Year of the Monkey goes digital

Traditional Chinese New Year products get a high-tech spin

Call it the year of the Digital Monkey. Virtual red packets, e-yusheng, LED-lit lucky plants - Chinese New Year traditions are getting a new techie spin.

Here are six new products for you to stay festive and up to date.

1 LED-LIT PLANTS

These glowing, LED-lit tangerine, cherry blossom, plum blossom and desert rose plants range in price from under $100 to more than $500, and can be found in at least four shops in Chinatown.

One shop, which is at 78 Pagoda Street but has no signboard, sells a 90cm-tall, 1kg shrub for $78. Its most expensive plant - a 1.8m-tall, 9kg bush - costs $538.

The shop's manager, Mr Roland Teo, 40, started importing these plants from China in 2012 to cater to families who want decorative plants, but have no time to care for them.

He says: "My plants require zero maintenance. They don't have to be watered daily. They can also be re-used every year. While they run on electricity, they are energysaving."

He sells 100 to 200 LED plants every Chinese New Year and has already sold 60 plants since Christmas.

Housewife Doris Yeo, 59, who is thinking of decorating her home with them, says: "They are definitely eye-catching and have an interesting concept. I like that they can be used year after year. But the drawback is that they consume electricity and add to the bills."

As to whether LED-lit plants are as good as the real thing, she says: "Many people decorate their homes with artificial flowers. It's perfectly fine."


LED-lit plants, which are sold in Chinatown, require zero maintenance and can be re-used. ST PHOTO: BENSON ANG


2 AUTOMATED MAHJONG TABLES

They are fast, quiet and can arrange mahjong tiles into stacks neater than players ever can.

These automated tables, which run on electricity, reportedly hit the local market in the mid-2000s. Priced from $988, they typically come with two sets of magnetic mahjong tiles, which are shuffled and arranged underneath the table in between games. Thirty seconds to one minute is all it takes to play a new round of mahjong.

The Straits Times found at least three companies here selling such tables.

Local company SgAutoMahjong.sg, for example, started selling such tables in 2013.

It sells hundreds of units, all imported from China, every year.

Prices range from $988 to more than $1,288, depending on the features.

Some tables, for example, can be operated by remote control. Others are built into larger, exquisitely crafted tables.

Mr Cheo Kae Jer, 42, bought an automated mahjong table in 2014 for $1,288. The interior designer, whose family plays five to six hours a day during the Chinese New Year period, was attracted by the amount of time it saves between mahjong games.

It lets him play 25 per cent more games in the same amount of time, he says. "I can just press a button and the table will mix and arrange the tiles for us within one minute. This gives us more time to enjoy the game."

But Dr Lim Lee Ching, a senior lecturer at SIM University who has done research on the relationship between technology and modern culture, warns that such tables omit the physical motion of shuffling tiles. For some players, this is an important part of the mahjong experience, he says.

"For them, shuffling the tiles themselves lets them feel like they are in charge of their own destiny. Like they have an element of control. This is crucial to the whole experience."


(Clockwise from far left) Mr Cheo Kim Huat, Madam Sim Teng Chin, Mr Cheo Kae Jer and Ms Stephanie Cheo enjoying a game at their automated mahjong table. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG


3 DIGITAL LOUHEI

This Web application, which is called Digital Louhei (go to http:// cny.2359media.com), lets people prepare and toss a plate of yusheng at any time, even if they are alone.

It guides users through the whole process of adding ingredients such as fish, lime, sauce, pepper and powdered cinnamon. It will also prompt them to recite auspicious sayings.

Created by local digital consultancy firm 2359 Media in February last year, it has been viewed 1.7 million times to date. Sixty per cent of its users are women and most of its users are aged 35 to 44.

Assistant Professor Qiu Lin, 42, from Nanyang Technological University, whose research interests include social psychology and cultural psychology, says: "If this app is used when families and friends get together to toss yusheng, it can coordinate the activity and make it more engaging. The app also plays lively music, which can make the occasion more festive."

One of the app's users, businessman Arthur Loh, 47, received a link to the app from a friend last year.

He says: "The app is a cute and novel idea to brighten the season. But I'm not sure how helpful the sayings will be when actually tossing a plate of yusheng. In restaurants, the wait staff will prepare the dish for you. And if you lohei at home, you can easily find the sayings online."


Digital Louhei guides users in adding ingredients to yusheng. PHOTO: 2359 MEDIA


4 HONGBAO WITH QR CODE

This year, asset management firm Schroders Singapore's red packets come with a twist: They have QR codes printed on them. Scan the code with a smartphone and users are directed to its free Chinese New Year mobile app. There, they encounter a "live" animated monkey somersaulting or juggling peaches and can take photos with it.

People can also use the app to send personalised e-greeting cards to family and friends. So far, a few thousand sets of hongbao have been distributed to the company's clients and business partners.

Sales analyst Audrey Tay, 38, who has two daughters aged four and six, says: "My children had a great time taking pictures with the virtual monkey and it was fun seeing it 'come alive'."

DBS and POSB have also been putting QR codes on hongbao since 2014. The codes allow users to send festive e-cards to friends.

During last year's Chinese New Year, about 12,000 e-cards were sent, mostly through the codes.

Dr Lim Lee Ching, a senior lecturer at SIM University, says he does not believe QR codes on hongbao will catch on. "You can also access such features through e-mail and WhatsApp messages, so I do not see QR codes taking off in a big way."


People can see an animated monkey using the QR code on asset management company Schroders Singapore’s red packets. ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN


5 DIGITAL FIRECRACKERS

Firecrackers are customary in Chinese culture and are believed to be able to drive away evil spirits, which are frightened by the loud bangs.

But in Singapore, fireworks are banned, except for public events that have obtained a licence from the police.

Even so, do not despair. A handful of mobile apps can reproduce the sound and/or image of firecrackers exploding. These include Rotje, eFirecrackers and Electronic Firecrackers.

Rotje, for example, is a free app named after the Dutch word for "firecracker" and it is available on iOS and Android.

It allows users to choose between a firecracker stick, a string of firecrackers and a nitrate bomb.

When ignited, users get to see the explosive going off and hear a sound effect.

After the dust clears, the app also displays a celebratory "Happy New Year" message on the screen.

But users such as Mr Germain Wu, 34, do not think the app is true to life at all. The video editor says: "I've played with firecrackers in Malaysia before and this app is a poor substitute for the real thing.

"The sound is not realistic and it is just not festive enough."


Mobile apps such as Rotje and eFirecrackers can reproduce the sound and/or image of firecrackers exploding. ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN


6 ELECTRONIC RED PACKETS

Since 2014, , electronic red packets - where money is sent via smartphone - have exploded in China, thanks to a new money-distributing function in WeChat, China's most popular messaging app.

In Singapore, DBS launched an eAng-Bao function in its mobile wallet app DBS PayLah! in January last year. It remains the only local bank to have an e-red packet function. More than 10,000 eAng-Bao transactions were made during last year's Chinese New Year period.

For a transaction to be successful, both giver and receiver must have the app installed on their phones. If you are lucky to receive an eAng-Bao, you will see a red packet appear on your screen.

eAng-Bao, which can be given for other festive occasions such as weddings, baby showers and birthdays, can also be personalised with photos, stickers and messages.

Mr Gene Wong, the bank's regional head of e-payments, says: "The eAng Bao provides customers with a digital alternative that allows them to carry on the tradition of red packet-giving with their families and friends even when they're apart."

Mr Bob Li, 32, sent two $50 eAng-Bao to his relatives in Malaysia last year.

The married founder of photography studio Flashbob Studio says: "My schedule did not allow me to visit them, so giving an e-angbao was my way of showing that I still thought about them."

His relatives thought the eAng-Bao was "modern" and "interesting". So he plans to give them to more relatives and friends this year.

"I will shake their hand, wish them Happy CNY and take out my phone to send them an e-AngBao."

He will do this only for relatives under 40 as he feels those older might place more importance on receiving physical red packets.

He says: "For me, the red packet itself is not very significant. What is important is the thought and e-AngBao is a novel and exciting idea."


DBS’ eAng-Bao function allows money to be transferred. PHOTO: DBS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2016, with the headline 'Year of the Monkey goes digital'. Print Edition | Subscribe