Brushstrokes of Spring

It’s cold. Hou dung ah! I can’t remember it ever being this cold in Hong Kong in winter. Dung in the damp streets of Sheung Wan. Dung in the wind-whipped corridors of Tsim Sha Tsui. Very, very, fei seung dung in the New Territories.

Ah Go is cracking me up. He’s become my SMS comrade in shared dung suffering. At midnight, my mobile phone bleeps unexpectedly. “Freezing Cold, take care, Ah Go.” The next morning, at 11, another bleep: “Freezing cold. Did U fix Ur Heater? Take care, Ah Go.” By that afternoon, he’s down to a shorthand: “
F.C. Have to go to Fanling, shit, Ah Go.”

Yeah, okay, I know the people on the mainland are up to their katucchas in snow. But do they live in buildings with five inch exterior porous concrete walls and zero insulation, apartments equipped with nothing but air conditioners? I tear myself away from the bosom of my newest best friend, my sputtering, probably fire-hazardous, $200 HKD-on-special-at-Watson’s-drugstore electric space heater and brace myself for the outdoors.Mrs. Wong is on duty as usual in the lobby of Prosperous View Court, bundled up in a puffy powder-blue down jacket that I’ve never seen her wearing before. Hoooooooooou dung! my doorlady greets me, stomping her feet and doing a little shiver dance for me as she opens the door.

Now it’s official. In Hong Kong this week, “Hou dung” (It’s cold!) has replaced “Sihk jo faan mei ah?” (Have you eaten yet?) as the universal polite Cantonese language greeting.

Mrs. Wong has been in a cheerful mood lately. She always is around Chinese New Years time. Last week I came out of the elevator and found her up on a ladder, arranging the final touches of red tinsel on the dusty florescent light ceiling fixture.

She loves doing the New Year’s lobby decorations. Every year is different. This year, she’s transformed our environment into a Chinese New Year of the Rat/Mouse Disneyland Wonderland Extravaganza! Lucky fai cheun, in red and gold, cover every wall, and our doorway is a fung seui nuclear power plant of fortunate energy. “Cheut Yahp Ping On!”, shouted Mrs. Wong, pointing to the fai cheun over the top of the door. It’s the most common New Year’s fai cheun couplet. For those of you who don’t read Chinese, the characters mean: In, Out, Normal, Peaceful. You better believe nothing bad is going to get through the door of Prosperous View Court this year! If Mrs. Wong doesn’t bite your head off, Lo Syu Mai Keih, Mickey Mouse surely will.

This is where I have to make a horrible confession. I’m not a big fan of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. Before I came here, I always imagined it would  be a lively, fun time of great excitement and interest. Then I got here and found out that Chinese New Year is when all your favorite restaurants close for a week, the streets go dark for three days, and all your Hong Kong friends vanish into the bosom of their various family obligations. If you aren’t part of a big Chinese family, then you are as lost and adrift at this time of year as a Jewish person in New York at Christmas. (Except that my Jewish friends in New York, at least, can go out for Chinese food on December 25th!)

Then there’s the general mood. Just like Americans at Christmastime, Hong Kongers are caught up in an intricate and often stressful web of obligations, face, customs, and money. This angst has a tangible, visible form:

Yes, the deadly lai see. The myth of lai see is that it is a happy, Santa Claus-like manner of delivering holiday presents to delighted children. While that is certainly part of the story, I have discovered that the lai see is also a ritual fraught with delicate family politics and financial strain. Who gives what to whom, and how much? Two of my Hong Kong friends have actually kept their marriage a secret from their family for the last five years, so they won’t have to become entangled in the family’s lai see web every New Years (singles are exempt from the giving obligations.)

That’s extreme, and unusual behavior. Most Hong Kongers who want to escape the New Year’s obligations take an easier way out. That whoooooosh! that you just heard is the sound of hundreds of fully loaded jets headed for Phuket, Kota Kinabalu, Tokyo–anywhere but here.

And I, too, will be on one of those jets soon.

But that’s okay, because the part of Chinese New Year that I enjoy is the anticipatory build-up, the two weeks before the actual holiday. Flower shops set out sidewalk displays of gorgeous peach blossom branches, and fat bushes studded with Mandarin oranges. The shopping malls and buildings decorate their public spaces splendiforously, with lanterns as huge as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons. Suddenly the air is filled with endless loops of Cantonese opera Muzak everywhere you go–lobbies, building elevators, supermarkets. Yesterday in Park and Shop, I found myself doing a little scarf dance in the dairy aisle.

And, like Mrs. Wong, I love the fai cheun.

Some of you are probably wondering: what are these fai cheun? They are the vertical Chinese paper scrolls, usually red, occasionally gold, that Chinese put up on their doors and walls at this time of year. The Chinese characters “fai cheun” literally mean “brushstroke of spring”. But it’s usually translated as “Spring Couplets.” Written on each fai cheun is a four-character poetic message–a wish for good luck, good health, prosperity, etc.

Nowadays, most fai cheun are mass produced printed affairs, and the poetic phrases are stock ones like Mrs. Wong’s favorite “Cheut yahp ping on”–Come in, come out peacefully. But in olden times, fai cheun were handmade affairs, and the couplets were composed for the occasion by the calligrapher writing the fai cheun, often spontaneously.

In Hong Kong, the making of fai cheun has drifted into the world of politics. I’m not sure how or when this tradition of scholars and artists got turned over to the politicians. What I do know is that, in the weeks before Chinese New Year, all the major Hong Kong political parties send their best known leaders and legislators out into the street with brushes and black ink to make fai chuen for the public. Imagine if politicians in the U.S., in addition to their baby-kissing and rubber chicken-eating obligations, had to be judged, like their Hong Kong counterparts, on their handwriting and poetry-composing skills!

I’ve heard whispers that some Hong Kong politicians actually take calligraphy lessons in the weeks before New Year’s, so their fai cheun won’t look clumsy and embarrass them. (From the textbook-perfect form that DAB chairman emeritus Tsang Yok-sing is using to hold his bat, I’d guess he’d recently gone in for some, um, brush-ups.) For there is a high bar set in the political fai cheun stakes. Hong Kong’s most famous pro-Democrat and most venerable elder statesman also happens to be a master calligrapher: Mr. Szeto Wah:

Last Sunday I was wandering around Causeway Bay and ran into Wah Suk–Mr. Szeto is 77 years old and everybody in Hong Kong calls him “Uncle”–sitting at his folding table. I asked him to make me a fai cheun. He looked me in the eye for a moment, as if sizing me up, then asked me my profession, and my Chinese character name. Then, huddling over two blank red papers, he dipped his pen into a saucer of jet black ink, and wrote quickly, with careful strokes:

I couldn’t read the whole thing right there and then–I had never seen the third character from the top, on the right, before. So it was only after I returned to the comforts of my home and my dictionary that I realized what clever and masterful strokes Uncle Szeto had performed. In just a moment or two, he had written a lucky Spring Couplet that riffs and quotes and puns, like a jazz piece, around the two characters of my Chinese name, Lan Yan (which means–ugh!–Graceful Orchid, for those of you who haven’t already read about how I got the name.)

Lan saam sau hau/Yan chung ching luhng

The character I didn’t know is “sau“, to embroider or knit. It’s the key to Mr. Szeto’s clever pun. The first two characters in the couplet, “Lan Saam” mean “Orchid and Heart”. But when you say them aloud in Cantonese, they sound like laan saam–sweater.

A perfect pun for a freezing Hong Kong day.

Here’s my stab at a somewhat poetic translation (Attention Kempton, Alice, armegag, Siu82, joyce, Roland and all you other native Cantonese speakers! Please feel free to tell me if I’m even close!):

“The flower in heart embroiders (her) language/With serious grace and abundant affection.”

Szeto Wah’s handmade fai cheun does exactly what a Chinese New Year’s fai cheun is supposed to do: put a little spring cheer into a heart that’s survived the winter’s cold. I can’t think of a sweeter note on which to enter the Year of the Rat.

Well, actually, I can. (Consider this next bit to be like the cool snippets that run over the credits of a Jackie Chan movie).

Cut to Wan Chai. I’m shivering down Johnston Road at rush hour, weaving through the crowd. On the corner of one of the market street lanes, I see a guy pushing a steaming cart, loaded to the gills with hot roasted chestnuts. For a moment I think about buying some, they smell so good, but he’s passing so quickly, it’s too crowded to get to my wallet, I don’t have any small change…

Then, abruptly, one of the old lady market vendors whips out her arm and steals a fistful of hot chestnuts on the sly.

I can’t help laughing. It’s like she read my mind. And I feel naughty, like making trouble, so I laugh at her and say, in Cantonese, “You stole it, ah!”

She looks up at me from inside of the ratty scarf she has wound around and around her head like a turban, and she’s laughing like hell.

Hou dung ah! Hou dung!

And then, so fast that I don’t even have a second to register surprise, she grabs my hand, opens it, and presses it full of hot chestnuts.

Yit di la! Now you’re warmer, see!

She sends me on my way, with a hand full of Hong Kong’s heart.


By the way, if you’re in Hong Kong, you can find Szeto Wah out on the street writing fai cheun for the public during the next few evenings at the big Flower Market festival at Victoria Park in Causeway bay. Chinese readers (that is, people who can read Chinese) can consult Wah Suk’s complete schedule here.

Gung hei faat choi! to all of my “Learning Cantonese” duhk je. And do jeh–this is a do jeh situation for sureto everyone, for your kind comments and enthusiastic support in this last blogging year.

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