IN JANUARY last year, he proposed to his girlfriend. A month later, they headed to the Registry of Marriages to say 'I do'. In June this year, they pooled their savings together and bought a resale three-room Housing Board flat in Serangoon Avenue 2 for $256,000. A month later, they moved in. They are both 26, in love and raring to start a family. In sum, they are like most Singaporean newly-weds.
Except that Mr Lu Yifei is a budding artist from Jinan in Shandong province, China, and his wife Kong Wei, also an artist, hails from Beijing.
Mr Lu arrived here in 2001 to study graphic design at LaSalle College of the Arts, graduating with a diploma in 2004. He then earned a degree through distance learning with the Open University in the United Kingdom.
Since then, he has been working as an artist with SooBin Gallery. He is now staging his first solo exhibition of modern oil paintings, priced up to $4,000 each, at Utterly Art Gallery in Chinatown.
While visiting friends in Beijing four years ago, he met and fell in love with Kong Wei, a fine arts graduate from Beijing's Capital Normal University. After two years of long-distance romancing, she joined him here and now works as a gallery assistant at private museum Art Retreat in Ubi Techpark.
The couple, who have a combined monthly income of $4,000, believe they have a better future here. 'We like the greenery and living environment. It is nice, a small and quiet place to be in,' he says.
They are part of a growing population of Chinese immigrants in Singapore.
Fuzhou-born Ivan Wu Yu, 27, who has been working for beauty product chain Beaute Spring as a senior IT executive for the past two years, is also hoping to start a family here.
The IT graduate from Yang En University in Fujian province rents a room in an HDB flat near his workplace in Bukit Batok for $500 a month.
But every night, he is on the phone, trying to convince his 24-year-old girlfriend Xueyun, a school teacher from Fuzhou, to join him here and buy a place together.
He is going home for Chinese New Year in two months and hopes to return a married man, with bride in tow.
Breaking new ground
MR LU and Mr Wu are the new face of China immigrants, or xin yi min, as they are known in Chinese.
They are in their 20s or 30s, super- driven, upwardly mobile, speak competent English, and are beginning to break into new fields such as law, banking, public relations and retail.
Many have tertiary education, having studied here, in China or the West, and can switch easily from Mandarin to English and vice-versa.
The more enterprising have started a slew of businesses, from financial consulting services and food court stalls to public relations firms.
No official figures of their numbers are available. But according to estimates by the Tian Fu Club, a clan association formed by the new Chinese immigrants here, which has about 2,000 members, between 300,000 and 400,000 have become PRs and citizens. Half of them are estimated to be in their 20s and 30s or even younger.
This does not include a growing group of young contract workers from China, mainly in the manufacturing, construction and shipbuilding industries.
Recently, semi-skilled workers from China on work permits have also been allowed to work in the services sectors. As a result, thousands more have streamed in from China to work in shopping malls, restaurants and food courts, some as young as 18.
They quickly find shift work as 24-hour convenience store cashiers, salesgirls, petrol pump attendants, bus drivers and postal workers, all jobs not too popular among Singaporeans.
Miss Ichigo Teng Chong, 28, is from Dalian, Liaoning province. She paid about 40,000 yuan (S$9,000) to agents in China to find her a job here.
'I came to learn and see Singapore, a place I have heard so much about since young,' she says.
Over the past year, she has been a cosmetics salesgirl at Bugis Village, earning a basic monthly salary of $700. With commissions and over-time pay, she takes home about $1,500 a month, seven times more than her pay back home.
'I hope to save enough to open a cosmetics shop in Dalian when I return home next year,' says Miss Teng, who works at least 10 hours a day, six days a week.
New face, different phase
ANOTHER new face of the Young Dragons belongs to the heavily hot-housed children of peidu mama (study mamas), who are all grown up today, have tertiary qualifications and are just entering the professions here.
The late 1990s saw the start of a wave of China-born students coming here to study in primary and secondary schools. They were often accompanied by their mothers, who became known as peidu mama.
Tian Fu Club president Tony Du, 52, who left Sichuan in 1991 and now runs his own investment and human resource consulting company here, notes: 'Most of these children are staying behind because after studying here for so many years, they are as good as Singaporean now.
'To go back home or to another country is difficult because their friends are all here.'
His own son, Yinghao, now 25, is a classic example. He was nine when he arrived in Singapore.
After completing his PSLE, O and A levels and National Service here, he went to the United States to study finance at Michigan University.
After graduating magna cum laude, he is now back in Singapore working at a global financial consulting firm.
Like Yinghao, a constant stream of China-born students continues to come every year to study in Singapore's primary and secondary schools, tertiary institutions and private colleges.
From just hundreds in the early 1990s, their numbers soared to 32,000 in 2006 and 36,000 last year.
A good number of them remain here after completing their courses, partly because getting PR status is relatively easy.
Many, like Mr Lu, are also attracted by Singapore's stable economy, First World living environment and job opportunities.
'As an artist, I think I can get noticed faster here than in China, which is a much bigger country with much keener competition,' he says.
Others like Hubei-born Ouyang Siyu, 21, who last week joined Fullhouse Communications, an advertising, publishing and event management company, after completing her diploma in Computer and Network Technology at the Singapore Polytechnic, asks: 'Why return home if I can find work here?'
She says her parents spent more than 300,000 yuan on her three-year course and want her to make some money here first before returning home.
'The pay here is still better and jobs are still available,' says the fresh poly graduate who earns about $1,800 a month.
While the going is good, the Young Dragons are here to stay, for now. But most have their sights set further afield and will uproot for greener pastures someday.
Miss Ma Weiyi, 22, from Fuzhou, who recently graduated in chemical engineering from Singapore Polytechnic, has landed a $2,000 a month job as a legal assistant in a law firm.
But her plan is not to get too comfortable and to save as much as possible to further her studies, hopefully in a Western country.
'I enjoyed my years studying here since my secondary school days, but I want to see the rest of the world too,' she says.
An overseas experience
WHILE the initial waves of Chinese immigrants came here to make a living and for a better lifestyle, the current wave has come here 'to explore', 'to see the world' and to 'broaden their horizons'.
Mrs Annie Chen, 43, president of Tianjin Club, another clan association for new Chinese immigrants here with over 100 members, observes that more young graduates from China come here for an 'overseas experience'.
'They prefer to come here over countries in the West because they won't be total strangers, as the majority of the population here are ethnic Chinese who speak Mandarin,' says the marketing executive, who came here from Tianjin in 1995.
Agreeing, senior IT executive Ivan Wu Yu says cultural familiarity is why he made Singapore his first stop. 'I feel very at home because I have no language barriers here. '
Unfortunately, in this climate of job and pay cuts, animosity towards the Young Dragons looks likely to grow as more head here in search of safe, well-governed harbours.
Chinese Heritage Centre director Professor Leo Suryadinata predicts an uptrend in Chinese students heading here amid the global financial turmoil because they consider Singapore 'the land of golden opportunity'.
Tian Fu Club's Mr Du adds that the next big influx will come from the less-developed cities in China.
But despite the fact that their reasons for coming have changed, many Young Dragons still receive a hostile reception.
Some Singaporeans see them as competitors for jobs who also drive up housing prices, are cliquish and unsophisticated, unwilling to integrate as well as using Singapore only as a stepping stone to better things.
One such criticism was recently volleyed by Singaporean Andy Liew, a business executive now working in Shanghai, who wrote to Lianhe Zaobao to complain that the Chinese immigrants were here only to take, not to give.
It sparked a fierce debate in the Chinese daily, with the new immigrants coming to their own defence.
Budding writer and novelist Zhang Huiwen, 30, who came from Henan province on a Singapore Government scholarship to study at the National University of Singapore in 1995, was one of those who rebutted him stoutly.
She says Singaporeans should exercise 'patience and tolerance' and give new Chinese immigrants enough time to adjust to life here.
'After all, Singaporeans who migrate to Australia also cling to each other in the beginning and continue to fly Singapore's national flag on National Day,' says the Golden Point Literature Award winner in 2003 and 2005, who chose to be a writer here rather than go into banking and finance after obtaining her business administration degree.
On Chinese contract workers snatching away the rice bowl of Singapore workers, especially in lower-paying jobs such as cleaning and more recently in the retail and service sectors too, she says it is nobody's fault.
'It's just a function of Singapore's labour policies which are structured to help local enterprises solve the labour shortage problem and lower costs by allowing foreign workers here.'
Small business owners like Lim Lai Hwa from Fullhouse Communications agree. Out of her staff of 16, three are Chinese immigrants. She says she employed them not only because their salaries are lower, but also out of necessity.
'I have tried recruiting a Web master for over $2,000 a month but couldn't get one after three months. In the end, only a fresh graduate from China was willing to join us.'
She notes that most new immigrants are prepared to accept a lower starting salary because of their poorer command of English.
'But if they are good at their work and manage to pick up the language after some time, we have to pay them what they are worth or be prepared to lose them.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 22, 2008.