Welcome to the Year of the Fire Monkey!
I think this season has taught me the most about some of the major differences in thinking when it comes to superstitions between east and west. Singapore is extremely superstitious (and my friend who grew up in Bangkok says they are there too so maybe all of SE Asia is….).
I was thinking a lot about the superstitions I grew up with. Knocking on wood is one of the big ones in my life usually following saying something like “I have never broken a bone” with the added joke of knocking on your own head if there isn’t real wood around. Bad luck being associated with black cats, walking under ladders, breaking mirrors. Good luck being associated with rabbits foot, and four leaf clovers… I feel like if you are not familiar with these some of them take some long explanations.
Here, things seem more straightforward. A lot of associations are based on homophones or words that sound the same but had different meanings. Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese are both tonal languages so words can be spelled the same but said with different tones changing the meanings. So for example raw fish is YU (said with an upward tone) in mandarin and this is a homophone for abundance and affluence. Actually after some digging, it is when you say “raw fish” that it sounds like “increased abundance”. So fish is associated with wealth and abundance. This logic is everywhere!
Similarly, my husband has been sick this last week with a nasty cough. One of the cleaning aunties at school told him not to eat chicken. Now being from the west the logic would be to have chicken noodle soup. So he asked why not eat chicken? She explained that when you cough you sound like a chicken so, don’t eat chicken when you have a cough.
Food is huge in Singapore, and my grocery store had a handy chart on foods and traditions for the lunar New Year. So the following is from a sign in the Cold Storage I took a photo of:
Visiting Family – This is huge! There is generally a big reunion dinner. In lots of families this is the single most important meal of the year. It reminds me of Thanksgiving but even a bigger deal. My in-laws just came back from a trip and sat next to someone who flew to Hong Kong for something and then turned around and came back the next day because she had to be home for New Year’s dinner. That big a deal. It is the largest travel weekend in China. Think Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. This is it. This is when you go home. I have a friend visiting from the states for this reason. Many of the dishes eaten at this meal have special meaning too. Fish is eaten, and prawns, and in Singapore there is a special salad that is tossed.
Prawns – in Cantonese prawn is “ha” which sounds like laughter, and shellfish in general symbolizes strength, positive energy and good fortune. Prawns as also known as the dragons of the sea and represent strong marriage and family bonds.
Meat Dumplings – in northern china jiaozi are eaten and shaped like gold ingots and symbolize good fortune and wealth.
Rice Cakes – Sticky rice cake or “nian gao” is eaten and in mandarin nian means year and gao is cake and sounds like tall or high. This represents a child’s wish to grow taller each year. Also filling up the rice bucket is supposed to symbolize the increase of prosperity, fertility luck and wealth.
Spring Cleaning – the word for dust is pronounced “chen” which is the same as another word that means “old” so cleaning the house signifies getting over the past and looking forward to a new start.
New Clothes – it is traditional to wear new clothes for the spring festival and also seen as respectful as the younger generation has to look respectable for the elders.
Wearing Bright Colors – Red. Everything is red! Wearing red is seen as auspicious and people avoid wearing black.
Putting up the character “fu” – Fu means good fortune and happiness so a decorative usually paper cut out of the character is placed in a prominent place in the home. Some families turn it upside down since upside down in mandarin is “dao” which sounds like the word for too arrive so it means a wish for good fortune and happiness to arrive in the household.
Hong Bao – are red packets. The custom is for the elders to give these to the younger generation with money and usually in even and lucky numbers (6 and 8 are favored) I have also heard that crisp two dollar bills are preferred in Singapore.
Mandarin Oranges – this one had me stumped but now I know! It is customary to give a pair of oranges (and man did I see a lot of people on public transit today with little bags with two oranges) to relatives. This signifies good luck. The word for mandarin oranges is “ju” which is similar to “ji” which means auspicious. Some believe the larger the oranges the better the luck. The reasoning behind giving them in pairs has to do with the phase “good things come in pairs”. They are everywhere this time of year! I’m not complaining, I love them, but they are also a traditional gift to a hostess. I was instructed to bring two when I go visit my friend’s house tomorrow.
Yu Sheng – The special salad in Singapore where each ingredient has auspicious meaning and they are paused to the center and thrown in the air.
Abalone – This one I am glad I finally know. There are abalone ads EVERYWHERE!!! And I mean everywhere and it was starting to drive me crazy. It has a parallel meaning of assurance of a surplus in the year ahead.
Sweets and Chocolates – Candies and chocolates and sweets oh my! They mean safety and good fortune so pass the love letter cookies, those awesome cashew shortbread things and the pineapple tarts!
Scallops – These for some reason symbolize more “sons” or offspring” generation after generation, an interesting association given the articles I have been reading about the missing women in China…
Leeks – besides this word getting a certain Finnish Folk-song stuck in my heard… leeks symbolize the ushering in of wealth in the coming year.
Fresh bamboo and Pussy Willow – these both symbolize the growth of fortune and prosperity.
I’ll pick my friends brain tomorrow and see if I can come up with anything else!
Gong Xi Fa Cai and Xīnnián kuàilè