The great Li Chun panic

Thursday, Feb 4, 2016 is the day that will forever be etched in my memory as the day of The Great Li Chun Panic.

It all started with a strange cosmic miscommunication.

I was at a restaurant in Tanjong Pagar waiting for a business contact to arrive. Fifteen minutes after our agreed appointment time, there was still no sign of her, so I checked my e-mail and discovered that the confirmation e-mail I sent her was still somehow stuck in my outbox undelivered.

With lunch unceremoniously cancelled, I had spare time on my hands, so I decided to head to the bank to withdraw new banknotes for hongbao. My parents always ask me to do this for them and I tend to leave this to the last minute. This year was no different - with the Chinese New Year being just four days away.

The bank branch in Bishan was so packed that there were no seats left in the waiting area, but I patiently waited until my turn was called.

When I got to the counter and asked to withdraw some money in new notes, the teller was strangely hesitant.

"Did you make a reservation?" (Sorry no, I replied.)

"We are completely out of $10 notes, you know." (Oh, that's okay, I said.)

"So, actually which notes do you want?" she said, looking even more tentative than before.

I was slightly puzzled, but I put it down to her having a long and difficult day. Less than two minutes later, I was walking out with a white envelope fat with hongbao money.

Back at the office, I was eating my takeaway lunch when I noticed a press release in my inbox.

"In the spirit of celebrating the Lunar New Year, DBS/POSB made a surprise announcement to staff yesterday that they'd be receiving their February salaries on 4 February, also known as "Li Chun" on the Chinese calendar," said the release.

"Over the last few years, Singaporeans have taken to the practice of making cash deposits to their bank accounts on Li Chun. With their salaries being deposited on Li Chun for them, all 10,000 DBS/POSB employees in Singapore will essentially have their deposit needs taken care of."

I nearly choked on my basil pork rice with fried egg.

Switching over to The Straits Times website, I noticed my colleagues had just filed a news story with many pictures of the long queues that had formed islandwide of people waiting to deposit cash into ATMs.

"The practice of banking in money on Li Chun, which some believe can help grow their wealth and ensure good luck, has caught on in recent years," said the story. "Also known as Farmers' Day, Li Chun traditionally falls on Feb 4 each year."

It went on to quote people in the queue who said that since Li Chun is the first day of spring, depositing money marks an auspicious start to the year. The hope is that money will keep going in for the rest of the year, ensuring prosperity.

Holy cow!

Not only had I not deposited money on Li Chun, I had just made possibly the largest withdrawal for the whole year from my bank account - having taken out enough hongbao money not just for myself and my parents, but also the biggest hongbao of all, from myself to my parents.

I had previously paid only vague attention to the relatively new practice of depositing money on Li Chun. But when Singapore's largest bank takes it seriously enough to change payroll dates for 10,000 employees, this clearly isn't some monkey business for the new year.

Suddenly, everything started to connect.

No wonder everyone looked at me funny at the bank.

No wonder the bank teller was so half-hearted. Bless her soul, she was trying to warn me with her eyes - even as she was forced to say the words her customer service trainers would have been proud of!

No wonder my stock portfolio was hopelessly in the red, no wonder I kept buying useless things that I didn't need, the list went on and on. And that was this past year, when I just didn't deposit money on Li Chun, much less made a huge withdrawal.

Panicked, I went to ask bemused colleagues what I should do.

"Haha, you can deposit some money with me," said an extremely unhelpful one.

"Are you sure this is not just nonsense?" asked another, saying that he did not recall such a practice when we were growing up. This in turn sparked quite a serious philosophical conversation on whether newly invented customs such as tossing yu sheng are as worth following as old ones.

According to media and online reports, the practice of depositing money on Li Chun is relatively recent. Some fengshui masters have already declared it a myth, saying that it started a few years ago when a chart appeared stating the auspicious hours to deposit money on the day.

But most others advised me to play safe and put all the money back, with a bit more, so that on a net basis money would have gone into and not out of my account for the day.

"Can you just bank in a cheque?" asked one colleague, to a chorus of horrified 'Noooooos' from the others. Cheques take two days to clear, so the money goes in only after the Chinese New Year, we calculated.

"In this day and age, can't he just do an electronic transfer?" asked another.

But is that just moving money around and not depositing anything, we wondered. Caishen, the God of Fortune, may tolerate new customs, but let's not push our luck.

In the end, I decided I had to return to the bank after work to stand in line and put back the money plus a little more.

And then go back to the bank on Friday morning - for a third time - to take it out again.

As one colleague put it: "You don't want to ruin a potentially good year."

That is true for me, because in the Year of the Monkey, those born in the Year of the Rat are supposed to do quite well.

All Rats are already of the water element, which is lacking this year. But as a Water Rat born in 1972, I have "double water" and so, as international fengshui superstar Lilian Too puts it, "enjoy outstanding good fortune".

According to a new chart circulated online by shipping company 65daigou, those born in Rat years had two time slots on Li Chun to deposit money. I missed the first one but could definitely make it for the next one, which was between 5 and 7pm.

So after my last meeting for the day, I drove down to the bank's headquarters in Raffles Place where I figured there would be the most number of cash deposit machines available.

There were three, but in front of each of them, there was already a long line of young executives waiting to put down their insurance money for a good year.

As I got in line for the next 45 minutes, I had plenty of time to look at the people around me - at their good skin and worked-out bodies in well-tailored clothes, communicating with their friends and loved ones on their shiny new mobile devices.

I looked up at the stained glass in the beautiful vast banking hall with its hushed air-conditioning. Outside, the sun was setting and people were on the way home or to the cafes, restaurants and gyms amid the well-ordered streets at the foot of towering skyscrapers.

Good fortune is actually everywhere in Singapore and you don't have to look very hard to find it.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to have just a little more, I thought, as I finally made my Li Chun deposit at 6.46pm with a grateful smile.

This article was first published on February 7, 2016.
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