Grand Aunt

She laid asleep
In a rest she will never wake up from
Yet her boisterous laughter resonates
Her large presence now stilled by the
Silence of the church halls
Maybe maybe she would open her eyes
As youthfulness returns to her pale skin
But she won’t open her eyes no more
They will remain closed, as the coffin encloses her within. Her ashes will burn and she would return to earth without saying goodbye.
Only the living can say, farewell
Farewell farewell. You will be missed.


 

My grandaunt has been the inspiration behind the White Queen figure. She was plump and had a loud voice. You could hear her voice from below the apartment complex to the top floor. She was the matriarch and was a strong prominent figure in society. She was unabashed about her absurd requests and demands on others. And somehow, everything will go according to her way no matter how impossible it was. She would ask me to call her “grand aunt” in Cantonese and not “auntie”.

Every Chinese new year I would fear meeting her and not getting her name right. She would scream loudly if I got her name wrong. But no matter what, she still gave me a red packet filled with dollar bills. She was proud of her achievements and would announce her entourage of children and grandchildren has arrived in an almost military style fashion in a big group. Yet, she was comical and loved to joke and had a laughter that was unmistakably hers. Around her, she filled the room up with love and concern in her larger than life ways that penetrated walls and defenses. She made everyone feel at ease that with her around, nothing will go wrong and we will be safe and looked after as part of her family.

She will be dearly missed.


 

Reflections on being Exotic in China

I am not born in China. That means I am a foreigner, or an “outsider” looking in. My DNA results show that I am 93.9% Chinese and not 99% Chinese either. Hence, for a person born in China who looks at me, they think I am an exotic.

Here are some of my encounters: 

1. When I was buying a silk qipao in Suzhou, I had to choose XXL size as apparently, my butt sticks out more than the typical Chinese. The service staff remarked, “your butt sticks out and it’s so nice! You see my butt, it is so flat.” To them a big butt that sticks out is an exotic feature. Which left me a little confused but okay.

2. In a group company gathering, whereby I was a “guest”, they remarked my eyes are “big, clear and shiny” and asked where I got my big eyes from. I would attribute it to my genetics which has a certain percentage of being “southeast asian”. It is not typical to have big eyes in China.

3. When I entered my hotel room, the cleaner said, “beautiful lady, can I clean your room now?”, I had been called this term a few times by service staff usually by much older ladies. It’s probably the Australian equivalent of “Yes dear, I can do it for you”.

4. When I went to the spa, the masseur asked if I am a student and if I am 18 years old. It’s a huge compliment ~

I had ample of opportunities to practice speaking in mandarin and connecting back with my motherland. I am quite content that most of the cultural and heritage areas in Hangzhou and Suzhou are well preserved for tourists and the future generations to enjoy.

But still, the best treasures are in Taiwan and the museums in China are rather disappointing. The treasures left in China are poorly kept and preserved with not much historical explaination.

One of the best museums on Asian exhibits I had encountered is on the island of Corfu in Greece. I liked the Asian museum so much I visited it twice. It was a moving story book that moved from one era and culture to the next. The ambassador of Greece collected a few hundred art pieces and donated it to the museum before his death and documented each object with accuracy and explaination on their usage.

The china style of preservation of historical relics is more economically motivated with not much explaination. Still, the gardens and historical architectural make up for the lack of treasures (or duplicates of real treasures). In the Chinese language, historical relics are called “national treasures”. Or “imperial grade treasure” if used by the emperor.

When the kuomingtang democracy party ran to Taiwan after losing the battle with the communist, they took the imperial grade treasures to claim soviegnity over the republic of China, citing they have the real treasures. China was emptied of its treasures by foreign invasion and the burning of the summer palace.

In fact the British museum contains more high grade valuable treasures than what China has. But this is changing as private donations are pouring in from wealthy collectors outside China who had decided to return the treasures back to the motherland. Shanghai museum is an example of this.

Visiting China opened my eyes to a land beyond my imagination, and I hope to visit again in future.

 

Red Threads of Love

I used to watch television shows where by the Chinese God of Love would tie a red silk on mortals to amuse himself. When he ties a red silk on two unsuspecting morals, they will fall in love. He would tie the red silk on a beautiful lady and a ugly man and watch how that plays out. He would amuse himself by sitting on a tree and laugh at their folly.

Yue LaoIn Ancient China, marriages are arranged. The notion of romantic love wasn’t accepted. It was more commonly accepted that one should be filial to their parents and parents should decide their children’s marriages with the consultation of a matchmaker. The love deity, however, runs havoc on the moral world by his “mismatches”. Couples would pray to the love deity in the temple in hope that they will love the person they are match made with. Furthermore, they will not know who they would marry till the actual wedding day itself.

If this is still true in this day and age, I would have been married at age 19 to my mother’s preferred match –  the eldest son of a steel tycoon. We had no chemistry, and there was no topics I could speak to him about. We went from one place to another, dining and spending extravagant amounts. I pitied him but I just had no feelings for him. I tried to like him, but it was rather unreal, untrue and forced. Anyway, I was glad it ended. I felt so much better after that. Love can’t be created out of nothing, without an emotional connection, it is hard to make it happen.

I like writing about topics on “red paint”, “red ropes” and “red hourglass” etc as it all links to the ancient God of Love. It is almost a permanent mark on a person once it (the love) happens. In the western world, Baby Cupid is the God that induces loves in young couples. But in the Chinese world, it is an old man who amuses himself with his own antics.

In my latest book, BLUE ORCA, there is a chapter on Red Paint. It is a metaphorical description on a tattoo mark that brands someone for life – in this case, red paint was the defining moment that life changes for the main character, Mimi. The next test I am setting myself up to do is to write concretely on Red Ropes and how the act of bondage entwines with love.

Chinese New Year Gifts and Red Packet Customs

Red Packets

This weekend, millions of Chinese families will be holding their reunion dinners. Similar to Christmas, instead of presents, red packets filled with money will be given by married to non married relatives. The amount of money in the red packets depend on the closeness of relations. Parents will be give the most amount, followed by cousins, distant cousins, nieces and nephews, friends etc. Another distinct difference is that Chinese New Year is celebrated with the extended family with grandparents (family head) as the center of the celebrations.

Each family would set their own amounts depending on their socioeconomic status, which can range from giving their parents amounts from US$100 – $10 000, and to distant relatives US$2 – $8 per red packet. From my observation, the Taiwanese exchange the biggest red packets which may exceed the above usual amounts. In addition, the more homes that are visited, the more red packets are exchanged.

During this exchange, the receivers would wish the elders blessings of the new year using Chinese idioms such as “May your years be filled with abundant fish!” or “May you live till an old ripe age and never grow old!”

The elders will respond by asking the receiver (when they reach adult height) when they are going to get married, do they have a boyfriend, and give relationship advice. For children, the elders would gladly give many red packets and shower them silly with snacks and sweets.

My grand aunt has been asking if I had a boyfriend since I turned eighteen every year during this exchange, and I told her I am too young to be in a relationship. She advised that the best time to find a boy is in university! After graduation, you will have no chance! As a freshly turned eighteen years old at that time I had so many individualistic interests such as learning bass guitar that men are like my playthings. My best friend even joked that I was toying with men so much like a cat, let alone get married.

I feel for my uncles and aunts who are well into their 30s or 40s and still single. Every year, they would sit by the corner as our relatives would ask these meddlesome questions. The amount of red packets we receive decreases over the years as we reach adulthood as we are expected to get married and give red packets instead.

Once a couple becomes married, they are to give red packets not only to their unmarried siblings and cousins, but also, their parents. Unlike western culture, whereby one becomes an adult once they get their driver’s license, in chinese culture, a person becomes an adult once he or she is married.

Sometimes the elders advice would become terrifying over the years as they would say, “What if you grow old and lonely without a partner or children to look after you?” or to newly weds, “Have babies soon or they will have deformities if you wait too long!” Although it sounds horrifying in nature, their advice do mean well and usually, we have to accept and respect their suggestions as such as we are not expected to argue or fight or defend our point of view. It is inauspicious to get angry or upset during the lunar new year as it might bring bad luck.

However, with western influences the red packet culture is changing as well. Hampers are commonly given by businesses to businessChinese New Year Hamperes as red packets are not allowed as giving cash gifts are seen as bribery or corruption. My uncle used to receive five hampers a year from his suppliers containing exotic items such as cans of abalone, scallops and bird nest.

When we were kids, my cousin and I would divide out the rest of the snacks in our uncle’s hampers such as chocolates, biscuits and sweets. The anticipation of opening a hamper is like opening a Christmas gift, except that the hamper is transparent. So we would “reserve” what we want by peeking through the hamper and pointing out what we wanted before it is opened.

This year, I decided to mix things up a little by getting a robotic vacuum cleaner for my grand parents, a tower fan for my parents, and key chains for my cousins. I am setting a new gift exchange culture in my family. I believe that preserving certain aspects of traditional culture is what we decide to retain and cultivate based on what we feel is meaningful to us. In this case, I feel it is more meaningful to get functional objects that remind my relatives that I am thinking of them through things they use daily.

 

23andme Results: I am 93.9% Chinese

During my growing up years, no one believed I was Chinese. My hair was brown under the sunlight, even my eye colour wasn’t totally black, it’s dark brown. I was caught by teachers every year in school for dying my hair, although I didn’t! My mother has a lighter shade of brown hair and eyes than I did. We came up with theories that my maternal grandmother was from Macau, and there might be Portuguese genes to explain the difference in our features.

To put the curiosity to rest, I decided to take a DNA test to ascertain my genetic makeup. Thank god we have DNA testing in the 21st century and we can finally answer some questions! My Peranakan Vizer theorised that the ruling elite will not look like the populace as their genetics were superior. I take that as a compliment to my scholar-official genetics, but I believe there is a deeper reason. Here is the breakdown in the results:

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 9.18.22 pmThe brownish features may be attributed to the 3% Southeast Asian genes. My mother was surprised that we have 0.6% Korean genes. I was reading up on Korea sending virgin girls as tributes to ancient China. There may be some “cultural exchanges”  happening back in history!

The results show there is no Eurasian genes in my DNA and I am certainly Chinese.

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 9.18.35 pm

The Four Arts of Ancient China

A usual question posed to me by westerners: Why are the Chinese so smart and studious? It as to do with the philosophy of Confucianism that governs our daily actions. The cultivation of our soul lies with artistic merit. A scholar-official was expected to be proficient in four arts – strategy, music, painting and calligraphy.

If translated to contemporary settings, the four arts would mean:

Strategy: Business and investment decisions
Music: Playing a musical instrument, dance, performance art
Painting: Drawing, painting, visual arts
Calligraphy: Writing articles, poetry and prose

Sons and daughters of scholar-officials were expected to be proficient in all four areas and continue their family legacy to serve the government as a official. They were expected to be role models of the society by the cultivation of virtue by studying and living their lives in accordance to classical Confucian texts. For thousands of years, families of scholar-officials intermarried and kept their lineage and status in the society. There was not much social mobility and one was born into a particular social class.

One of the ways that a merchant or farmer can move upwards in society to gain the prestige of a scholar was to pass the imperial examinations. Unfortunately, the imperial examinations was abolished in 1905. Soon after, the monarchy was overthrown and the scholar-official class system was dissolved overnight.

Subsequently, the Communist government massacred millions of intellectuals and landowners who could read or write during the Cultural Revolution. They burned thousands of books and closed schools. Traditional arts such as the traditional Chinese tea ceremony, erotic paintings and masters of knowledge disappeared during the turmoil.

My maternal great grandfather was the son of a scholar-official who was the provincial governor of a district in China. He escaped on a one way junk boat to Nanyang. In doing so, he left his family, connections and landholdings behind. If he did not escape, he would most likely be eliminated.

In Nanyang, he joined the clan association which helped him secure a job in a bank. During the early 1900s, most people could not read or write and literary skill was highly valued. Our family prospered as a result of his decision to depart China.

Still sticking to ancient traditions, my grandfather married my grandmother, whom he met in college. They were both considered scholars at that time as most of the population were uneducated. My mother married my father, who was a scholar from a British school, which subsequently led to me being more proficient in English than Mandarin. My extended family members are mainly in occupations as white collared workers/teachers/administrators. The tradition still lives on but in a different contemporary setting.

Maybe there is a sense of truth that my displays of talent is the result of thousands of years of cultivation that I am still subconsciously following today. It may be that the Chinese ideal of a Renaissance Man, is a person who displays scholar-gentry traits.

As a result of which, most Chinese aspire to be proficient in the four arts to maintain their status in the society. Ever since publishing my first book, my status as been somewhat elevated to a “maker of works”, which is a very prestigious and flattering title in mandarin.

Traditionally, the Chinese has been very liberal in expressing eroticism in their literature and paintings, similar to the Greeks, but this part of history has been erased with the Cultural Revolution. I am reverting back to what was formerly censored and erased to create a new consciousness that we need not be so prude and stifled in the 21st century.