases in Malaysia just peaked earlier this month, and health measures have brought Chinatown to a relative standstill. In Singapore, where COVID-19 has been nearly stamped out, things are less strict and large crowds enjoyed the holiday.
Chinese New Year decorations were noticeably abundant in Singapore but sparse in Malaysia.
In Singapore, statues of zodiac animals, especially oxen, lined the streets of Chinatown but decorations were mostly limited to red lanterns in Kuala Lumpur and an over-the-top 3D bull “charging” through an LED screen on the Pavilion mall.
The festive spirit was scaled down considerably in Singapore’s malls, with most decorations – usually God of Fortune statues and auspicious greetings – put up in single locations such as entrances.
Crowds in Singapore’s Chinatown returned to pre-COVID levels ahead of the occasion with streets bustling with hordes of masked people shopping for goodies and decorations. The streets are quieter in Kuala Lumpur, where people have been restricted from traveling over 10 kilometers from where they live.
The worrying crowds in Singapore led to heightened crowd control measures and pulling the plug on festive lighting. The government also restricted households to host no more than eight people and guests to two home visits per day, not to mention somber Prosperity Tosses.
In Kuala Lumpur, up to 15 family members who live near each other were allowed to meet for reunion dinners today. Temples in Kuala Lumpur have been quiet since they closed due to the lockdown. But they are open for Chinese New Year today, tomorrow, and on Feb. 19.
Business looking good for Singapore but not KL
Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown was eerily quiet with all shops closed except for one selling festival decorations on Petaling Street. It was the only physical there for last-minute shopping. Vendors sat quietly by their stalls when a reporter visited instead of hailing passers-by as they usually do.
Back in Singapore, the usual crowds flocked to the famous stores selling festive staples like barbecued pork jerky, pineapple tarts, and prawn crackers. Hot pot and dimsum restaurants were open for business and serving groups as large as eight per restrictions.
More compliance officers were visible to monitor people for health measure violations. At Singapore’s nurseries, festive plants like bamboo stalks, mini chrysanthemums, pussy willows, and cockscomb flowers were on sale.
Other stories you should check out:
Singapore cancels Chinese New Year light-up, limit access in Chinatown
Singapore restricts gatherings at home ahead of Chinese New Year
Chinatown overrun by oxen, turned into animal farm for Chinese New Year
Golden COVID-fighting bull ‘charges’ through LED display on KL mall (Video)
Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown goes online ahead of locked down Chinese New Year
This article, See how different Chinese New Year looks in KL and Singapore (Interactive), originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company.