Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Ang Pow and other stories

Today I received an ang pow or Little Red Envelope or - "Ya Sui Qian" from a very loving eighty year old aunt. She insisted that any one, at any age, who visits her must have an envelope. I was terribly touched by her traditional attitude, and she has no reservations about giving her gift of money, even though she is no earning an income now.

You may have seen the little red envelopes containing money, given out during Lunar New Year. Some call it Hung Bao (means red packet), some call it Ang Pao (depending on the dialect), but the original name of the money wrapped in little red envelope is Ya Sui Qian. It is given to children by their parents for good luck, and it is only given by those who are married, to those who are younger. It will usually be given to children who come to visit the family, or to the younger frined and relatives whom we visit. Chinese are very particular about longevity of life, and they - well, we - believe that by doing so, our ageing process can be decelerated. (Ya Sui means compressing age, Qian means money) Honestly, a lot of younger Chinese nowadays, are not aware of this. The money contained in the packet has over-shone the real meaning of the gesture.

I have a few anecdotes about the giving of ang pow, some are sad, some are hilarous and some a totally mean.

A friend told me that when she was young, her widowed mother would never let her visit any of her father's relatives because the mother would not be able to reciprocate the angpow they received and these relatives would say a lot of negative things about their unlucky family. So when she was young, the only angpow she received was from her mother. And she developed a terrible fear of visiting people because she did not want her mother to suffer from unnecessary anxieties. Besides, she and her siblings developed very low self esteem. But because she and her sister became Christians, they were blessed by an unusual intelligence at secondary school. They graduated with top honours and went on to become high ranking bank officers. In later years,the family was blessed with exceptional wealth and health. Her father's family changed their attitude towards her mother. But childhood nightmares often cannot be erased from one's mind.

In my own experience, many relatives would give less to us so that my mother need not reciprocate with a large amount to give to their children. We received one or two dollars very shyly from these mean-er aunts. We did not develop much social confidence actually after my father passed away. But I remember fondly one or two aunts who were very good to my mother and us. We would sit in the kitchen on our visits and they would open up every biscuit tin to give us pieces of goodies. We were not bashful to visit these aunts on Chinese New Year. They were the same genuinely good when my children visited them in later years. It was so kind of them.

A wealthy woman was known to give out ang pows marked with stars. The children of lesser important people were given one star ang pow, the significant ones were given two star ang pows, and the close relatives and very significant ones were given three star angpow. She had all these angpows in different hand bags as well. Her maids would be told to hold these hand bags properly. I believe that she has an excellent memory to be able to manage all these little red packets through out the days of her New Year Celebration . One year my friend's star must be shinning particularly bright upon her. Her children were delighted to receive an extra star of angpow. The following year, they went very early to visit her. But their star dropped. I wonder what kind of evaluation system she used. She is ahead of ISO creditation.

But I think the best angpow that I ever received was from a well known local dignitary, now a Tan Sri. My husband and I met him at the old Sibu airport accidentally one Chinese New Year season and he just automatically reached into his pocket to put a good handsome note into my son's hands. He simply said, "How wonderful to meet such a nice looking boy. Here's his angpow for the New Year." He was genuine, and he had no hesitation of giving the money (although not wrapped in a red envelope. I was overwhelmed by his genuine kindness,sincerity and display of family love! I have been blessing him all these years.

Other Activities, Practices and Taboos
Other common practices are new clothes, new hair-cut (traditionally, those who are in mourning stage are not allowed to have their hair cut), paying visits to friends and relatives to give good greetings to each other, reconciliations, etc. popular festive activities such as Lion Dance and Dragon dance are believed to have the effect of ridding evils and bad luck, and to bring harvesting rain in the coming year.

Naturally, there are taboos that we have to abide during the festive season. Any sharp, pointy objects are not to be visible, no sweeping is allowed during the first few days of the New Year - even brooms have to be hidden away - to prevent any good luck or fortune that may be swept away. Breaking anything is also a taboo. Should it unfortunately happen, we will have to quickly say something nice to accompany it, such as Sui Sui Ping An - which means "out of harm's way, all year round". "Sui" means age or year, which sounds the same as "shattered". Apart from that, any vocabulary related to unfortunate event is a big No-No. In our family, we have to even hide the eggs away.

Vegetarian meal

Many Chinese choose to eat only vegetarian meal throughout the first day of the Lunar New Year. This is mainly for the belief of cleansing and for good deeds.

Other must-haves

Other new year must-haves are Mandarin oranges, dried oyster, various types of melon seeds and sweets, steam cake (Fa Gao - symbolises proprerity), oil-preserved smoked duck and smoked sausages, etc.

Then it will be the spring-cleaning, that indicates sending the old and bad away, and prepare to welcome a better new year.

Modern takes on decorations

As the New Year is approaching, most Chinese will shop for some good luck plants. More popular ones are Narcissus flowers, chrysanthemum, plum blossom and peach blossom. It is believed that, if the peach blossom blooms on the 1st day of New Year, the person or the family will have good luck for the year or find love. But these plants are only found in 4-season countries so Chinese who are in warmer countries will have to settle for other alternatives.

The red strips of paper with writing on are called Dui Lian (paired sentences), which come in pairs. These sentences should be written in complimenting manner, for instance, the first sentence (Shang Lian - "upper sentence") should have the noun, verb, etc complimenting the noun, verb, etc in second sentence (Xia Lian - "lower sentence"), in the same order. These phrases often describe the mood in spring and receiving fortune and luck. People will also put up other red decorations such as the word "Fu" (luck) on the wall or the main door. Some may like to place it upside down, reason being, "upside down" in Chinese shares the same sound with "arriving". So it in a way signifies the arriving of a lucky year.

A Long and Colourful Celebration
The Lunar New Year celebration officially lasts for 15 days. The second day of the New Year is the day when all married daughters have to go back to their parents' home for a visit. They is usually accompanied by their husbands, especialy the newly weds.

Yuan Xiao - The Chinese Valentine's Day

This is not really practised by the Foochows in Sibu. But we know more about it from old stories, books, movies and now the TV.

The 15th day is also being referred to as the Chinese Valentine's day. On this day, many single girls will gather at the riverside upstream to toss mandarin oranges into the river, with the hope that the right single men who await downstream, will pick up the oranges.

It is believed that this act will bring the person to his/her right match. So it's no surprise the mandarin oranges will sell really well on that day.

The Rejang is just too big for this to be practised!! And it is not practical any way because there are too many different races living along the river. One can imagine how a marriage could be concluded if a person of another race picks up the orange!! A Malay friend of mine did indicate a long time ago that he was waiting to pick up a mandarin orange because he would like to marry a Chinese girl this way.

2 memories:

Unknown said...

No hongbao, no passport stamp

For one Singaporean family, what appeared to be a sign of warm hospitality turned out to be a solicitation for money.

The 40-year-old businessman - referred to as Mr Cai in Mandarin - and his family of three were 'held up' at the Johor immigration checkpoint last Saturday evening, pending a demand from a Malaysian immigration officer for a hongbao, or red packet.

The family had their passports endorsed and returned to them only after Mr Cai gave a hongbao containing $10, reported the Shin Min Daily yesterday.

Outraged by the incident, the transport company owner immediately tipped off the Chinese newspaper upon his return to Singapore.

Mr Cai and his wife were initially struck by the warm hospitality of the officer serving them at the Johor checkpoint, when he pulled up at one of the immigration booths at 8pm last Saturday.

The Malaysian officer, reportedly around the age of 30, smiled and greeted Mr Cai "gong xi fa cai" - a Mandarin phrase often used to wish another person prosperity in the year ahead - after receiving the family's passports.

The couple replied "happy new year", under the assumption that such exchange of greetings was common during the Chinese New Year period.

The immigration officer, however, continued to smile at Mr Cai for over ten minutes, holding on to the passports without inspecting or endorsing them.

Sensing something was amiss, Mr Cai then asked the officer if anything was wrong with the passports.

The officer said he had already wished Mr Cai "gong xi fa cai" and asked why there was no hongbao.

Although Mr Cai felt that the officer was being corrupt, he was worried of being put in a difficult position by the latter, as the passports were with him.

He took out $10 - the smallest note he had with him at the time - and slipped it into a hongbao before giving it to the officer.

After inspecting the contents, the officer nodded to Mr Cai and proceeded to stamp the family's passports, before returning them with a word of thanks.

Mr Cai hopes to remind Singaporeans to be prepared to handle such opportunistic immigration officers when they visit Malaysia.

Hongbaos, which contain token sums of money, represent good fortune and are given out to children and unmarried adults during the Chinese New Year festive period.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

wow! Alison! This article is found in Sarawak Talk. Did you write it?

I note that some of my articles have been "c and P" in the forum too.

I suppose what bloggers blog can be "C and P" by interested parties too.

thank you for your hung pao of another kind.


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