Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Bad Stick

The unfortunate fortune of the “Number 27” stick drawn at Che Gung temple

Nobody I know in Hong Kong is rending their garments in despair over the very, very bad Chinese fortune stick drawn by Lau Wong Fat at Che Gung temple in Shatin last Tuesday.

My buddy, Ah Wong, in fact, is laughing. “What did they expect? The most important ritual of the Chinese New Year for the Hong Kong Government, and who do they send to kau chim? A guy who’s under investigation by the ICAC!”

Really, Ah Wong has a point. If I were sending a proxy to pull the stick that determined my fortune for the forthcoming year–pulling it, mind you, in front of the entire assembled Hong Kong media corps–I certainly would hesitate before sending the shifty, scandal-ridden “Uncle” Lau, head of the clannish, secretive and powerful village chief’s association, the Heung Yee Kuk.

Let me backtrack a moment for you non-Hong Kong readers. “Kau chim”, 求簽
, literally “request a sign” is one of the hallowed rituals of our Chinese New Year. I’ve never been tempted to try–it involves unpleasant waiting in line for hours with throngs of people in the cold weather at one of the kitchy “auspicious” Taoist temples like Wong Tai Sin.

The drill goes like this: you get to the head of the line, you are handed a cup filled with 64 (sometimes 96) flat wooden sticks, each one engraved with a number and one of three Chinese characters–seung, ha, jung: up, down, or middle. You shake the cup until one stick jumps out, and take it to the fortuneteller, who pulls out the slip of paper that corresponds to the number of your stick, and reads the fortune printed on it. Whatever it says, that’s your “year”, on a stick.

How seriously do people take this? Well, I’ve actually seen people quickly shove a bad stick down in the bunch when no one’s looking, and start shaking over again. A few years ago, a local district councillor drew such a bad stick, on behalf of his district, that he immediately re-did his pick.

And what was the number of the stick that caused this fellow such distress that he saw no alternative but to beg the gods for a do-over?

Number 27. The same number on the stick that Lau Wong Fat drew on behalf of the Hong Kong Government at Che Gung temple the other day.

“Evil and Calamity Is Coming And Going All Around You: And it Comes from You.”

Soothsayers and oracles, in all languages and cultures, derive their power from maddening un-specificity. The companion text to the Chinese fortune sticks, true to its genre, is written in flowery, dense poetry filled with allusions to Chinese literature and history. In other words, there’s enough interpretative wiggle-room in here to make the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference blind with envy. No surprise that the team of fortunetellers at Che Gung temple, along with the pundits at twelve or thirteen Hong Kong dailies, representatives of various Hong Kong political parties, and Lau Wong Fat himself, have been spinning the result like it’s Sunday morning on Meet the Press. (There’s an excellent digest of all the armchair oracles, and a translation of the fortune poem, on ESWN.)

My Chinese is not up to literary standards, so I’m not going to try to analyze the 28 character poem with its allusions to demons and phantasms, and traitors from within. But you don’t need an M.A. in Chinese Literature to notice that there is one, and only one, specific historical figure referenced in the frame of Stick Number 27.

Qin Shi Huang

Okay, here’s where I admit that most of what I know about the first Emperor of a United China comes from the Zhang Yimou movie, HeroBut his nasty cinematic character, I’m told, is pretty true to the history books. Qin was a manipulator, a single-minded tyrant, who justified slaughtering and repressing the people (he banned dissenting books, buried scholars alive) in order to pull competing fiefdoms together into a Chinese nation. The Great Wall of China is the man’s legacy–he started its construction to keep China safe from outsiders. Hero makes the very controversial case that Qin was, in the end, a good guy–that the violence and extreme political repression he unleashed was an unfortunate but necessary means to achieve the higher goal of nationhood.

Does this argument sound familiar?

Anyway, Emperor Qin is right smack in the middle of Bad Stick Number 27:


“Emperor Qin built the Great Wall in vain…Evil and Calamity are Everywhere, and it’s Because of You.”

Now, if you wanted to stretch and spin-doctor a lot–a whole lot–I suppose you could transform that ominous warning about the dangers of arrogant, absolute power into a DAB-ready platitude for the Hong Kong People. Something along the lines of “We must stay united as a community and beware of dissent and disharmony within.”

At least, that’s what “Uncle” Lau Wong Fat did.

But nobody in Hong Kong is buying it. Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s popularity rating is not quite as low as George Bush’s was in the Final Days, but it’s heading to Tung Chee Hwa territory. The HK government’s missteps and political failures are there for everyone to see–as clear and vainglorious as Tsang’s very ugly “Great Wall” of a government complex that’s being constructed over in Admiralty.

Like Ah Wong, everyone is chuckling, because they know who pulled the bad stick, and it isn’t the Hong Kong public. Of course the pro-government spinners want to pin this bad mojo on Hong Kong and the community–that “we” are to blame for our “internal squabbles” (that is to say, for insisting on being able to actually elect our representatives, instead of letting the Emperors in Beijing call the shots).

“We” is a word that tends to get thrown about when uncomfortable realities are being avoided. It often works: my countrymen in the U.S. so far seem quite happy to go along with Obama’s inaugural suggestion that “we” citizens are the ones culpable for the current evils and calamities facing the U.S. (instead of, say, the yet-to-be-prosecuted corporate and financial industry crooks, plus George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzalez,

Thank god Hong Kong people–no doubt sharpened by their love for chao dao fu— have a nose for that kind of smelly “we”.

That is to say, Hong Kong people understand that when politicians start throwing around the “we’s” you really have to take a close look to determine who, really, is “We”.

And in this case, the “We” is not us. It’s them. The really, really bad fortune stick Number 27 belongs to the un-elected officials of Hong Kong’s government.

Serves them right, I say. What were they thinking when they dispatched Lau Wong Fat to Che Gung temple? Actually, I’m pretty sure I can figure what they were thinking. Usually, the Hong Kong government sends one of the Secretary-level cabinet ministers to do the deed each year. This presents problems, since many of the top brass are Christians who really don’t want to be involved with such a superstitious practice, or they’re sophisticates who jet off to Paris or New York the instant the Chinese New Year holiday begins. What’s more, nobody in the government wants to be saddled with the bad press of making an unfortunate stick pick in this most unfortunate of years.

From that perspective, traditional old “Uncle” Lau from the New Territories must have looked like a great solution to this knotty, perennial problem. What’s more, probably the government figured it would be a way to give him face. The week before Chinese New Year, Lau was given a seat on Hong Kong’s Executive Council amid a storm of accusations that his appointment was a political tit for tat. (Lau Wong Fat, you may remember, turned his back on his own political party last August to campaign for a government-supporting DAB candidate).

Ah, but how inexorably the wheels of karm
ic justice spin! As it turns out, the traitorous and scheming Lau Wong Fat got exactly the fortune that he–and by extension, his masters–deserved.

Ji San Bat On. You got that right. In 2009, the year of Financial Tsunami and the 20th Anniversary of Tienanmen Square, there will be no rest for these guys.

And that, in plain English, is the lesson of the bad stick: believe in the illusion that your power is righteous and justified, and it will eventually come and bite you in the ass.

I’ll need a few more years of study before I can translate that elegantly into Chinese.

Surfing the Financial Tsunami

The Cantonese description of the mess we’re in is way better and more colorful than that dull old CNN/New York Times-standby: “Financial Crisis.” It shows more poetic flair, too, than the slangy, “Ponzi scheme”. And I’d take it in a minute over the other C-words that have been bandying around the newspaper headlines: calamity, collapse, catastrophe.

The Cantonese term for the global economic crisis is gam yung hoi siu:


literally: gold fuses, the ocean screams.

I know, I know, you can’t translate these things so literally. Chinese words consist mainly of pairs of characters that carry a different meaning in combination than the individual parts. Yet for a Westerner, it is hard to resist parsing the elements and delighting in the uncanny, poetic resonances of the basic building blocks. For me this is one of the joys of being a student of Chinese, so you’ll just have to put up with my quirks. (In elementary school English class I was the number one diagrammer of sentences and sleuth of root words, so at least I’m consistent).

Anyway, the “Gam Yung” part of this equation is the character combination that translates as “financial” (as in the Hong Kong building we all call IFC, but which occasionally gets referred to by its “official” Cantonese name “Gwok Jai Gam Yung Jung Sam” –International Financial Centre.)

But the “hoi siu” is another story. The literal power of these two characters only amplifies the meaning of the pair. It carries, for me and anyone who has lived close to the sea, the same kind of powerful horror as “dai fung” the great wind of the “typhoon.” The ocean screams, surges out of control, without favor or pity wipes away everything in its path.

Ah, if only our current financial ocean scream were as democratic as nature’s big winds and giant killer waves.

But it isn’t, and it is–typically–hitting those people hardest who deserve it least.  And barely moisturizing those who deserve to get soaked to the bone and swept out to oblivion.

I don’t belong either of those groups. I’d say I’m in a pretty average and typical situation, all things considered, and I’m thankful. But I’ve still taken a couple of hits, which is why you may have noticed my blogging has gone dark for a while. Writing these Learning Cantonese essays about Hong Kong is my passion, but it takes my full focus and energy to put out work I’m proud of. If I’m tapped out because I’ve been spending that brain capital on money-spinning projects, I’d rather not post some old blah blah blah on the blog. I’d rather wait and hold on until I can tap my top-shelf product.

So I thank all of you, this Chinese New Year of the mighty ngau, for your patience and continued support. No matter how long the blog goes dark, you terrific readers have come back. I appreciate that.

Speaking of support, I have been brainstorming a way to support the time I spend on this blog, and came up with a little project called Little Adventures in Hong Kong. You may have spotted the button for the link down on the left side of the page. It is my small way of trying to surf this financial tsunami, and I hope it may generate the $$$ to offset the hours I spend wandering around the city looking for adventures to recount on this blog. If you plan to come to Hong Kong, or have a friend who’s planning to come, please do check it out.

Enough self-promotion. Here’s to a powerful year of the OX, which I just now notice spells, backwards, my favorite Hong Kong spicy fishy flavored sauce. This must be a good thing, and when I figure out if there’s any luck or fortune attached to this lovely coincidence, I will come back and tell you all about it.

Sooner than later, I promise.

In the meanwhile, San Nin Faai Lok!

Freedom Beyond Noodles

This little note at the bottom of a column in today’s South China Morning Post reminds me it’s been some months since I visited my favorite noodle shop:

Celebrating 20 years of Freedom Noodles

the economic downturn and a series of closures in the catering sector,
a popular, yet humble restaurant called Freedom Noodles – founded 20
years ago on the ground floor of the Professional Teachers’ Union’s
clubhouse in Causeway Bay – is still going strong.

Cheung Man-kwong, who is head of the union, said the 20th anniversary
of the Tiananmen Square crackdown this year had a special meaning for
the shop, which was a favourite in the neighbourhood.

“There is
more to the name of the shop than the freedom for customers to choose
whatever combination of ingredients they wish for their dish of
noodles. The owners were active supporters of the pro-democracy
movement before June 4, 1989,” Mr Cheung said.

I didn’t know that the owners of Ji Yauh Mihn Ga were pro-democracy supporters, but this knowledge will add to my pleasure and comfort the next time I happen to be near the Bowrington Market in Wan Chai and duck into the steamy shop and order a bowl of their delicious and utterly satisfying seui gau mihn.

Lately, there’s been a foodie scramble to anoint one or another Hong Kong noodle shop as the “best” won ton noodle place in town. I blame this urge to categorize and rate on the recent release of the Michelin Guide for Foreign Tourists Coming to Hong Kong who Can’t Read The Chinese Menu and are Afraid Someone Might Slip Dog Meat in their Dumpling. The “classic” elements of the won ton noodle soup have been analyzed and proclaimed by these experts. If a soup does not contain slivers of the more expensive white chive (as opposed to the lowly green one, which is so cheap that the vendors in the gaai sih will often give a bunch away for free to customers, like a pack of Kleenex at the 7-11), it is instantly crossed off the golden foodie noodle list.

According to the believers of the Won Ton Bible, just about the only “real” noodle shop in Hong Kong is a place on Wellington Street called Mak Gei. Now, I live about a two minute walk from that shop, and I eat there from time to time, and their won ton mihn is fine by me. The broth is richer than usual, and suitably shrimpy. The won tons are a good size, not too big or small, and the noodles are springy and chewy.

Still, Mak’s is not a noodle soup that I go out of my way to eat. For one thing, it’s pricey and they’re a bit mingy on the portions–$38 Hong Kong dollars only gets you a bowl the size of a teacup, three small wontons and a baby’s fistful of noodles. If you want to make a lunch of it, you really have to order two bowls, which puts your tab close to $10 US–a lot of moolah for a bowl of noodles in the Time of Financial Tsunami.

But it’s not money that makes me less interested in eating a bowl of Mak’s noodles than a $14 bowl of Freedom’s. Soup, no matter what culture you are in, is not just about the ingredients–it’s about the soul. In this chilly month, of this cold, cold year, I want to be comforted by friends and familiar faces. I want to pick up my porcelain spoon and chopsticks, lower my head to the steaming bowl, and knock elbows with teachers, unionists, market vendors and taxi drivers. I want freedom from the gnawing fear that these people, this shop, and this won ton mihn will disappear in a blink, replaced by some rapacious developer’s crappy concrete tower filled with slick corporate restaurants that promise a “perfect” won ton “lifestyle”.

Thank god, we’re done with that. For a while, at least. The upside of the finanical tsunami: a pause, and a space, to be filled not by mere things, but by things that matter.

Like Freedom Noodle’s 20 wonderful years of pro-democratic, won ton soup.