Hongbao hunters (CNY series part 5 of 6)

Pictures by: 
Benjamin Seetor
Report by: 
Celine Chen

Every Sunday morning, the thin and slightly hunched Mr Poo Ah Dek hauls three suitcases, each weighing about 10 kg, and straps them on his bicycle. The 72-year-old painter sets off at 10am and pedals about 15km from his home at Bedok South to Chinatown.

He reaches China Court at 11am, finds a table and sets about unpacking his suitcases, which are filled with hongbao. He has been collecting hongbao for over 10 years and his suitcases are filled to the brim. The selection he takes out are a mere fraction of his entire collection.

China Court, near Hong Lim Complex, is the gathering place for hongbao collectors in Singapore, and they meet to trade hongbao designs every Sunday throughout the year, not just during Chinese New Year.

Malaysian retiree LiZhong Qiu is one of them. “My wife and I are from Johor Baru. We come every weekend and stay at my son’s place,” said Mr Li, 60, who has been collecting hongbao for the last five to six years with his wife. “We have items from Malaysia that Singaporean collectors are looking for, andwelike the hongbao designs from Singapore. “But we do it mainly for fun and as a way to get to know more people since we’re both retired,” he said.

The gathering usually sees seven to eight people, who are mostly in their 70s and 80s. “This is good, it helps to prevent dementia,” said Mr Poo with a chuckle.

At 2pm, he packs up and rides to Sungei Road, his favourite place to look for hongbao, which he gets for 30 cents to 50 cents a packet. “Last time, when I was younger, I came here all the time. But that was when the flea market was bigger and had more stalls.

Nowadays,hongbao are rarely seen here,” he said. The space for the market was halved in 2011 to make way for the construction of Jalan Besar MRT station. That Sunday, when The New Paper caught up with him, he chanced upon one packet of hongbao, which he paid 50 cents for. He also traded in a few of his own hongbao for MRT cards. “I can use them again next time when I want to trade in for hongbao,”he said.

At 4pm,he cycled home. “My things are very heavy and cycling is convenient. On the bus, I can carry a maximum of one or two suitcases, but on the bicycle, I can bring more,” said Mr Poo. Home for him is a three-room flat, which he shares with his wife of 52 years,who is also 72.

Upon walking into the corner flat, this reporter was stunned by his hongbao collection. Many were kept neatly in boxes stacked on the floor, some were littered on the ground, and some were hanging in the form of lanterns from the ceiling. Mr Poo showed us his room, where hongbao were neatly arranged into photo albums.

There were at least 200 albums filling up his cabinets and floor-to-ceiling shelves. Some hongbao were also stored in 20 mandarin orange cartons in a tower stack. Said Mr Poo: “When my grandson comes, he likes to say, ‘Wah, Grandpa, you have so many toys!’ ”

Mr Poo began collecting hongbao 12 years ago. “I used to collect MRT cards, then I noticed that hongbao were prettier and not very expensive,” he said. Mr Poo sells his hongbao for 30 to 50 cents a piece and claimed that he earns about $100 a week selling them.

“I once bought 32 packs of coffee because there were free hongbao as freebies. It will take me 1 1/2 years to finish them all,” said Mr Poo with a laugh. “Every weekend, during my free time, I’ll arrange them into albums. If not, sometimes, I don’t touch them at all, or I’ll just take them out to have a look,” he said with pride.

His favourite set of hongbao was given to him by an old friend, featuring the Four Beauties of China. “This is something money can’t buy and I will never sell them,” he said fondly. Mr Poo intends for his daughter to inherit them. He said: “She’s also interested in hongbao collecting, so I will leave them to her.”

This article was first published in The New Paper on February 12, 2013.