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
Gung Xi Fa Jei – In Shanghainese
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. 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?
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. 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 fire crackers 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 on 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 sub standard 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.