The highest temperature ever recorded in Beijing, 107 degrees Fahrenheit, was recorded during the month of August, a month that also has the distinction of being the most hellishly humid period of the year in the Chinese capital. Beijing weather is notorious for its extremes and rapid changes; by September, the city’s weather has cooled and dried out, and the humidity generally drops to some of the most comfortable levels of the year.
So why, you might ask, has China set the date of the 2008 Olympics for early August, a time that almost certainly will find Beijing a soup of summer heat, humidity, and–avert your eyes dear PRC censors– pollution?
Any Chinese person can immediately tell you the answer to this question in three words:
Baat Baat Baat.
Actually, as I realized when I looked at the new electronic Olympic Countdown Calendar that’s been installed underground in Hong Kong’s Central MTR station, it is Baat Baat Baat (Baat!). The Beijing Olympics will begin on the eighth day (baat yat), of the eighth month (baat yuht) of 2008 (yih ling ling baat), at precisely 8 o’clock (baat dim jung).
If you don’t live in Hong Kong, you are probably going a little baat-ty at this point. But we Hong Kongers are already accustomed to the ubiquitous double-looped digit. Go into any shop in the city, and you’ll find items, particularly sale ones, priced in a most curious fashion. Cheap batteries at $8.88 a package. A special on huge packs of toilet tissue for $28.88. Set lunches at $88 for two courses, $108 for three. (These prices are in Hong Kong dollars, and there’s an interesting story here too. HK currency, alone among Asian currencies, is pegged to the U.S. dollar at a rate of 7.75 to 1. On the street, that translates roughly to 1 dollar US converts to HKD…that’s right, 8.)
Coming from New York City, I found it curious that nowhere in Hong Kong could I find our old friend .99–the tricky number we Americans invented to make it seem like the purchaser is getting a price that’s a dollar lower than it actually is. I wondered what the 11 cent difference between U.S. and Hong Kong’s price tags meant. Were Hong Kong merchants trying to out-do and improve upon the bargain sales of us savvy New Yorkers?
Silly me. My teachers at my first class in Chinese University’s Cantonese language program soon set me straight with a remedial crash course on the Chinese Way of 8.
“Eight”, or baat, in Cantonese (ba in Mandarin) is a homonym for the words faat and also for its happy partner, daat. Chinese characters have, well, character–some are ugly and unfortunate, some are beautiful and lucky. And the faat character, as you might guess by the fact that it appears on a mah johng tile, is one of the luckiest of all.
In Cantonese, the literal meaning of faat is close to the English concept of “launch” or “issue forth”. In newspaper articles, a politician might faat yin, issue a statement. Or something might faat saang, come into being. In other words, “happen”. The Chinese word for invention is faat mihng, literally speaking, an issuing forth (faat) of the combined brightness of the moon and sun (mihng). Which is a marvelous way indeed to describe the sudden lightning bolt of creative inspiration.
The most winning faat combinations, though, are these: “faat choi” or “issue forth good fortune” (as in “Gung Hei Faat Choi”, the Chinese New Year greeting). And finally, there’s the double whammy rhyming couplet: faat daat. To arrive at being rich. To achieve prosperity. The ultimate faat.
In Hong Kong, and in mainland China, the number eight, or baat, is a coded reference, a soundalike stand in, for the almighty faat daat. How strong is the resonance of the mystical lucky homonym? Let’s put it this way, you can’t last a day in Hong Kong without coming up against the Power of Eight. You can start by counting the number of 8s on the license plates of the Mercedes and BMWs of Hong Kong’s tycoons, politicians, and wanna-bes. The dizzying number of doubled circles in the telephone numbers of restaurants, businesses, hotels. Eight-treasure cakes and dumplings. The name of Hong Kong’s popular football betting cable TV channel, “Lucky 88”.
And, finally, there’s the currency factor to consider. As I mentioned above, the Hong Kong dollar has been pegged to the US at a street rate that rounds off 8 to 1. And, just across the border the other day, the Beijing government set off a nervous ripple in the markets by allowing the yuan to dip below what business journals called the “psychological level” of 7.50 renminbi to the USD. Why is 7.50 a “psychological level”? Well, here’s the answer that you won’t find in the Wall Street Journal: once you get below 7.5, you must round the figure down, to 7, instead of up, to 8. And that’s just not faat enough.
Wait a minute, I can hear you all thinking. A linguistic superstition may be powerful, but surely not powerful enough to be the invisible hand driving the world’s fastest growing economy. Well, I’m no economist, and I certainly don’t have any hard evidence to back up the notion that the Chinese are uncomfortable with re-valuing the yuan for numerological reasons. On the other hand, the most important event in China’s recent history–the event that the Chinese are so nervous about that they have depopulated and bulldozed whole neighborhoods, shut down hundreds of smoke-belching Beijing factories, spent billions of dollars in construction, and endless efforts in international PR and damage control has been scheduled, in spite of all climatological logic, for the time when Beijing’s practically guaranteed to have its shittiest weather.
A coincidence of circumstances? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t baat on it.