Masks on and no shouting please: Quieter lohei to welcome Year of the Ox

For diners who want a hands-off experience, staff at Man Fu Yuan at the Intercontinental Singapore can toss the yusheng, plate it and then serve. PHOTO: MAN FU YUAN

SINGAPORE - Auspicious cheers of "nian nian you yu", "da ji da li" and "bu bu gao sheng" that echo through restaurants during Chinese New Year will be muted in the Year of the Ox.

Yes, the face masks diners have to wear while tossing yusheng will muffle the sound, but the new rules of engagement also say that shouting will not be allowed.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected most parts of people's lives and will, of course, loom large over Chinese New Year celebrations, which will run for 15 days from Feb 12 to 26.

But at least lohei is still allowed this year.

The tossing of a raw fish (although increasingly, restaurants also offer cooked options such as abalone) and vegetable salad by diners around the table, accompanied by the chanting of auspicious phrases for the new year, has been part of Chinese New Year celebrations here since the mid-1960s.

Restaurants tell The Straits Times they have been told that diners have to keep their masks on during the lohei. These can only be removed when eating or drinking. Diners are also not allowed to shout the auspicious phrases during lohei.

The Singapore Food Agency and the Singapore Tourism Board did not answer questions from ST.

Restaurants contacted have also come up with additional measures to make sure diners are able to lohei while staying safe.

Front-of-house staff at Carlton Hotel Singapore's Wah Lok Cantonese Restaurant will stand 1m away from the dining table when introducing the dish and reciting the auspicious sayings.

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The restaurant will provide each guest with a pair of gloves and a pair of 50cm-long chopsticks for tossing the salad. Serving cutlery will be available for diners to serve themselves.

The Swensen's chain will also provide disposable chopsticks for tossing and serving yusheng.

Andaz Singapore will be serving yusheng at its Auntie's Wok and Steam restaurant. A spokesman says staff will not recite the auspicious sayings tableside with guests.

"Instead, guidance will be given in the format of a card, which will accompany each yusheng purchase, and our associates, wearing gloves and face masks, will only introduce guests to the items on the table, before leaving them to recite the sayings in their own group," the spokesman added.

The card will have a QR code to a video showing staff reciting the auspicious sayings from start to finish.

The Soup Restaurant chain will not have staff preparing yusheng at the front of its restaurants.

Tables in its restaurants will have stickers on them, reminding diners to keep their masks on while tossing yusheng.

Blue Lotus, a Chinese restaurant in Sentosa, is working with Tuck Lee Ice this year to deliver its yusheng to homes and offices PHOTO: BLUE LOTUS SINGAPORE

Mr Lee Richards, vice-president of operations for South-east Asia of Millennium Hotels and Resorts, says Hua Ting Restaurant at Orchard Hotel can offer individual portions of yusheng upon request.

At Yan, a Chinese restaurant at the National Gallery, staff will remind diners to put on their masks and sanitise their hands before tossing the yusheng. Diners will each be given a pair of chopsticks specifically for yusheng. After the tossing of the salad, staff will offer to portion it out to each diner. If they prefer to serve themselves, serving cutlery will be available.

This will also happen at Yi by Jereme Leung at Raffles Hotel. A spokesman for the restaurant says: "The colleague serving the yusheng will begin the session by reminding everyone of the guidelines for lohei as set by the Government - which is that guests must don masks during the lohei itself and that there should be no shouting during the session."

The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore is serving yusheng in two of its restaurants: Summer Pavilion and Colony.

At one-Michelin-starred Summer Pavilion, staff will portion out the salad for each diner after they have done the lohei. At Colony, diners will serve themselves using the serving spoons provided.

For diners who want a hands-off experience, staff at Man Fu Yuan at the Intercontinental Singapore can toss the yusheng, plate it and then serve. The restaurant's Blossoms of Spring Prosperity Yu Sheng comes on a spinning tray. Diners can spin it for good fortune, instead of tossing the salad.

And for people who would rather not lohei in a restaurant, Blue Lotus, a Chinese restaurant in Sentosa, is working with Tuck Lee Ice this year to deliver its yusheng to homes and offices. The salads will be transported in refrigerated trucks to ensure food safety.

Airline pilot Gan Chee Ming, 51, who plans to lohei with family and friends multiple times during Chinese New Year, says: "While I fully understand why there are restrictions, I think not shouting while doing the lohei takes something away from the process. Less fun, less of an atmosphere. But I'll still continue, mask on, no shouting, for the luck it'll hopefully bring."

Mr Julian Lim, 44, a fund manager who does lohei with family and for work, says: "We continue to have zero or near-zero cases daily because of these strict measures. I am perfectly fine with this. Follow-on waves in cities around Asia continue to remind us why we still need these guidelines to be in place and to be adhered to, until a significant swathe of the population is vaccinated.

"To me, the most significant parts of yusheng are receiving the auspicious blessings from the servers to us diners, and the gentle tossing and accompanying well-wishes to one another.

"They are the raison d'etre for me. The overzealous tossing and shouts of 'huat ah' are more of a fun social activity with work associates. So while it may temper down the fun aspects of yusheng, frankly, I don't think it will diminish the true significance of this dish for me."

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