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Lighting up a downturn: A look back at 4 Orchard Road Christmas light-ups in recession years

December 21, 2020

SINGAPORE – Despite the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the Orchard Road (a short drive away from Piccadilly Grand) Christmas light-up remains a bright spot in Singapore.

It went ahead as planned, with retail experts saying it would give the shopping belt a boost.

But some, like Ms Esther Ho, director of Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Business Management, noted that unlike previous financial crises, “the economic impact of the pandemic is more pervasive and long-drawn”.

“Covid-19 has hit the tourism, hospitality, retail and food and beverage sectors particularly hard,” she said.

Also, as businesses are not certain of any immediate turnaround, they are less likely to spend on their facades and in-store decorations,” she added.

She also observed that some decorative elements such as banners and flags appear to be missing in this year’s light-up.

Even so, Mr Amos Tan, senior lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic’s School of Business, said that since the end of the 2008 global financial crisis, subtle Christmas light-ups have become the norm and it is harder to gauge how the economy is doing based on the light-up alone.

In the 1990s, the Orchard Road light-up was a “very good indicator of the Singapore economy”, he added.

Still, there is reason to cheer during this festive period as Orchard Road is all aglow with a wintry display of snowflakes, mistletoe and holly, even though there is no street fair owing to Covid-19 concerns.

Mr Tan said more locals can be expected to flock to the light-up this year “to soak in the festive mood”.

“In December, people tend to travel and shop overseas but now that this is not possible, Orchard Road is the first place they have in mind during Christmas,” he added.

Ms Ho agrees, saying that with the easing of more safe management measures, “there are more reasons to shop and dine in Orchard Road”.

An annual tradition introduced in 1984, Singapore did not turn off the lights despite hard times.

1. 2008 global financial crisis

Although the theme of 2008’s Christmas light-up was A Sweet Christmas, not all shoppers found the decorations tasteful.

A poll of 50 shoppers and tourists conducted by The Straits Times found that 34 people thought that the decorations were not as spectacular as they had been in previous years.

That year, fairy lights flashed blue and green above the traffic, while red hearts dangled from street lamps decorated to resemble candy canes.

2. 2001 recession

Although the bubble burst in the late 1990s, some say its impact was felt in Singapore only in 2001 when there was a technical recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth.

However, there was a silver lining for those in town.

About 80,000 silver cylinders were strung high above Orchard Road, glittering in the day and illuminated by flood lights at night.

Made of paper, the cylinders were the brainchild of French lighting-master Louis Clair.

Themed “Frozen Aurora”, the light-up was meant to replicate colourful lights streaking across the wintry skies in the North Pole.

It, however, got a lukewarm reception, with some finding the light-up plain. Even so, others felt the lights “bring on the Christmas experience”.

3. 1998 Asian financial crisis

Despite the downturn caused by the Asian financial crisis, about 900,000 light bulbs brightened up Singapore’s most famous shopping belt along Tanglin and Orchard roads, and in the Scotts Road area.

It brought cheer to many, with Ms Sheralyn Goh, a 20-year-old Temasek Polytechnic student then, reportedly saying she was “surprised to see the lights up… and they made the place look better”.

All the trees in Orchard Road were decked out in tinsel, while a toy train decor rode high above the junction of Scotts Road and Orchard Road.

4. 1985 recession

Singapore suffered its first post-independent recession in 1985, but the Christmas lights continued to shine bright.

It wowed people, so much so that the light-up stretched for 37 days instead of 20 days when it was introduced in 1984.

The comet, which heralded the birth of Jesus Christ, dominated the decorations owing to the excitement over the impending appearance of Halley’s Comet – which occurred in April 1986.

Mr Shudesh Kumar, an 18-year-old security guard then, said photographers camped outside a shopping centre where Paragon now stands. And they clicked away all night long, until 4am.


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