She's done Chinatown light-up for CNY since 2000

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 6, 2014. 

FROM snake sculptures weaving through roads, to horses leaping over bridges, Ms Jennifer Lee has had to constantly outdo herself during Chinese New Year over the past 14 years.

Ms Lee has been involved in decorations themed around all 12 animal zodiac signs since her first Chinatown light-up in 2000.

She is also in charge of this year's light-up, which will be switched on by President Tony Tan Keng Yam on Saturday.

The decorations feature 176 horse-shaped lanterns - 88 in the heart of Chinatown and another 88 along South Bridge Road - designed by students from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

"I like the impact," Ms Lee, a grassroots volunteer, said. "You have all the horses galloping into Chinatown, then finally, the 10m-high horse and the sea of golden ingots."

Ms Lee, who would say only that she is in her mid-30s, is one of the youngest in the team of about 20 members who organise the annual festive celebrations. Most are part of the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens Consultative Committee, which is advised by Dr Lily Neo, MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC.

She gave the SUTD students the design theme of "wan ma ben teng (ten thousand horses galloping ahead)", and worked with them to improve on their design ideas, such as ensuring that the structures can be set up and provide good photo angles.

Ms Lee grew up in Chinatown, where her parents have been managing a fish stall in a wet market since she was born. Even after moving house when she was six, she has continued to hang out in the area on weekends.

"I know the people around here," she said. "I'm familiar with the little back lanes. I know where to get what people want. My friends know I'm the walking directory for Chinatown."

The business management graduate also spent about eight years working as a marketing and promotions manager at the Chinatown Business Association.

Though her current workplace is near West Coast Road, she still goes to Chinatown about three times a week, volunteering to plan different festivals in the area.

"Basically, we never rest," she said of her team. "When planning for the Mid-Autumn Festival, we already start issuing the tender for local contractors to set up the Chinese New Year decor."

With different zodiac signs to consider each year, she admitted that some animal signs require more design considerations.

"When it comes to the Year of the Snake, or Rat, there are more taboos," she said. "We can have many horses, but we can't have too many snakes or rats in Chinatown!"

Her role has also got more challenging over the years. "Last time, it was very simple. Just have an archway, some LED lights, string some decorations across the streets. But when people travel more, they see more, their expectations are higher."

Visitors have criticised some previous decorations for being tacky and ugly. In 2008, during the Year of the Rat, some were upset over the use of Disney characters. "We try to think of all the possibilities when considering the designs but we can't please everybody," she said. "We really have to think out of the box, otherwise, it'd be stagnant with the same kind of decorations every year."

Ms Lee is willing to continue overseeing the decorations in the future and still has something in particular that she has "always wanted to do".

"The Orchard Road shopping malls have their own decorations. If our Chinatown shophouses can have that as well, that would be cool," she said.

goyshiyi@sph.com.sg