The Christmas lights are on in Orchard Road but some Singaporeans are less than impressed.
Perhaps it is a result of economic uncertainty or planners have run dry of brighter ideas. But local shoppers are not buying whole-heartedly into this year's slightly austere Yuletide decorations on the premium retail strip - a sight-seeing highlight for decades now.
In previous years, taxi driver Lim Cheng Kim would make multiple trips into the shopping district just to see the lights. Not so, this year.
"I get the sense that decorations have been 'deproving' year after year," says Madam Lim, 50, in Mandarin. "I don't feel as compelled to return to take photographs of the lights any more. I do miss the elegance of the decorations in the past."
The current theme, with its red-and- gold lights, also reminds her too much of the upcoming Chinese New Year, in two months' time.
Legal secretary Elliana Taye, 24, says that while this year's lights are not ugly, those from previous years "were nicer as they were more Christmassy".
She went on to highlight the blue and silver-based decorations of last year, which were memorable as they encapsulated a "white Christmas".
This year's light-up, with the theme Christmas On A Great Street, was launched by President Tony Tan Keng Yam last month. It starts nightly at 7pm till Jan 6.
There are three zones with their own motifs: Tree motifs symbolise the "Tree for Joy" zone at Tanglin, "Heart for Love" at Orchard sees red hearts hanging from arches over the road, and imagery of doves take centre stage in "Dove for Peace" at Somerset.
The Christmas decorations start from the junction of Grange and Tanglin roads and extend to Oldham Lane in Dhoby Ghaut. It also branches off into Scotts Road.
They were planned and chosen by a panel which included senior representatives from the Orchard Road Business Association and the Singapore Tourism Board.
A colour scheme of red, blue, gold and green was chosen to "create a warm Yuletide ambience for visitors and evoke nostalgic feelings of a traditional Christmas", says the association's executive director Steven Goh.
Other elements include a 14m-tall arch over the road between Ion Orchard and Tangs, a row of 4m-tall trees along Wheelock Place and a tree-tunnel outside Forum The Shopping Mall.
Creative director Edward Tang of modernAge Design & Communications, the company behind this year's lights, is unfazed by the brickbats.
"We get feedback every year and sometimes it's just personal and judgmental. But we work with it to finetune where we can," says Mr Tang, 50, who has more than 10 years' experience designing and installing Christmas lights for malls here.
His company has executed the Christmas light-up since 2009, winning the annual call for tenders but he says he will not be bidding for next year's light-up.
In 2009 and 2010, Life! reported, too, on some shoppers' dissatisfaction with the light-up. They took issue with the unconventional colour scheme of pink, blue and purple in 2010, which broke with Christmas tradition, and complained that 2009's Santa-and- reindeer theme was too bare and paled in comparison to the lights in Marina Bay.
Apart from the street decorations, other shoppers feel malls are no longer going all out to decorate their facades. Gone are the life-size nutcrackers and towering, laden Christmas trees from many buildings.
Life! understands from Shaw Lido that it is undergoing major renovations, hence the decision to do away with big decorations.
Asked about the works outside its mall, including the construction of a link bridge, 313@Orchard's management says that "the construction has never been a deterrent to the mall's decorative concept". Instead, it chose to focus on decorating the interior to maximise visual impact.
Polytechnic student Muhammad Daniel says the area between 313@Somerset and Orchard Central, where new hotel and retail space Orchardgateway is being built, "is a bit of an eyesore". The 19- year-old adds: "There are Christmas decorations here and there. Then suddenly, it is disrupted. That is quite a turn-off."
He also gripes about how that stretch of pavement has narrowed because of the construction works, resulting in human traffic jams at times - hardly conducive for gawking at the lights.
Department store Tangs, currently awaiting a massive renovation outside its main entrance to be completed, did not let construction hoardings that partially block its facade dampen its penchant for decking its halls.
While declining to say how much they spent on their Christmas decor this year, a spokesman for the mall says: "It is important to Tangs, and the owners, to do up Christmas every year as we are a Christian store. Christmas is the most important season of the year to us."
Ten malls out of 42 in Orchard Road took part in the Orchard Road Business Association's annual Best Dressed Building Contest this year, up from nine last year. It does not have a say in how individual malls dress up their facade.
Orchard Central was the overall winner for the second year running and received $50,000. Tangs @ Tangs Plaza, The Centrepoint and Ion Orchard were the other winners and got $25,000 each.
But even the winning malls seem hackneyed to critics. Branding executive Audrey Tsen, 23, says: "The decorations in the malls look the same after a while."
And of the towering tree outside Ion Orchard, Ms Taye says: "It was spectacular last year when they did that for the first time. Now, it seems repetitive."
The decorations have struck a chord internationally. Travel guide Frommer's picked Orchard Road as one of the World's Best Holiday Lights in 2010 and Lonely Planet named it one of its Top 10 Christmas Markets of the World last year.
And while not all Singaporeans are lapping up the shimmery showcase, expatriates and tourists Life! spoke to give the decorations two thumbs-up.
Project manager Regis Paumier, who has been in Singapore for the past four years, says that this year's theme is nicer than last year's Christmas Blooms In Singapore, with its cool palette of blue and silver. The 36-year-old Frenchman says: "This year, with the red and gold, it's more like Christmas for us."
American flight instructor Ralph Bendjebar, 65, who is in Singapore for two months to lecture for a Boeing course, agrees. "Red and gold are traditional Christmas colours. I think they're beautiful and gorgeous. With the extravagance, Singapore does it better than many Christian countries," he says.
Student Lika Kalaku, 16, who comes here from Jakarta every year to see the lights, says: "It seems to be improving over the years in terms of scale. Every time we come, there are different designs, which surprise us. It is amazing.
"We can tell a lot of effort goes into the planning and I really like the lights. We don't celebrate Christmas but we appreciate the lively mood"
Director Ong Swee Hong of lighting design studio in architectural firm Ong&Ong suggests that next year's light-up incorporate ideas from more than just one designer, like what cities such as Madrid and Paris have done. "A competition can be hosted or certain members of the local design community can be commissioned to work on an installation for the light-up," she adds.
Natasha Ann Zachariah
The Straits Times
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