News & Opinions
Bringing the Warmth of Chinese New Year into Strangers’ Homes

Story and Photos by Dave Tai, How To Adult

2 weeks away from Chinese New Year and the festival was already here in full swing. Shops were decked out in red, traditional Chinese snacks swarmed the markets and many homes had started on their spring cleaning efforts. However, on the Sunday morning of 20th January, about a thousand volunteers found themselves spring cleaning not their own homes but the homes of low-income seniors in Tampines.

A 1000 volunteers bringing spring cleaning into Tampines homes

As part of the 12th edition of Project Refresh, this would be the 6th time Young NTUC (YNTUC) and the North East Community Development Council (CDC) combined efforts to bring in volunteers from unions, schools, corporate organizations, grassroots and residents to spruce up households just in time for Chinese New Year.

“When they put it up, many people tell me it’s there until Christmas,” said Madam Molly, 63, as she deftly folded and stapled a red packet into a lantern. Red packets along with batik paintings of ‘fu’ meaning happiness in Chinese, would be delivered to the residents for their homes to be decorated.

 

Molly (second from left) and the volunteers behind the red packet lanterns

 

 

Volunteers painting batik ‘Fu’ posters

“Chinese new year is nothing without the atmosphere. It makes me happy knowing that my lanterns would brighten up my neighbours’ home,” added Molly.

 

A Reunion Under Lanterns

Molly’s lanterns hung by the entrance in Mdm Celeste’s home, swaying gently whenever the fan blew in their direction.” I don’t usually put these up,” said the 69-year-old retiree. Due to a bad knee and several falls, Mdm Celeste no longer puts up lanterns or takes on any chores that require climbing, or heavy lifting. However, these tasks would be heartily handled as bustling volunteers cleaned her windows, changed her curtains and decorated her home. 

Lanterns hanging in Celeste’s home

As a retiree who has been living alone for the past five years, Celeste isn’t used to the crowd in her living room. However, this was a welcome exception. “I usually like my house to be peaceful and quiet,” said Mdm Celeste, “but Chinese New Year is different. It’s good to have more noise in the house.” 

A mother of three, Celeste’s daughters would be returning to visit her during Chinese New Year and “everyone would be here in the same spot”. This year, they would gather under Chinese red packet lanterns in a house spring cleaned and ready for the festive season.

 

A Familiar Feeling Amidst a New Crowd

The desire for more warmth and noise in the house isn’t limited to Chinese households. Madam Mariam, 67, could be heard vibrantly chatting away even before one reaches her house in Tampines West.

Mariam heartily shared about her days running a food stall, as secondary school volunteers moved her carpet. Her sprightly movements left no hint that she had stroke just two years ago.

 

Mariam and her volunteers

Like Celeste, Mariam also lives alone. While it was uncommon to have so many people in her house, it brought a familiar warmth. “I grew up in a big family. I was always the energetic and talkative one,” said Mariam. 

Zaki, 29, a volunteer, felt that perhaps, their conversations were actually more important than the cleaning. “We came here expecting a lot of clutter with many things to do. But her(Mariam) home is actually quite organized already. I think it’s the company that she really misses.”

Mariam summed her day up best when she said, “Talking to people feels very ‘shiok’ you know?”

 

A 2-Way Exchange

As Project Refresh brought the bustle Chinese New Year spring cleaning into households, residents also had something to offer volunteers.

“I have only painted once in my life. For my own house. It’s patchy,” said Gan, a lecturer and first-time volunteer at Project Refresh. He looked at the patchy paintwork added, “Just like that.” and smiled sheepishly. 

Abdul Malik’s walls would be getting a fresh coat for the first time since he moved in. The 64-year-old actually used to work as an apartment painter himself but has limited movement since his stroke attack two months ago. 

Gan and the volunteers were eager but inexperienced painters while Malik was the experienced expert, guiding them along with tips and pointers. Through this exchange, Malik opened up and reminisced about his career as a painter while Gan suggested bringing his students along for the next Project Refresh to gear them up for their Youth Expedition Project overseas.

Gan and Malik

 

Refreshed for Chinese New Year

By the end of the day, 96 households received the Project Refresh treatment. More than the cleaning, decluttering and painting, it was the crowd of volunteers scuttling, talking and laughing that really brought Chinese New Year into these homes. 

Ah Zhu, 68, a retiree who lives alone captured the spirit of Chinese New Year when she said, “If Chinese New Year doesn’t have a noisy and crowded atmosphere it’s not really Chinese New Year.”