Chinese New Year today
Chinese New Year is the one time I can count on my children fully embracing their Chinese heritage. ‘It’s about the money,’ said my son, pragmatically. And indeed, what a brilliant tradition: married couples give red packets filled with money to their parents, their children and also to unmarried adults.
These red packets are known as ang pow or hong bao, depending on the dialect of Chinese that is being spoken. The giving of the red packet is usually accompanied with a spoken blessing, often time-honoured sayings for prosperity, good heath, or success.
Many years ago, when my father was a little boy, what he remembered in the lead up to Chinese New Year was not the money, but the rhyming couplets, words of blessing, that his father used to write on strips of red paper.
It is described in my dad’s memoir’s, Fish in the Well, in Chapter Three, and I will append it to today’s post to give you a sneak peek. The book was first published as a paperback in 2013 in Malaysia, and I’m delighted to relaunch this book on Amazon today as an ebook. Truly, the past few weeks have been crazy and I didn’t think I would be able to publish it in time for Chinese New Year as promised, but amazingly, here it is.
Thank you to those who have reached out to me to say that the story interests you in one way or another, and I am thrilled to share my dad’s story of growing up in Malaya, studying in Taiwan and Manchester, and then establishing his business in the newly formed nation, Malaysia.
Finally, I want to say that even though a big part of Chinese New Year is the ang pow, lion dances, firecrackers and loads of food (and soft drinks before sugar became unfashionable), the most significant aspect is the coming together of families.
In fact, it often feels that celebrations start during reunion dinner preparations on the eve of Chinese New Year. Often there will be three or more generations at the table together. The shared meal, the giving of ang pow and the spoken words of blessings point to a deeper truth that we treasure those we love, want to be with them and want the best for them.
Chinese New Year as my dad remembers it
An excerpt from Fish in the Well, by Lim Hen Chin, as told to May-Kuan Lim and Penne Lim:
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1947 – 1952)
The Lunar New Year is the biggest celebration in the Chinese calendar. In the lead up to it, my father would purchase a huge roll of bright red paper. He cut it into strips just large enough to hold four Chinese characters written vertically downwards. When I came home from school, my job was to make liquid black ink by grinding a solid ink stick, with a little bit of water, on an ink stone.
For several days, my father sat at his desk, writing words of blessing or auspicious labels onto each strip: chu jin ping an (peace in your coming and going), tien guan chu fook (Sky God bless you), and ti wang gong (Land God). My father also wrote pairs of rhyming couplets called dui.
The stack of plain red paper on one side of the study desk moved progressively to the other – my father skilfully transforming them sheet by sheet into harbingers of good and proclamations of fortune. As my mother and sister dusted, swept, and cleaned every high corner and every dark cranny, as we smelt cookies baking in our neighbour’s houses, and as we heard bullock cart wheels turning on their way to deliver yet another load of rubber-wood logs to fuel cooking fires, my father, the scribe, sat undistracted in the centre of this whirlwind of activity, concentrating on his calligraphy.
“Time to go to the market,” said my father one day, gathering the sheaves of paper into neat stacks.
“Why are you selling them for ten cents only?” asked my sister as she saw the ‘For Sale’ signs. “Everyone else sells for fifteen, even twenty cents.”
“Everyone else, everyone else, must we be like everyone else?” muttered my father impatiently. “Sell at ten cents, sell more. Sell more, make more profit,”
Eldest brother and second brother carried the tables, chairs and umbrellas for our spring-up-by-day stall. Father held the day’s worth of wordy merchandise carefully folded in paper. I held onto a little tin for the day’s takings. We set up our stall in the town centre, where a shopping precinct had sprung up to cater for the demands of the Lunar New Year – waxed ducks, fat Chinese sausages, love letters (wafer thin pieces of coconut-flavoured batter flash cooked on a hot iron griddle and folded into quarters while still warm), new clothes for the new year, mandarins to symbolise gold, and much more. Business at our stall was brisk. To those schooled in the art of calligraphy, one look was enough to establish that it was the work of a master; for those less discerning, it was cheap, and cheap was good. We were usually the first ones to pack up and go home, walking past accusing glares of fellow traders, whose price we had undercut. We set up shop daily in the two weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year and were able to make about five hundred dollars.
On the eve of the Lunar New Year, the townsfolk used freshly boiled cornstarch to attach the strips of red paper, onto their double-leaf front doors. They did this religiously each year, convinced that the bold declaration on their front doors, communicated something to all who passed by – human, god or ghost – and was vital to avoid misfortune, bad luck or death in the coming year.
For the rest of the year, my father used a different brush for his calligraphy practice. This brush was made of horsehairs bundled together, three inches in diameter at its widest, and attached to a foot-long piece of bamboo. He had a few sheets of newspaper painted night black with calligraphy ink. Fresh, clean paper was an expensive luxury, not to be wasted on calligraphy practice. Each day he would roll out the black carpet of paper on his rectangular wooden study desk, and I knew not to disturb him. Father would take out his calligraphy brush from its place of honour, by the porcelain case that held the black ink stick and stone. The brush was so heavy that one could not hold it as one does an ordinary brush. Instead the hand cups it where the horsehair meets the bamboo. Dipping it in clear water, father would brush it masterfully on the paper.
I can still feel the swelling up of pride within me when I think back to thousands of such moments, as father straightened his posture and forearm, and made the brush dance across the paper. His shoulders only relaxed as he finished the piece and let out a small breath. Sometimes he would look at the glistening strokes of water on black ink with admiration and at other times he would mutter critically under his breath. But whatever the case, the piece was taken to the back balcony and sent out to dry only to disappear in the sun. Back and forth he would go, until the practice session was over.