Gong Xi Fa Cai II

Keong! Keong ah! Keong Hee Huat Chai! Kung Hei Fat Choy! Gong Xi Fa Cai! Sure enough, the barrage of congratulations intensified as the clock approached Chinese New Year (CNY). Congratulations on your prosperity! We Chinese are either stubbornly optimistic or stubbornly delusional. Most of my friends are in their sixties, and none are prosperous, flourishing with great wealth like the Gates, Zuckerberg, Bezos or Rothschild families. Yet, they did not hesitate to congratulate one another, as if they had all struck gold or oil. I got congratulated too – even though an observer and a failed entrepreneur, their enthusiasm pulled me into their vortex of excitement and congratulations. On the eve of CNY, all chores involving the broom and sharp instruments such as knives and scissors had to be completed before midnight. It is a definite no-no to touch such gadgets on “Choo Yi” first day of CNY – try it and the year will be cursed, for sure. I ran out of energy after work yesterday and abandoned earlier plans to vacuum the house last night. I reasoned that the Kitchen God and Money God (Caishen Yea) would understand that we here in Australia cannot afford maids to do our housework – they would not spurn my house over a few specks of dust, I hope! As a minimum, I did change the linen in the guest room – only because I knew my mum was spending the first three days of New Year with me. My house was not designed to have a guest room. It was originally a formal lounge with a connecting formal dining room. They were converted into a bedroom for The Mrs’ parents, and a music room for the boys. After we became empty nesters many years later, this room has become a guest room. There is no economical sense to build a guest room. Why have a spare room that by definition means a room that is rarely used? Most of us have to take up a lifelong mortgage to build a house. Why spend that amount of money on a guest? It would be cheaper to put the guest in a hotel, right? Benjamin Franklin said guests are like fish. They are fresh and wonderful on the first day. On the second, it is still okay to enjoy them, but come the third day, we will find the fish off and the guests decidedly off-putting. To avoid such ramifications, I shall not treat Ma like a guest. She is my mother!

Xin Nien Hao! Happy Chinese New Year. Today is Choo Yi, the first day of the Year of the Rat. Chinese horoscopes say the metal rat will bring prosperity to most zodiac signs. But, do Chinese horoscopes ever not mention prosperity in their predictions? Ma is staying with me for three days. This is the first time Ma is staying with me for CNY celebrations since I left home in 1977. This is also my first time to enjoy a long weekend celebrating CNY in Australia. The traditions become important this time although Ma is quite relaxed about stiff customs. Since Ma is around the house on Choo Yi, I shall adhere to the rules that have ruled Chinese for a few millennia:

  1. Do not wash clothes – easy!
  2. Do not wash hair – easy! (to the Mrs’ expressed objections. She said my hair stinks)
  3. Do not use sharp things, e.g. scissors, knives, needles – but there is no mention of avoiding the use of a sharp tongue.
  4. Do not sweep the floor – in case you unknowingly sweep away your wealth.
  5. Do not take out the garbage – in case you unknowingly throw away your wealth (as if one’s wealth would loiter in the garbage bin)
  6. Do not eat lobsters – these critters can move backwards. Eating them may cause setbacks, but it may be too late for me! I had my favourite crustacean last night.
  7. Do not eat porridge – it hints of poverty.
  8. No killing. It is usual to have leftovers on the first day of the new year or adhere to a vegetarian menu.

What I did achieve – yes, considered an achievement by none other than myself – was I made the traditional sweet soup for CNY breakfast. Ma unfailingly made that for us every Choo Yi when we were kids. I looked forward to our first dish every CNY with the eagerness of a child in a lolly shop. When Ma was in her eighties, she still made it for us. “Us” by then included many grandchildren, so the serves became much smaller. Today, I realised it is a simple dish to cook, yet it is tasty and packed with goodness. White wood ear mushroom and longan soup. Clean and rinse them. Throw them into a pressure cooker. Add water and palm sugar. I could not find the lotus seeds in the fridge even though The Mrs said “they’d be staring at you in the face”. Cook for 20 minutes, open the cooker once pressure is released, cut the wood ear mushroom into bite-sized pieces, add hard-boiled eggs (and goji berries, if I can find them in the fridge). Keep warm until everyone wakes up. Goji berries are a super-food, I add a handful of them to my rolled oats for breakfast in the office. Their medicinal benefits are finally being supported by Western science – otherwise, they are “unproven” and demoted and dismissed as “old wives’ tales”. The Mrs was so impressed with my dessert soup she said that will be my job from hereon. She is not just a good artist, she is artful as well – being easily impressed with me with the many things I do around the house.

CNY in Australia is usually a non-event – just another working day, never a public holiday. Occasionally, it may fall on a weekend but that made no difference to me. When I had my retail shops, work tied me down 7 days a week for twenty years. Sad, looking back at it. So foolish to have allowed circumstances and false ambitions imprison me and reduced my life into mostly work and commitments. In those twenty years, I would have been lucky to have read maybe ten books. Thankfully, I was able to free myself from that “life sentence”. The last seven years have been good years with leisurely weekends of gardening and reading (and now, writing). The amazing gift from YouTube – free CNY music and video clips streaming into my living room all morning, has kept Ma entertained. My earlier selections were 2020 CNY music, but many of the songs were not familiar to us. The black and white one turned out to be the best for Ma. She was visibly enthralled to see names familiar to her, popped up on the TV. Lin Dai, Wu Yin Yin, Tse Wei, Kha Lan. Familiarity does not breed contempt to the aged. Rather, it is a friend, a companion. Inevitably, these old songs and songstresses of yesteryears, revived her old memories. I suspect they were never deeply buried. How could they be, even though they were buried so very long ago? She was talking about her four children who never made it past their first day on earth, who never enjoyed the thrills of a Choo Yi. Never an Ang Pow (cash in a red envelope) under their pillow, never a dessert soup for breakfast, never the crackling sounds of firecrackers. The first casualty after the war was a premature boy – he was born at 24 weeks in 1948. The hospital, Penang’s General Hospital, did their best, but he did not survive in the incubator. The following year saw another episode, this time a girl, also premature at 24 weeks. The hospital had lost their credibility with Pa. On August 5th 1950, Pa decided to bring Ma to the “Khor Ning Clinic” in “Chia Chiu Lor” instead. A son was born there, premature at 32 weeks. Wet with amniotic fluid – the cotton wool supplied was sparse – he was hastily wrapped with Ma’s trousers (no blankets were supplied) and left on the floor below the baby hammock or “yaolan”. “Why did they not put him in the yaolan?!” I asked with an incredulous gasp. “The baby was still dirty”, Ma replied. “Oh, look, look. He’s smiling at me”, Pa beamed a proud smile. Unfortunately, the baby sneezed and died soon after. Early mornings in Penang during the 1940’s could be quite cool in the rainy season, especially in August and September. “Where did they bury the babies?” I asked Ma. The nurses took the bodies away, disposed of somewhere decent I hope. “They did not provide a proper burial?” I pressed Ma. No, they were “not human yet”. In December that year, Ma lost another child. That one was also not human yet, a mere three month old that “flowed out” from her whilst she writhed in agony on the wooden floor of their shop house in Penang Road. The bloody show came much too early. I am grateful these siblings did not suffer the scourge of the urghhlings. No matter no CNY celebrations for them on Earth. Ma, we still celebrated their memory on CNY 2020.

Gong Xi Fa Cai

Generally speaking, we Chinese do not wish one another happy new year for our lunar new year. We wish for prosperity, wealth and success. You, prosper! And you, prosper too! You, and you and you, prosper! In return, let me prosper too!

The Chinese observe the lunar calendar. Chinese New Year (CNY) never falls on January 1 of the Gregorian calendar. Congratulations! Prosperity! That is a literal translation for CNY wishes.

Gong Xi Fa Cai – in Mandarin

Keong Hee Huat Chai – in Hokkien

Gung Hei Fat Choy – in Cantonese

When we were young, that was how we were taught to wish one another on Chinese New Year’s Day. It was always about prosperity, never about happiness. Many of us Penangites cannot recall how to wish someone happy new year in hokkien. We never wished one another happiness. When we were kids, we did not hear the adults wish anyone happiness either. Maybe they connected the dots? Prosperity will lead to happiness anyway? I was young and naive when I pondered on that. At an age now when many friends have already become grandfathers many times over, I know such a connection is totally unrealistic. Stories about Princess Diana and current news from Harry and Meghan (who all were stripped of their HRH title) are testament to the fact that wealth and happiness are seldom found together. So why did the Chinese elders omit happiness and health in their new year wishes? The focus was always on prosperity and success. Was it the abject poverty and lifelong suffering they endured that prioritised their wish for prosperity above everything else? I would like to know what the great Chinese sage’s stance was on this. What did Confucius say about this? Were they not at all concerned that such singular emphasis on wealth and prosperity could cause the breakdown in the moral fabric of their societies? It may well be true that when one is suffering from extreme poverty, nothing else matters. Happiness? Peace? Tranquility? Sustainable consumption? Plastic and urghhling-induced climate change? No time and energy to worry about these when we cannot find food for our people!

“Ong! Ong! CNY will be hot! Briefly I thought they were predicting a hot day ahead. But they were hyping up the bullish sentiment of their economic status, raising hopes for a hot economy in the new year. Any hot tips for the sharemarket? They wish one another for a red-hot boom in the sharemarket and the real estate market. Ong in hokkien. Wang in mandarin. It means red-hot, raging success. Even the pineapple gets a guernsey during CNY. The fruit is called Ong Lai in hokkien and is therefore the fruit that is prominently displayed in many households. The boom is coming, the literal meaning. I know of a famous Malaysian artist, Yeo Eng Peng, who specialises in painting the pineapple. His subject, the Ong Lai, resonates well with the art collectors. Who amongst them do not want prosperity to enter their homes and offices with the painting of their pineapple prominently displayed?

Yeo’s Malaysian Pride sold for over RM30,000. Ong Lai! Huat!

Gong Xi Fa Cai. Hong Pao Na Lai! Keong Hee Huat Chai. Ang Pow Gia Lai! Congratulations on your prosperity, now give me the red packet! We Chinese are very direct – no beating around the bush! That’s the loud chorus you will hear around young kids during CNY festivities. Don’t be surprised the youthful ones will also echo that. Last year, my older cousin brother reminded me he is still entitled to the red packet. Ang Pao Gia Lai! His status as an unmarried still entitles him to claim a free packet that contains cash, never mind how old he is. Never mind the cashless societies we live in. When it’s CNY, cash is still king! The red packet is every child’s dream come true! On one good day when I was a kid, I managed to collect RM80. May the good times keep coming. Fortunately, the concept of collecting Ang Pao’s and accumulating wealth as a prerequisite for a good year was not adopted seriously by me. I took it as just another cultural tradition, the practice as interesting as eating moon cakes during Mid Autumn festival and eating tangyuan during Dongzhi (Winter solstice). Collecting Ang Pao’s did not teach me to become materialistic or money-minded to place the importance of money above all else. My point is it could have and maybe it can still inculcate a new generation to a culture of kowtowing to money and revering the prestige of wealth. The Taoists still pray to Caishen Yea, the God of Wealth. They believe in the supremacy of money – that there is a God to divvy it up to those who pray to Him. The Greeks also had such a God; their God of wealth was Plutus. Unlike Caishen Yea, Plutus has pretty much lost all His powers. Not many remember him.

Chinese traditions dictate that we would wake up to find red packets under our pillows. Those were the ones from our parents – containing the fattest wad of mint notes – slipped under our pillows with stealth whilst we tried our darndest to stay awake in our brand new pyjamas. The cash was so crisp I thought Pa had spent the night ironing the notes for us. CNY day was ushered in by wearing our brand new clothes – we would know the God of Prosperity was not so kind in the past year if there were no new clothes for us. The lack of new clothes did not matter, the excitement was really about how many Ang Pao’s we would collect. We went from house to house and “Pai Nien” – paid respects to all elders in our families and communities who in return handed us their pre-sealed red packets. Ang Pao’s, peanuts, sweet cakes and candy. Life was complete. Bottles of ice cold F&N Fanta and Sarsi were our all-time favourites except for one year when the new craze was some premixed lemon drink with beer called Shandy.

Dong Dong Chiang. Dong Dongdong Chiang. Xin Nien Tao. Xin Nien Tao. New Year has arrived. Gong Xi, Gong Xi, Gong Xi Ni. Congratulations to you. The familiar Chinese new year songs would be blaring in every household. What followed next after we got our Ang Pao’s? Gambling! Decks of cards would be handed to the older kids. They would decide which games to play. The adults would adjourn to their clubs or kongsi or in my case, the San Kiang Association on McAlister Lane. What were the adults thinking of?! Kids, first you go house to house and collect free money, then you try and multiply it by gambling! It is no wonder that the world’s casinos are swamped with Chinese clients. Gamblers, all of us! We started young, from our first Ang Pao! Ong! Huat! Gong Xi Fa Cai, urghhlings! Since I left my hometown of Penang in 1977, I have not experienced CNY in Malaysia. I have never been back in Asia during CNY celebrations. The Ang Pao’s I have missed! My last Sarsi was also in the 70’s. The sound of firecrackers exploding away in a billow of smoke is also a childhood memory. I used to imagine evil spirits being chased away by the loud explosions. Red is an auspicious colour for the Chinese, especially during CNY. My family never hung the Ang Chai red cloth over the front door of our house. It did not dawn on me to ask why the practice was never adopted at home. Very likely, the reason why many hang the Ang Chai was to ward off evil spirits from their homes. It must have been impressed upon them that evil spirits only trespass via the front entrance. I never saw Ang Chai red cloths hung on back doors. CNY is a non event in Adelaide apart from a family reunion dinner and a substandard lion dance in a suburban Chinese restaurant. As luck would have it, this year I will enjoy for the first time a public holiday to celebrate CNY. Australia Day, also now known as Invasion Day by the aborigines is on January 26 which falls on a Sunday this year, making Monday a public holiday. Yes! Maybe I will find a fat Ang Pao under my pillow. Ong! Huat! Keong Hee, urghhlings.

The Mrs, bribing a Red Lion for good luck
A friend’s Ang Chai is up!