SINGAPORE Jan 30 (Reuters Life!) - Golden rat figurines and tasseled red lanterns are crammed into shophouse windows, and pre-recorded soundtracks of firecrackers echo off the walls.
Singapore's Chinatown presents the perfect image of a city in the grip of festivities for the Chinese lunar Year of the Rat. But duck into a back street travel agent and a different picture emerges.
"I don't care for the traditions and won't be visiting my relatives. I only see them once a year during Chinese New Year -- where's the connection there?" said one 25-year old student, who declined to be named and was bound for Hong Kong.
"It's a drag to visit people whom I hardly see in the year. I'd rather spend time with people I'm closer to. Some youngsters are just going visiting to receive the 'ang pao'," he said, referring to the red paper envelopes of money given by relatives.
Travel agent after travel agent confirms the trend.
Rather than spending New Year at home with extended families in what is traditionally the year's one guaranteed family reunion, Chinese Singaporeans, some 77 percent of the population, are fleeing their New Year in droves.
Opting out of cultural rituals to instead travel to hotspots such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Taiwan is the Year of the Rat's hot ticket trend, despite seasonal price hikes.
"Last year they booked at the last minute, but this year all the tickets had been sold by January, so there is nothing else to sell now," said Steven Chan, manager at Giamso International Tours, one of dozens of Chinatown travel agencies.
Among the "endangered" traditions some fear are fading fast are the 'tuan yuan fan' reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year, which falls on February 7 this year, going to 'bai nian', or to visit senior relations, and the presentation of 'ang paos', red packets plump with money, to the younger generation.
Experts say the trend of abandoning traditional wider family obligations for short breaks overseas has accelerated as the economy booms and as Asia's budget airline networks encourage soaring leisure travel.
In what some interpret as evidence of the "westernization" of younger generations, research from the National University of Singapore (NUS) confirms young people are less likely to celebrate Chinese festivals than older people.
"The singles are very afraid that their older relatives will pressure them to get married soon, so to avoid the nagging they go away," joked Lucy Lai, a 50-something manager at Nam Ho Travel agency, when asked about the holiday exodus.
Escapees like Zhang Weixiong, a 25-year old operations officer at a shipping company, say they relish the freedom of choosing which relatives to visit, a decision previously made for them by their parents.
"In the early years it was more of a formality thing, until the later years when it was more of my choice whether or not to go," Zhang said.
"I don't want it to be that just because it's Chinese New Year I am forced to visit you, even though I don't see you throughout the whole year," he said.
In a bid to attract AWOL youngsters to the annual Chingay street parade of stilt walkers, jugglers, and lion dancers, officials have organized the island's first post-celebration street party, CITY JAM 2008!
A dance arena will be created "for youths to have a taste of partying in the heart of the CITY right after the fanfare", said the organizers, who hope to draw 5,000 revelers.
Not all observers see this manifestation of the city's gaping generation gap as a problem.
"There is a social change going on, where people are going closer to their friends rather than their relatives and I'm not sure that that is negative. It can be positive," said Dr. Daniel Goh, 34, Assistant Professor of Sociology in NUS.
"Chinese New Year is a time when your most valuable relationships are activated again, and this is what is happening," he said.
But left-behind older generations faced with empty places at the dinner table find it hard to see the upside.
"Once the figurehead and the old folks are gone, fewer young people come to visit because it no longer matters to them," said Doris Liang, a concerned aunt in her 50s, who worries her family's best celebrations are in the past.
Not all are as understanding of the "new" Lunar New Year.
Young Singaporeans risk becoming culturally bankrupt, as they do not make the effort to understand or follow their traditions, said security officer Edward Chua, 52.
"Some of them who are married even have the audacity to say they can save giving 'ang pao'."
(Editing by Gillian Murdoch)