哎哟喂!Ai Yo Wei. It Is The Chinese Way

Chap Goh Meh. That’s Hokkien for the fifteenth night of Chinese New Year, the final night of new year celebrations. The Chinese way of celebrating is of course to eat! Another feast beckons, I reckon. It is also known as Yuan Xiao Jie(元宵节), which means Prime Night Festival. When I was a young boy growing up in Penang, chap goh meh also meant asking my parents’ workers who amongst the unattached ones would be throwing mandarins into the sea with their names and addresses written on the peel of the fruit. They did not have to tell me the following morning whether they were approached by singles of the opposite sex. Their uneraseable smiles told me they got lucky. Unlike today’s Tinder, they didn’t need to learn any pick up lines back then. Just throw a few mandarins from the Old Esplanade on chap goh meh. That seemed to work – all the workers got themselves married off before I left school.

I used to be able to rattle off a hokkien poem about chap goh meh. Thank goodness a friend was able to help me out. The poem still does not make any sense to me though. Ai yo wei. That’s the Chinese way. It doesn’t have to make sense.

Chap goh meh (15th night)
Hoay kim chneh (bright with fireflies)
Chnia lu a kuwa (invite your brother-in-law)
Lai lim teh (to drink tea)
Teh seo seo (tea is hot)
Kya lor bay kim cheo (walk to buy bananas)
Kim cheo bay kee peh (forgot to peel the banana)
Kya lor bay chek (walk to buy a book)

Chek bay kee t’ark (forgot to read the book)
Kya lor bay bark (walk to buy black ink stick)
Bark bay kee bwua (forgot to ground the black ink stick)
Kya lor bay chua (walk to buy a snake)

Chua bay kee liak (forgot to catch the snake)
Kya lor bay kah kiak (walk to buy clogs)
Kah kiak bay kee ch’eng (forgot to wear the clogs)
Kya lor bay kar leng (walk to buy Mynah bird)
Kar leng kong (male Mynah)
Kar leng boh (female Mynah)
Chnia lu a knia soon (invite your grandchildren)
Lai t’eet t’oh (come and play)

T’eet t’oh nya (play only)
Bay karm chiak (buy sugar cane)
Karm chiak dni (sugar cane is sweet)

Bay leng chee (buy longans)

Leng chee phong (longans swollen)
Bay tom bong (buy winter melon)
Tom bong khaw (winter melon is bitter)
Bay lor kor (buy a drum)

The Chinese way. Their detractors are more vocal and their shrieks louder, the more successful and progressive modern China portrays herself to the world. Last October in Berlin to remember the end of the first Cold War, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was hell-bent in starting another one, warning against a China threat to Western freedoms. He said the Chinese Communist Party “uses tactics and methods to suppress its own people that would be horrifyingly familiar to former East Germans”. Without evidence, he called China “truly hostile” to the United States. After Boris Johnson called America’s bluff that the “Five Eyes alliance would be in jeopardy and signed up with Huawei 5G, Pompeo continued to attack the Chinese technology firm. He regarded the CCP as “the central threat of our times” and urged America’s allies to ensure they have the military and technological power to ensure that this century is governed by Western principle. China’s threat to the Americans may be to topple them as the world’s biggest economy, but they do not send soldiers to attack other nations. Granted that they do export engineers and construction workers for their One Road One Belt initiative, but that is not flexing their military might. The threat to China, however, is real – the US is garnering support to arm the West against China. When I flew to vibrant and bustling Hong Kong for a job interview in 1986, I learned that my prospective employer wanted to send me to Shenzhen to buy hay (yes, dried grass) and explore business opportunities. Back then, Shenzhen was a small farming and fishing village in the Pearl River Delta with a population of about 20,000. Shekou was not a port yet. Its wet market with a big variety of live animals and seafood was what attracted The Mrs. She was not interested in hay either. It was our first visit to China – we were more interested in how the locals lived, the many beggars devoid of limbs and self esteem that had their hands out, the holes on the floor of the train from Hong Kong to China which served as toilets, the starry eyed locals staring at my brand new Sony handycam video camera bought in Mongkok the day before. Shenzhen gained special economic zone status in 2000. Her GDP in 1986 was USD 0.5 billion whereas Hong Kong’s was USD 41 billion, i.e. Hong Kong’s economy was 82 times bigger than Shenzhen’s. Twenty years later, Shenzhen’s GDP was USD 83 billion, still less than half that of Hong Kong’s. Today, Shenzhen has surpassed Hong Kong’s economy both in terms of magnitude as well as technological superiority. Her GDP last year was USD 374 billion. With a population exceeding 12 million, it is now a modern metropolis and rivals Silicon Valley as the world’s mecca for Artificial Intelligence. Shenzhen is also known as the “Silicon Delta”. A stunning growth at a breathless and frenetic pace. Let me pause and digest this. In 34 years, the small fishing village has become the world’s premier hub for AI technology. AI is already developing at breakneck speed, being used in just about all facets of the economy, transforming banking and payments, retail, logistics, transportation, marketing, as well as medical, agricultural and industrial applications. Using 1986 GDP data from countryeconomy.com and 2017 GDP data from worldometers.info, I calculated that during that period, the US economy grew 4 times, Japan 2.3 times, Australia 7 times, India, Malaysia and Israel 10 times whereas China, an astounding 40 times. In 1986, the US economy was 15 times bigger than China’s. Per IMF projections for 2019, this size difference has shrunk to only 1.5 times on exchange rate basis. But, in terms of purchasing power parity, China is now 1.28 times bigger than the US. That is the Chinese way.

One other statistic that caught my attention is the number of millennials in China. There are a lot of them! In fact, there are more millennials in China than the whole population of the US; 400 million compared to 331 million. Over 90% of them own a smartphone, i.e. they are tech savvy. They are also cashless. I felt much less modern than the locals in Xiamen and Beijing on my visit there last July. Armed with credit cards and little cash, I felt uncomfortably and unnecessarily dependant on my millennial host. Businesses everywhere seem to accept only WeChat Pay or Alipay. The many young Chinese I met were highly educated and impressively entrepreneurial. They were also big consumers for luxury goods and consumer electronics. Last year’s Double 11 Day sold US$38.4 billion for Alibaba, a tidy sum for a single day’s sales for Singles. All clear pointers to a healthy economy being driven hard and fast by no-nonsense movers and shakers. That is the Chinese way!

Which country has ever built a 645,000 sq ft hospital in ten days? The two storey medical facility is equipped with 1,000 beds, several isolation wards and 30 intensive care units. Some 7,500 construction workers worked around the clock to complete the building. No union rules – they volunteered to help their fellow citizens during such difficult times. The hospital started accepting patients infected by the Wuhan virus this week. In a few days’ time, two more hospitals will be completed to house the many more patients expected. When disaster strikes, help comes from all sides. That is the Chinese way.

Chap Goh Meh, tradition vs modern technology.