What we do on Chinese New Year

Eating fast food alone tonight

Four families and an individual share their yearly traditions, from dressing up for a photo shoot to cooking a special dish to watching a Jack Neo movie

Tonight, Ms Porsche Poh, 45, will have dinner by herself at a McDonald's outlet.

The executive director of Silver Ribbon (Singapore), a mental health advocacy organisation, will have a McSpicy burger extra value meal with fries, and a cup of green tea to wash it all down.

Eating fast food has become a tradition for her during the Chinese New Year period. She is single, an orphan and only child, whose father died of heart disease when she was seven. Her mother died of cancer 11 years later.

Despite having dinner alone on the eve of Chinese New Year, Ms Poh does not feel sad.

With a smile, she says: "Everyone will be at home having reunion dinner. There are no queues at the fast-food restaurant and I will have the whole place to myself."

Since her parents' death, she has been using the festive period to help others. She goes visiting. But instead of family members, she visits beneficiaries with mental illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

She has done so for 10 years, since Silver Ribbon was launched in 2006.

Before that, she helped out at voluntary welfare organisations catering to the elderly.

People often feel the most vulnerable during festive periods, she says. "There is a higher tendency to feel stressed or sad, especially if they are facing money troubles, or mourning a dead family member or failed relationship."

Around this period, she often receives calls from people concerned about the behaviour of their family members.

"If I suspect something serious, I will visit the family," she says.

Once, she received a call from a 60something woman who lost two daughters to illnesses and could not bear to spend Chinese New Year alone for the first time.

Ms Poh suggested that she join community activities to help her feel less lonely.

On another occasion, she encountered a recently retrenched 50something man who felt stressed having to give hongbao and answer questions from relatives about his job situation.

She advised him to approach Credit Counselling Singapore, which helps people with debt problems, for counselling.

She says: "Even if someone does not have a mental illness, he may face emotional stress and this is made worse during the holidays when most other people are happy."

During the festive period, she may visit up to five beneficiaries a day, always carrying two Mandarin oranges with her to present as gifts.

At each visit, she reads the situation to see if the beneficiaries and/or caregivers face any immediate danger.

If the beneficiary is facing an emotional issue, she suggests possible options. And even if nothing is wrong, her visit is good for a catch-up session.

Last Wednesday, for example, she visited Ms Yee Yung Jen, a beneficiary who lives with her mother in a four-room HDB flat in Taman Jurong.

Ms Yee, 37, has depression and her father died last year.

She says: "I feel happy whenever Porsche visits. Not many people visit my family during Chinese New Year, so I'm very grateful to see her."

Although beneficiaries typically offer a hongbao to Ms Poh, she declines to accept them.

And while her own extended family and friends have invited her to join their Chinese New Year celebrations, she usually declines.

She says: "They have their own families and I feel uncomfortable joining such celebrations because we are ultimately not direct family members."

Does she ever feel lonely? "No," she replies. "I don't think much about it. There are more important things - like helping others - to be concerned about."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'Eating fast food alone tonight'. Print Edition | Subscribe