Festive fervour

This article was first published in The Straits Times Life! on Jan 31, 2014 


Bryna Singh

I do not believe in wrapping presents as I'm a staunch believer in Daiso's $2 gift bags - the gift goes into the bag, I slap on a pretty pre-made sticker and voila! I'm done in seconds.

So, when I was asked to wrap Chinese New Year hampers for a day, I thought: "Could I end up a self-wrapping convert?"

Noel Gifts, which has been in the business of gift hampers for 38 years, took me in as a hamper wrapper for a day last Wednesday.

The company's peak period begins before Christmas and lasts all the way to Chinese New Year. During the festive season, it produces about 4,000 hampers daily, up from the average of 500 a day. Prices for its Chinese New Year hampers range between $50 and $2,488.

I was first sent to one of its warehouses in Tai Seng Drive, where I was taught how to pack traditional-looking pyramid- shaped hampers that contain dried goods such as ginseng, scallop and mushrooms.

There, I was introduced to production supervisor Tan Lay Poh, 42, who has been working with Noel Gifts for the past decade. The soft-spoken, petite woman let her hands do the talking.

I was stunned by the speed with which her fingers wielded the scotchtape as she demonstrated how to construct the hamper: "Make the pillar (a bottle of wine perched on top of two cans of abalone), make the walls (other items which surround the pillar), stabilise the set-up, then put the cardboard 'dressing' over it."

I am not an eco warrior, but looking at the finished product - mummified with tape - made me feel bad about what I was going to do.

"Just use," said Ms Tan coolly, as though reading my thoughts. "Over here, our tape supply comes by the truckloads."

I still wanted to be kind to the environment, but I need not have bothered trying. I ended up doing more damage to it than Ms Tan.

What she achieved with ease, I struggled to complete. I could not whip the tape around the items swiftly and the tape kept getting stuck. I missed steps and, fearing that my structure was not secure, ended up using tape liberally all over.

To test if a structure is sound, workers have to hold a hamper from its apex - the wine bottle - off the floor with one hand.

I held my breath and lifted. Nothing fell out. Phew, all the tape was worth it.

I took 20 minutes to complete one hamper, while Ms Tan took five.

Pride in what she does has kept her in this job. "You need to want to make things look good and to have patience to do that," she said.

With that in mind, I headed to my second stop in Ubi Road, the company's main office where perishable goods are packed. I was there to learn how to jazz up these hampers.

A 16-year-old temporary worker by the name of Candice Lee was my "teacher" here. "Practice makes perfect," she said chirpily and demonstrated the various steps. She started work on Jan 2.

The process involved cutting a sheet of plastic to size, putting it over the hamper, coiling four rounds of tape around it, snipping off excess plastic, putting a strip of ribbon around the hamper, blow-drying the plastic and then putting on the final decorations and labels.

How tedious, I thought.

The blow-drying step was the brainwave of a florist at the company to boost productivity, said Ms Jess Chan, advertising and promotions manager at Noel Gifts.

When I blasted the hair dryer and saw the crinkles in the plastic disappearing almost magically, I got what she meant. The plastic grew taut over the products and, soon, a perfect-looking hamper appeared. Previously, the hamper wrappers had to physically pull the plastic tight.

While the earlier steps were tiresome, I found blow-drying hugely satisfying. But when the whirring of the blades ceased and I looked at my watch, I was shocked that 30 minutes had passed.

So much work, just for one hamper.

The half-hour excluded the time taken earlier by others to stuff the hamper's base with newspapers and to arrange the goods and bind them with tape before the hamper reached me.

It dawned on me that before this production process, many others - those who source for the hamper baskets, those who visualise how the items look in each hamper and those who take pictures for the catalogue, for example - had played a part too.

As with previous years, Noel Gifts hires about 150 more part-time staff to cope with demand during the festive period. Of these, 30 to 50 are deployed to the production department to do packing. Most of these part-timers are students waiting for examination results or to serve national service, while others are retirees. Pay packages vary, but the average pay ranges from $5 to $7 an hour.

I now have a newfound respect for what they do.

Like them, I want things to look nice. But unlike them, I lack the patience to endure such a time-consuming process to achieve the results.

I'm sticking to Daiso's gift bags.


Kezia Toh

It does not matter how much homework you do, being a salesgirl is about faking a confidence you do not have.

I started reading up on pussy willows the night before I was slated to sell the plant at the Chinese New Year bazaar in Chinatown.

My "test" the next day, I thought, would require snap answers to questions such as: What are pussy willows? (A small shrub that bears furry buds from late winter onwards.) Why are they considered auspicious? (The Chinese think plants with abundant buds are lucky, and yin liu, its Chinese name, sounds like "money flowing in".)

But my shift, from 5 to 10pm on a Sunday, needed none of that.

The only thing required was to lay it on thick that the 1.8m-tall traditional plant would not be a hassle to carry onto public transport, could live more than a year with minimal care and, best of all, guarantee luck and prosperity for your family forever.

I was a first-time salesgirl at the bazaar along Temple Street, where throngs of sticky bodies shuffled along in the balmy heat, intensified by the glaring white lights.

My rookie orientation by stallowner Chen Pang Fatt, 50, who has been selling festive plants at the bazaar for more than 10 years, was barely five minutes long.

If you have ever held a cluster of pussy willows and shaken it just a little, you would know that a few buds will invariably fall off.

For fear of customers spoiling his goods, the first rule of thumb, said Mr Chen, was to make sure they do not handle the plants personally - till they have paid up, at least.

If a customer dithered in front of a plant, my job was to draw it carefully out of its bin and hold it up to be admired.

And don't bother with the tourists, added Mr Chen. They tend to stare agape at the oddly flowering pussy willows, ranging between $8 and $25 a cluster, ask a ton of questions, then leave without buying.

One question that genuine customers invariably asked, however, was: Would it be a hassle if I bring the plants home on the bus or train?

The stock answer? "Don't worry, I will wrap the stalks in plastic so you can hold it securely."

For customers who dithered while examining the plants, I was told to fill the dead airtime with my own creative suggestions to secure a buy: Plunge the willows in ice water for it to flower well (true), or hang ingots and red packets from its branches to attract wealth and prosperity, according to a Chinese belief (perhaps true?).

I was also supposed to impress them with the not-entirely-credible factoid of how pussy willow can easily last more than a year with little or no maintenance. Articles online suggest they can last anywhere from a few weeks to more than a year.

Some bought my act, including a woman who bought six bunches and paid $60, even after I suggested she could do with five.

Some customers, though, were more difficult to convince, such as a man who retorted: "How can a plant keep growing non-stop? If it breaks out of my vase, how?" He did not buy any in the end.

By the end of the night, I made a relatively paltry $115 for Mr Chen.

While my six co-workers, all Singaporeans who ranged from teenagers to those in their 50s, could close the deal with 60 to 80 customers a day - for a combined 500 customers daily - I managed only three in five hours.

Depending on how many hours they worked and how much experience they had, my co-workers earned anything from a few hundred bucks to more than a thousand dollars for the duration of the 21- day bazaar. I was not paid.

But even if I had been, I doubted that I would want to do the job again. As enjoyable as it was chatting with customers, I know that too much chit-chat defeats the purpose - to make a quick sale.


Eunice Quek

Stay focused. Do not look at the customers staring daggers at you as your trembling hand weighs 1kg of bak kwa.

That was one of the many lessons I learnt from a gruelling day's work at popular bak kwa brand Lim Chee Guan's flagship outlet in New Bridge Road in the heart of bustling Chinatown.

With no prior training, I was thrown into the thick of the action just half an hour after the shop opened at 9am on Wednesday last week.

Senior staff member Wong Kim Fah, 33, had the unenviable task of being my supervisor for the day.

My tasks included weighing, wrapping, packing, sealing and grilling bak kwa. Simple enough, I thought, until I discovered the intense speed at which the Lim Chee Guan staff were working at.

With about a week to Chinese New Year, there is a queue of about 100 people at any given time of the day, said Mr Wong, who has spent 13 years with the company. Lim Chee Guan itself was established in 1938 by the late Lim Kay Eng and is now run by his son, Mr Rod Lim, 61. It has two other branches, in People's Park Complex and Ion Orchard.

Customers gave me frustrated stares as I took 10 seconds too long to weigh 500g of the caramelised pork slices. It was nerve-racking to see people, who started queuing as early as 6am, give you the evil eye. People impatient for their bak kwa can spot a slow-moving newbie from 50m away.

Packets of barbecued meat started piling up because I was too slow to shove them into bags for sealing. I heard a weary sigh from the cashier when I failed to seal bags fast enough. Press too hard on the sealing machine and the bag could melt from the heat. Don't press hard enough and it does not seal properly.

Even when I accidentally dropped a small piece of bak kwa on the floor, there wasn't time to apologise or ponder the gravity of my mistake. One of the staff noticed and wordlessly kicked it away. Five seconds later, it was like nothing ever happened.

I never felt slower in my entire life, even though I was moving as quickly as I could.

Throw in the high volume of bak kwa ordered and my head was spinning after a few orders.

In the lead-up to Chinese New Year, this flagship outlet limits buyers to 50kg of barbecued pork slices a person. The other two outlets have set lower limits of 15kg and 3kg respectively. Limits vary during the festive period, depending on the supply available. It costs $52 for 1kg of bak kwa during the Chinese New Year period, compared to $46 on normal days.

Complicated orders slowed down the retail process. For example, one order required me to split 100kg of bak kwa into 61kg (wrapped in 500g portions), 38kg (1kg portions) and 1kg (200g portions). Oh, and split the bill of at least $5,000 among four credit cards, please.

I now have the utmost respect for Lim Chee Guan staff, a mix of part-timers and full-timers who have been working with the brand for more than 10 years.

All of them were calm and collected in the face of impatient customers, even when dealing with difficult buyers and the odd complaint of people "cutting queue". When customers cut queue, the protocol is for a member of the staff to go out and ask them to join the queue.

My comrades in bak kwa-selling worked like a well-oiled machine. They had the routine down pat, each action part of a time-saving strategy, from the displaying of bak kwa in the most mouth-watering way on trays (put nicely cut square pieces on top) to the folding of the merchandise in grease-proof paper into the perfect parcel (the trick is in folding and tucking the paper in swiftly).

Pity, they had to cope with me - the spanner in the works.

It turned out that what I was most concerned about - grilling bak kwa - was actually not so stressful, even though I burnt a few pieces. The heat of the charcoal fire was nothing compared to the searing gaze of anxious, restless customers.

During the Chinese New Year period, bak kwa is grilled on a 24-hour basis at Lim Chee Guan's factory at Pandan Loop, to cope with the volume required. But on normal days, the staff are trained to grill the pork slices too.

I worked up a sweat as I spent about an hour throwing pre-marinated bak kwa on the fire and constantly flipping each piece with the help of Mr Wong, who doublechecked that each piece was cooked properly and not too charred.

There is no timer to monitor the cooking of the bak kwa but it takes about five minutes to cook each piece. The slices are cooked when the fat in each piece has been rendered, caramelising the meat.

Away from the crowd, Mr Wong finally lightened up and said that I was "okay" for a newbie. "Perhaps I can hire you next year," he added.

Then, in a very grave tone, he advised: "If you are working tomorrow, you'd better sleep early tonight. If not, you won't be able to move."

Another senior member of staff, Mr Lai Chee Kean, 28, joked: "Do you have articles to write? Tell your editor you can't. You need a massage."

They were not kidding.

It took every ounce of strength for me to drag myself to work the next day. My body, especially my right arm and shoulder, cried out in agony. I am relieved, though, to be writing stories instead. Fast-paced as the newsroom is, it is a breeze compared to the literal and psychological heat of selling bak kwa.


Melissa Kok

There is a little-known pre-Chinese New Year workout that guarantees you will lose 2 to 3 kg in a few weeks.

There are no newfangled exercises involved, just plain heavy lifting and running around under the sun. What do you have to do? Work at a plant nursery during the festive period.

About two weeks ago, I was in the thick of pre-festive frenzy at World Farm nursery in Bah Soon Pah Road, near the Khatib army camp. There, I became a manual worker for an afternoon, taking on a few laborious tasks that workers there do during this period, the busiest time for the trade.

On that warm Sunday, I found myself perched on a lorry, unloading pots of button chrysanthemums weighing 5kg each with three other workers.

I was guided by Mr Lee Meng Kwan, 48, assistant general manager of the nursery, an affable man whose tanned, weather-worn skin reflects his 22 years of experience in the industry.

We formed a human chain, passing the pots down to a smaller vehicle that would transport the plants to the sale area. The task was completed in under an hour. And barely an hour after the plants hit the sale zone, they were all snapped up. Coloured raffia strings were tied around the pots, indicating they had been reserved and paid for by customers.

That was the kind of blink-fast turnover the nursery sees on the weekends leading up to Chinese New Year, with customers showing up in droves as early as 8am, hoping to find the best plants that would bring them luck and prosperity.

Mr Lee declined to give specific figures, but said the nursery can ring up three to four times more sales during this period compared to regular days.

Business was so brisk that customers were left to grab their own trolleys and wander the nursery grounds to pick out popular plants, such as the yellow and red Phoenix Tail (celosia), kum quat and citrus lime trees, as well as the tall Cocks Comb plants.

All these plants symbolise prosperity, happiness and good fortune, said Mr Lee. "This is the tradition during Chinese New Year. You need to have festive music playing, the red and yellow celosia... or it's not Chinese New Year."

Every year during this time, he said, he loses 2 to 3kg from running around. He was zipping around the nursery in a buggy attending to what seemed like a never-ending stream of customers.

"Christmas is nothing compared to Chinese New Year," the father of one said when asked to compare business during the two holiday periods.

The nursery sells about 24 container-loads of Chinese New Year plants imported from Belgium, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Vietnam. Each container holds about 2,500 plants. During Christmas, Mr Lee says the nursery sells "a few thousand" trees and plants.

The most common questions from customers I heard that day were: "When is your next shipment?" or "Got new one coming or not?".

If World Farm's team of 50 workers were not busy restocking the sales floor and receiving stocks of new plants by the lorry-loads, they were out on delivery runs

A few thousand plants are delivered daily during this period, including 2m-tall Four Seasons (citrus) Lime plants from China, which I was tasked to wrap for delivery. I was given thick black netting with which to cocoon these plants and secure them to prevent damage during transport, a rather tedious task for a 1.6m-tall person like myself.

After several attempts, Mr Lee stepped in to help. When the two plants were secured, I sat down on the floor, too tired to continue.

Thankfully, it was mid-afternoon by then and my six-hour shift was nearing its end. I might have shed a little weight that day, but I doubt I will be signing up for this weight-loss programme any time soon. This is definitely not a job for wimps.


Rebecca Lynne Tan

The first time I made pineapple tarts, I was about four.

Back then, I was allowed to do only two things: stick my finger in the fluffy butter and sugar that had been creamed and eat it; and stir pineapple jam that had already been cooked and cooled.

My mum let me pretend I was helping, but I was probably more of a nuisance. We never made pineapple tarts again, although I do bake the odd cake and crumble.

Then last Wednesday, I found myself heading to Pine Garden's Cake in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 to make pineapple tarts - from scratch and by hand, no less.

The bakery has been making these perennial favourites, a tedious process, for the last 30 years.

The jam is usually done days before the making of the tarts and the pastry is made in the morning. But on that afternoon, the bakery gave me a taste of all the processes, from start to finish.

Step 1: Cut the thorns, better known as eyes, out of each pineapple, by hand.

At least the skin had been peeled, I mumbled to myself, as I put on a glove and picked up a paring knife.

Two second-generation owners, cousins Yun Chan and Low Li Keow, both in their 40s, and two Straits Times photojournalists were watching quietly.

There were 10 pineapples to peel, less than a tenth of what is usually done in a day at the bakery. In fact, the kitchen usually makes jam in two batches of 60 pineapples each a day.

I proceeded to cut out the eyes in a diagonal fashion. I was slow, but I blamed the blunt knife.

Mr Kerry Chia, 37, who has been working at the bakery for 21 years and was there to oversee my work, glanced over at me as I was making the final incisions into my pineapple. He nodded and remarked in Mandarin: "Not bad. You have some skill."

But in the time I took to peel three pineapples, Mr Chia had already finished the other seven.

Step 2: Grate the pineapple

The bakery still uses an old-fashioned brass grater with a wooden base.

My hand is a lot smaller than Mr Chia's and I was having trouble holding and grating a whole pineapple. After two pineapples, my right arm began throbbing. For the rest of the fruit, I ended up alternating between each hand, sometimes using both hands, to distribute the load.

I clocked a personal best of one minute, 25 seconds to grate a whole pineapple. Mr Chia's best time? The 15 or so seconds that it took for me to take a deep breath, wipe the perspiration off my brow and scratch my head in disbelief.

Step 3: Stirring the pineapple

Mr Chia drained the pineapple, poured the pulp into a pot and said: "This part will be easy, it is such a small batch."

Easy? Err, I had been stirring the pineapple continuously, on high heat, for the last 15 minutes and it felt as if I had been standing at the hot stove for an hour.

But watching the excess juice evaporate and smelling the sweet aroma of pineapple as it began to caramelise helped to take my mind off my spasming arm muscles.

The whole process of cooking the jam was monotonous. It usually takes about 11/2 to two hours, but Mr Chia was kind enough to let me move on to the pastry section after about 30 minutes.

Steps 4 and 5: Roll out the dough with a rolling pin, then cut the pastry with a mould. Make spherical pineapple jam balls.

After the fiddly and muscle-aching work in the hot kitchen, rolling out the pastry and cutting it seemed a breeze. It also helped that this part was done in the air-conditioned part of the central kitchen. The pastry had been made in the morning. I weighed and rolled the dough into sheets.

The cousins have a technique for unmoulding the tiny tart shells and it is one that they have perfected over the years. I developed my own method and the cousins did not seem too fussed.

Next, it was time to get sticky, rolling the jam into balls that weighed 8g each. A digital scale was placed next to me.

My first two balls were spot on at 8g each and I was elated. I started to get complacent and the balls began hovering between 7 and 9g. I kept at it.

Steps 6 and 7: Shaping the pineapple and baking the tarts

I sat next to Pine Garden's Cake's co-founder, Madam Lee Ah Moy, 74, who demonstrated how to shape the pineapple jam balls into appealing mounds that had to be pressed to the edge of the tart shells. She set up the bakery with her sister-in-law, Mrs Annie Chan, now 70, in 1984.

Madam Lee spoke to me in Teochew. I barely understood her, but got the gist of it. Her daughter, Li Keow, 48, said the idea is to make the tart look like a sunflower.

Madam Lee issued gentle instructions as she demonstrated each step. Again, I was slow at this, but she smiled and complimented me, saying that my tarts looked pretty. I was later told a compliment from her is very rare.

I placed the trays in the oven and 20 minutes later, they were done. I popped one into my mouth. Nothing could beat a handmade pineapple tart made, mostly, by me. Ah, the fruits of my labour.

Lots of time and effort, not to mention muscle spasms, go into making these little morsels of pineapple pleasure. I am still in awe.

This article was first published in The Straits Times Life! on Jan 31, 2014