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 sure--to everyone, for your kind comments and enthusiastic support in this last blogging year.

  • Trackbacks are closed for this post.

  • 2/2/2008 8:54 AM Alice Poon wrote:
    My translation would be something like this:

    "With your heart (noble) like an orchid and your speech (elegant) like embroidery, you have shown us great magnanimity and abundant affection."

    Notes: The orchid flower is considered a flower of nobility. The word "mouth" is a literal expression for "speech" or something that's expressed, like writing.
    Reply to this
    1. 2/2/2008 11:16 AM dm wrote:
      Thanks Alice! That is, indeed, and elegant translation. I knew that the "Mouth" character was a metaphor for speech or writing (I figured that is why Ah Suk asked my profession.) But I didn't know that the orchid is considered a flower of nobility. This is one of those cultural/literary pieces of information that you don't always get told when you are studying a foreign language.

      That's why I rely on all of you!

      Reply to this
      1. 2/2/2008 2:32 PM armegag wrote:
        Have you heard of "(四君子)"(the noble four)? It means "梅、蘭、竹、菊" (the plum blossom, the orchid, the bamboo and the chrysanthemum) - you can see a lot of them in Chinese paintings.
        Reply to this
        1. 2/2/2008 5:31 PM dm wrote:
          I haven't heard of this, and it is a good thing to know! Thanks.

          Reply to this
  • 2/2/2008 11:41 AM Muna Tseng wrote:
    Daisann siu tze (Miss Daisann)

    I also read into it the witty twist of "embroidered mouth/speech" as a reference to you as writer, spinning clever words. Your deep affection to Hong Kong clearly returned fondly!

    I am shivering in New York just remembering how cold it was last time I was in Hong Kong with you around this same time of year! Sending warm thoughts your way......Muna
    Reply to this
    1. 2/2/2008 12:37 PM dm wrote:
      Muna siu je! I miss you! Big hugs and thanks for must get back to HK soon!

      Reply to this
  • 2/2/2008 11:41 AM chriswaugh wrote:
    "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?"

    Actually, most of those caught in the storms do live in uninsulated, unheated buildings like yours. There's some mysterious line that roughly follows the course of the Yellow River: North of that line you get central heating; south of that line you're on your own.
    Reply to this
  • 2/4/2008 5:51 PM armegag wrote:
    I would like to invite you to take a look at this link:
    Is this interesting?

    BTW, today's 李八方 column in the Apple Daily contains a short article that deals with two fai chuens written by Wah Suk with this one 「 憑 藉 祖 蔭 , 親 者 有 權 」to Donald Tsang and the other one「 當 仁 不 為 , 亢 龍 無 悔 」to Wong Yan Lung. It's worth reading.

    Here's the link:

    Reply to this
  • 2/4/2008 6:12 PM Anatole69 wrote:
    Happy New Year's!

    Love your blog, I am getting so much out of it. As a beginner of Cantonese it's great you write in pinyin as the vocabulary is wonderful. I am dying without tone marks or numbers though, so I won't be able to speak any of the words. So sad. :(

    - Anatole
    Reply to this
  • 2/4/2008 7:27 PM Jonathan Stanley wrote:
    Daisann... your dates are whacked. Do you mean Friday 1st February till Wednesday 6th of February or mean Monday 4th of February till Saturday 9th of February? Having a look on Szeto's website didn't make anything the clearer... heh.
    Reply to this
  • 2/5/2008 1:03 AM Kempton wrote:
    Hi Daisann,

    Thanks a lot for your another great entry. (I am leaving my comment here instead of at Globespotters, so that I am not neglecting your blog here. (he he))

    Alice wrote a nice translation of your "fai cheun" and I don't think I can do any better.

    While thinking about how to translate you "fai cheun", I kept thinking of a gentleman simultaneous-translator (on the HK/British side of the Hand-over negotiation team) that was able to simultaneously translate Chinese poetries to English poetries effortlessly. The Chinese negotiation team loved to use Chinese poetries a lot and the art of simultaneous-translation and his expert skills to perform the translation on the fly within seconds have always put me in awe. (smile) (By the way, I think his name is something like "Cheng Yuen Ping", but I might be wrong.)

    You have a great Chinese New Year.

    Reply to this
  • 2/5/2008 4:17 AM N8Ma wrote:
    Gung Hai Fat Choy! Stay warm! Drink from Ah Wah Tihn!
    Reply to this
  • 2/5/2008 10:46 AM Mark wrote:
    I think 蘭心 actually comes from one of those four-character proverbs - 蕙質蘭心. It is used to praise elegant and virtuous women.

    繡口 comes from another four-character proverb - 錦心繡口. Used to praise people that they can think, write and make speeches so well as if they are making embroidery.

    Mr. Szeto is so great! He is a real poet.
    Reply to this
    1. 2/5/2008 12:14 PM dm wrote:
      Thank you so much for this! I figured that Mr. Szeto was using 4 character phrases and well-known Chinese sayings to compose his fai cheun. But since I don't have any knowledge of this cultural treasure trove, I can only appreciate his talent for composition at the most superficial level (the pun of laan saam, the metaphors of knitting and elegant speech).

      To all of you other readers who've written in, thanks for the responses. I'm traveling right now, at some of the slowest internet connections you can imagine, and no Chinese keyboard, so I must respond on the run:

      Armegag: thanks for those links. Yes, I saw the Leih Bat Fong article in Apple Daily. What do you think of Regina Ip's fai cheun style? I think: not much.

      Jonathan: Mr. Szeto will be at each of those places at exactly those days and times.

      Kempton and N8Ma: Happy New Year to you too. I'll be spending it in Penang, Malaysia...where I hope there are faster internet connections and Chinese fonts loaded.

      Reply to this
      1. 2/7/2008 1:25 PM armegag wrote:
        I think Regina Ip's 福字fai cheun is probably based on the cursive style (草書) of 王羲之 taught to her by her calligraphy sifu.
        Her work is not bad given that she is just a beginner who had only taken two calligraphy lessons as what she said in here:
        while writing 鼠精虎猛 at the New Year flower market in Victoria Park, but it would have been better if she would improve the ending stroke of the 福 character to make it look like less of a curling dog tail.

        From her brush strokes in the clips, I have the impression that she had really put in a lot of effort in it and she's bent on doing her job well - this is actually her personality on the positive side. Hopefully she'll keep up her good work in practicing calligraphy for self-cultivation rather than merely for fulfilling a political purpose. Then maybe one day, she'll be on par with this:

        Here's another 福字fai cheun written by Emily Lau. Again not bad, right?

        BTW, 財源廣進 and 龍馬精神 to you.
        Reply to this
  • 2/5/2008 12:35 PM Jonathan Stanley wrote:
    Daisann: Seems you mistook the January dates for the February ones. After prodding about with CantoDict, Szeto has actually been in Victoria Park (at some stall in the New Year market) since the 1st of February. Now the question is dare I head into the scrum of people later today to see if I can find him...
    Reply to this
    1. 2/5/2008 9:29 PM dm wrote:
      Whoa..just checke the HK Alliance site--they CHANGED the listed schedule in the last few days since I left HK. Thanks for writing..I will change the list in the blog now, if I can get into it without waiting for five weeks on this slow computer.

      Reply to this
  • 2/5/2008 8:54 PM Joyce wrote:
    I've been accused, rightly, of placing myself outside of HK's potentially expensive lai see orbit on the 2 CNYs since I've been married. (There's no option of keeping mine secret, since I was obliged to invite the whole world!) But I'm sure I will still be reprimanded for not transferring $ via HSBC. No, I'm serious.
    As for fai cheun, my father used to line up for Szeto's when he was in HK. My parents love the holiday, and are sad when they aren't in town to celebrate it at my dad's village in the NT.
    Here at Oxford, I was at the unfortunately named Wok & Roll, a Hong Kong-run Chinese take-out near my flat, and sometimes I think the only place keeping me from subsisting entirely on English potatoes. The lady there was lovingly hanging red and gold decorations in the window. Same at the wonderful HK-run Chinese grocery, which has both 80s Canto-pop posters AND CNY decorations in their window.
    The good thing is, I don't wear a wedding ring, so nobody here knows to hit me up for cash - ha!
    Gung hei fat choy! All good things in the year dedicated to the rat-race. xx.
    Reply to this
  • 2/7/2008 1:56 AM Alice Poon wrote:

    You might be interested in this blogpost of mine titled "The Orchid and Confucius":-
    Reply to this
  • 2/7/2008 5:30 AM Serge Lescouarnec wrote:

    Mentioned your site today on Serge the Concierge.
    Here is the link

    Take care

    'The French Guy from New Jersey'
    Reply to this
    1. 2/9/2008 7:53 PM daisann wrote:
      Reply to this
  • 2/7/2008 5:36 AM shwe wrote:
    Gung Hei Fatt Choy, may you and your wonderful blog go from strength to strength, and many thanks for the wonderful flavour of HK that it imparts. I'm a big fan...
    Reply to this
  • 2/21/2008 1:43 PM Jesse Young wrote:
    Hello there,

    My Kung Kung (grandfather) who was Chinese used to call me "Ah Suk", I was informed that this means "old man" is that correct?

    I was just wondering, so I can accurately spell it for a school memoir I am writing.

    Thank you, Jesse
    Reply to this
  • 3/6/2008 7:45 PM readandeat wrote:
    Belated greeting: gung hei faat choi!

    I just went back to HK in November and January. After I came back, I've been sick . sigh. lauh nihn bat leih (my luck in the Year of Pig must be bad!!)

    Wish you all the best this year!
    Reply to this
Leave a comment

Submitted comments are subject to moderation before being displayed.

 Name (required)

 Email (will not be published) (required)

Your comment is 0 characters limited to 3000 characters.