Meet Mr River Hongbao

Mr Perng Peck Seng was in his early 30s, newly married and a dubbing producer with the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, when he was asked to stage the inaugural River Hongbao in 1987.

It was then only a two-day event staged on the banks of the Singapore River by Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, and supported by groups such as the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) and the People's Association (PA).

Mr Perng, who was then head of SFCCA's cultural committee, was seen to be the best person for the job. He was active in the local Chinese cultural scene, having started the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan's cultural troupe.

Thirty years and more than two cycles of the Chinese zodiac later, Mr Perng has seen River Hongbao grow to an event that spans as many as 17 days.

Today, it has become Singapore's leading Chinese New Year event, attracting more than a million visitors each year with its giant character lanterns, food and entertainment. Now 64, Mr Perng is still putting the act together for this year's event, which takes place over nine days, at the Marina Bay Floating Platform.

At Saturday evening's light-up and opening, which also marked the event's 30th year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described Mr Perng as the tui shou or "main person" behind the River Hongbao festivities. Mr Lee also presented him with a special Recognition Award for his voluntary service spanning three decades. 

"I feel humbled to receive the award and it will motivate me to do even better," the man who is undoubtedly Mr River Hongbao told The Straits Times.

Mr Perng, now executive director of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan Cultural Academy, said his passion for promoting Chinese culture and sense of mission in making Chinese New Year a special event here kept him going all these years.

"My real reward truly is in seeing the event grow, and crowds, both young and old, enjoying themselves at the event," said Mr Perng, who is also SFCCA treasurer and president of the Nanyang Fang Shee Association.

Mr Perng, who has a 28-year-old daughter, was also happy to see more young people at the event in recent years, perhaps due to efforts to appeal to them.

This year, there is a pictorial exhibition tracing the history of River Hongbao, and more than 1,500 students from 27 schools have registered for a guided tour.

Mr Perng, who moved here at age six from southern China, said River Hongbao is an important event for Singapore. The alumnus of Chung Cheng High School said River Hongbao was the Chinese community's response to concerns voiced in the 1980s by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that young Chinese Singaporeans were losing interest in their cultural heritage.

More Chinese Singaporeans, Mr Lee had observed then, were leaving the country on holidays instead of staying home to celebrate.

"A group of leaders from the Chinese community, cultural groups and the media, including myself, met in 1986 to discuss the problem and came up with the River Hongbao idea," Mr Perng recalled.

Over the years, the site for the event changed several times, but always stayed in the Singapore River area. It has been held at its present site at the Marina Bay Floating Platform since 2009.

While the event was led by representatives from Lianhe Zaobao and the SFCCA previously, a group of Mandarin-speaking MPs got involved from 2009 and has been chairing its organising committee since. This year's committee chairman is Mr Liang Eng Hwa, an MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.

Mr Perng said his most difficult task as programme chairman is "to be different every year".

For that, he has to travel often to China, Taiwan and neighbouring countries to look for performers.

This year, Taipei's Hwa Kang Dance Troupe and Nanjing's Song and Dance Theatre are the main performers on the first five nightly shows. Local xinyao and getai singers, and other Singapore groups, will perform on the last four days, till the event ends on Sunday.

With no hint of retiring soon, Mr Perng said his preparation for the next River Hongbao started when this year's began.

"I start thinking of ways to improve next year's event when I hear feedback from visitors, or when things did not go the way I want them to," he said.

This article was first published on February 08, 2016.
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