Sheep muscle in on Year of the Goat

Sheep muscle in on Year of the Goat
A child at Chinatown browsing both sheep and goat merchandise.

With Chinese New Year just weeks away, Chinatown is all decked out and ready to usher in the Year of the Goat.

But take a quick trot around the area and you will soon see that the goat is facing some serious competition from another breed of livestock - the fluffy sheep.

It does not seem to matter that goats and sheep are entirely different species.

People are putting zoology aside for the sake of aesthetics and voting cute sheep over spindly mountain goats when it comes to festive paraphernalia.

Technically speaking, the different interpretations are not wrong. Assistant professor Lee Cheuk Yin, who heads the Department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore, says: "As the Chinese character is yang, the zodiac sign could be interpreted as either shanyang (mountain goat), mianyang (sheep) or lingyang (gazelle) and still be technically correct."

If that is the case, how did the goat claim the coveted spot in the traditional Chinese zodiac in the first place?

The simple answer is that sheep and gazelles were not commonly found in ancient China, so the Chinese were not familiar with these other breeds. Geomancer Thomas T., 50, who owns Geomancy Hut consultancy, says: "This is why, from a traditional perspective, it's inaccurate to call this the Year of the Sheep or Ram because the zodiac sign has always been associated with the mountain goat."

Another geomancer, Mr Kevin Foong, 35, agrees that the traditional Chinese zodiac is not open to interpretation.

"A goat's horns are a sign of strength, which makes it more majestic compared with the more docile sheep," he explains. But he acknowledges that interpretations can evolve as cultures become more Westernised.

"As brands have to market to consumers, it's not surprising that they will be more likely to go for sheep-themed products, which are cuter and easier to sell," he says.

A tour around Chinatown bears this out, with cartoony interpretations of fluffy sheep plastered on everything from red packets to banners and lanterns.

At Chinatown store Giftmaster, which is selling mainly sheep soft toys for Chinese New Year, sales assistant Ivy Koh, 24, says: "Customers generally prefer sheep to goats as they're more adorable, so we stock more of those."

Ms Angelia Lim, 50, manager of another store in the area called Feng Shui Specialist, has stocked both goat and sheep merchandise for Chinese New Year.

While she has seen equal demand for both animals, she says: "It's usually middleaged customers who opt for traditional goat merchandise, while the younger ones gravitate towards the sheep toys."

Ms Camille Lin, 33, a Taiwanese tourist who was shopping in Chinatown, says sheep are also beating out the goats in the marketplace at home.

"We have lots of cute sheep plush toys in Taiwan too. I don't think it dilutes the culture just because the zodiac sign is interpreted differently," adds the waitress.

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