Filipinos Princess Celestino, 28, and Anton Arcilla, 30, were among 15 people matched to a host family for a Chinese New Year reunion dinner on Sunday as part of an initiative – Just An Extra Chair – by the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM).
The graduate students from National University of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy told The New Paper that the SKM ad on Facebook first caught their attention a week ago.
“I saw the ad on Facebook and quickly signed up for it. Both of us have only been here for eight months so we felt that it’s a good opportunity to meet new people outside our school and to immerse ourselves in a new cultural tradition,” said Ms Celstino, who prefers to be known as Ms Cess.
Her classmate, Mr Anton, agreed: “My friends told me stories about how they would gather with their extended families over food so I wanted to experience it first-hand.”
The pair was matched and introduced to Madam Dolly Tan, 56. They exchanged contact numbers and interacted with each other through mobile messaging app Whatsapp.
“Dolly told us about the food that she would be preparing for the dinner and everything sounded so good. There would even be steamboat, which was very interesting because I’ve never tried it before,” said Mr Anton.
At about 7pm, the pair turned up at Madam Tan’s house with oranges and decked in red.
“I loved that everyone in Dolly’s family helped prepare for the dinner. It made me miss my family back in the Phillipines,” said Ms Cess.
Madam Tan, an administrative assistant, has been hosting dinners for her colleagues, especially Chinese nationals who have been spending the festive season alone, for the past six years. She said the SKM initiative gave her the opportunity to open her doors to more guests.
“I always feel a little sad for those who cannot go home to their families to celebrate this joyous occasion, so I want to open up my house so that they can join my family instead,” she said.
After the introduction to Ms Cess and Mr Anton on Whatsapp, Madam Tan spent a week preparing for the reunion dinner. She even visited three supermarkets regularly just to make sure she got her hands on the best possible ingredients for steamboat.
“I didn’t want to buy so many things too early because I wanted it to be fresh. So I kept going to Sheng Siong, Giant and NTUC FairPrice to compare the quality,” added the mother of one.
At the dinner, Mr Anton said he felt at home with Madam Tan’s family.
“Everyone crowded around the table and I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. I enjoyed the food and the company very much,” he said.
Said Madam Tan: “The meal might be nothing fanciful, but what is most important to me is how my family members make the effort to get together and spend time with each other. That is my favourite part of Chinese New Year.”
Added Ms Cess: “It is hard being away from my family, but I’m really happy that I got to share the joy with Dolly’s.
“Dolly reminded me so much of my mother and especially how she welcomed people into her home. I will never forget this experience.”
About Just An Extra Chair
The Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) started the initiative to create a meaningful connection between people who would be spending Chinese New Year (CNY) alone and those who are interested in offering to share a meal with them.
Dr William Wan, general secretary of SKM, said: “Some people may not have a family to go to for CNY, and others may not have experienced celebrating CNY before, so this is a pilot project on our platform – for people who believe in kindness and are willing to open up their houses.”
The idea was mooted by a member of the SKM team two weeks ago, and the web page for sign-ups closed last Wednesday.
The initial target for the campaign was five sign-ups, but it had exceeded 25 sign-ups, comprising hosts and guests.
Dr Wan said: “This is a very good sign. People generally don’t like to step into the unknown, and it’s not easy to get people to open their houses to strangers, or for people to enter unfamiliar homes.
“We’ll do a follow-up and find out the experiences of both the guests and hosts. If the feedback is positive, we’ll have another campaign on a bigger scale.”
First published in The New Paper – February 9, 2016. Reproduced with permission.