Unpopular Chinese New Year sentiments: on prosperity

Warning – these are my own reflections and not opinions I derived from anyone else. We can agree to disagree. 

It’s the eve of Chinese New Year. Families are gathered around tables brimming with delicacies, busily smacking their lips and rubbing their full bellies. The rare evening of the year that people gather to celebrate a one-ness that is made possible only by the ties of blood. Ties of patrilineal blood, the tiny voice of anthropology in me cries.

The annual steamboat

The annual steamboat

I’m thinking of what everyone is saying, wishing to each other and to themselves. Huat ah. I see on Facebook statuses and posts. We’re eager to usher in the new year with catchy phrases and sayings. Do we really mean what we say? Do we even bother to mean what we say?

Huat ah. Gong xi fa cai. Nian nian you yu. They sound good to the ears, I will admit. Who doesn’t want wealth? Who doesn’t want to prosper? The more I thought about these popular new year wishes though, the more I felt uncomfortable hearing them escape my lips. Okay, at this point, I will be blunt and say that I don’t like those wishes. One simple reason. They carry the assumption that we need more money in order to be happier.

2014-01-31-00-07-59_deco

A stylized ‘prosperity’ on my door

I know that not all new year greetings are like this. You have things like xin nian kuai le and sheng ti jian kang and my favourite – xin xiang shi cheng – that are innocent and well-meaning. But phrases like huat ah just grind at my inner conscience because we all wish to be happy and for one another to be happy on this occasion, but in the act of saying that or wishing someone wealth or prosperity, we seem to imply (even if unintentionally) that they need to somehow stumble into more fortune to be happier. This irks me. It gets worse every year, I cringe a little more the older I get when I hear these words.

I know. We have to be pragmatic people. We need money to survive. Money can’t buy you happiness but it can buy a lot of things, like your COE or your HDB flat or a trip to Europe. But money doesn’t guarantee happiness. You can have money and still be the loneliest person in the world.

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As a kid, my only understanding of ‘fa cai’ was from ang paos

If I had a choice, I wouldn’t wish you prosperity. I know it doesn’t just mean wealth. It is an overall state of having wealth, being successful and having a happy family. But why would I wish you prosperity when I can just wish you simple happiness? I wish you happiness whether or not you have wealth, whether or not you have a happy family, whether or not you’re successful as defined by society or the education system. Because you can be happy without all those things, you deserve to be.

So this new year, I won’t wish you greater fortune, but I will wish you love, from your friends, from your family, from people you have yet to know and strangers whose gazes you will meet in the train and maybe even a special significant other waiting for you to enter their lives, pining for your companionship at this very moment. I won’t wish for you to reap profits or see the digits in your bank account steadily increase, but I will wish you peace from your inner self, to love yourself despite what the cultural violence of the media and beauty industry forces down your throat, to believe in yourself and that you can no matter how many times people tell you that you can’t. Above all, I’d wish you a happiness that you wouldn’t need to derive from material wealth but one that you can find in the human connections around you or in God.

If you have excess wealth to spend on new year goodies, then congratulations, you're already prosperous. Now to work on your happiness.

If you have excess wealth to spend on new year goodies, then congratulations, you’re already prosperous. Now to work on your happiness.

I am aware the new year wishes we probably created in a context where times were hard and physical survival was important, accounting for the emphasis on not simply wealth, but a notion of abundance, so that the family could endure by having enough to feed the hungry mouths at home and multiply the generations. Times have changed, though. So maybe it’s time new year greetings changed too. If I could without having anyone think I was being deliberately insolent or disrespectful or rude, I’d wish you love and happiness and peace. And you can bet that that wish will be more sincere and more heartfelt than all the new year wishes I’ve ever wished anyone else added together.

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73 comments

  1. The term ‘Huat ah ‘ s only obvious in Singapore and it’s quite new, started by some Hokkien-speaking bengs or uncles from the 90s. If I am not wrong, only as late as the late 90s or early 2000s. I don’t remember hearing this in my early years in the 80s or early 90s. These bengs or uncles just managed to spread this ‘Huat ah’ around successfully somehow. To me, I don’t feel comfortable as well. Chinese are everywhere but Singapore is the only country with this Huat ah. Some of my friends also find it uncomfortable hearing it.

  2. Amongst my lot in life, I deliver takeaways fora Chinese and Thai Takeaway Restaurant in my home town of Warrington. I therefore as the Chinese New Year began, wished my customers – mostly white middle, or working-class recipients – Gong hey fat choy (Gung Hei Phat Choi) – Happy New Year at least to my white, western working-class ears.
    But your piece makes me realise that there are women out there, for whom increasing income, wealth or money do not necessarily equal increasing happiness.
    My blog (see below) might suggest that I too feel like that, but the issue is more complex, really a symptom of a wider malaise.
    People, in many places, increasingly feel out of control. As I recently learned some 85 individuals, own approximately 30% of the world’s wealth. Those further down the economic scale feel that survival means having some savings, plus enough to achieve the state of mind, where they feel to be their peers equals or just don’t have to think too hard whether they can afford to leave a light on.
    I know women are perhaps more suscepitible to this desire, impelled as they are to respond to their emotional urges, and being part of the group is important. I recently developed a web-site for Warrington Ladies Circle, and took photographs at various events for the organisation – anyway I noticed a few things about the female of the species (they’ve been a subject of study of mine for such a long time… ;¬))
    Teenage girls want to be part of a cliqué – I guess this harps back to the days of living on the African savannah, in small family groups, and the womenfolk staying behind to look after the kids and pick berries etc, while the men went out to hunt for a passing Wildebeest, or Gazelle. The women therefore relied on each other to keep a watchful eye out for their kids. So not being excluded was all part of the necessary social milieu.
    And the modern equivalent of this is: “Keeping up with the Jones’s” – a phrase that emerged in the early American History as families built large family homes in the upmarket parts of New York and New England, and the most pre-eminent of those was the Jones family. (I know no more about than that, but it’s supposed to be true)
    Anyway, some people’s desire to be a part of the group, and those who want to feel superior, all strive to maintain their status, and that in a world of 7billion+ people will inevitably mean that those less driven, slip further and further back in economic terms.
    This inequality breeds resentment and in a world where prices are continually driven upwards, by Central Banker’s actions, not getting an increase in income, means one slips further and further behind.
    It would be easy to slip into the writing equivalent of mainstream media’s “sound bites”, but in simplifying things, we inevitable lose some of the facts, and considerations that make finding solutions so vexed.
    BUT, I too would like to wish you a Happy New Year – and more of whatever it is that makes you so.
    W.
    (http://moneymatterstoo.wordpress.com)

  3. One see one’s world and ask why is your world so small when one think it is big. Read and understood or just forget about my comment.

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  5. Hello Singaporean Girl,
    You are too cynical. In ancient time, most of Chinese were poor. They gratitude each other with wealth wishes. What’s wrong with the wish of wealth, great or good fortune?
    Happy Horse Year 2014. ^_^

    1. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just that if something better would be wished, why not?

      1. Yes, you can add more wishes, not only always about wealth, but also love, happiness and so on. Each wish has its moment to great. Fortunately, every Chinese New Year the tradition will wish people with many many prosperity. To be compromised with your opinion, I’d like to say: wish you have good prosperity with love, health and happiness. ^_^

  6. Allow me to compliment you on this simple and well written post carrying some profound thoughts. Given a chance, I would wish you and others good health, without which, I believe, everything else in life becomes meaningless.

  7. My thoughts exactly. I always go by “xin nian kuai le” and “wan shi ru yi”. I figured it’s more meaningful and appropriate anyway.

  8. I like your sentiment, but as you said, if you have lived when there is not enough to go around, peace and happiness can definitely be found in having a little extra! Definitely not a state of being relegated to history. It has definitely coloured my choice of favourite New Years greeting and I do love a goldfish! Much happiness to you this new year!

  9. Reposted the 7th paragraph on my FB page and cited your blog. Great article.

  10. Reblogged this on ALLKNOL and commented:
    Unpopular Chinese New Year sentiments: on prosperity

  11. Well it’s not new year anymore but reading your post made me happy! I guess it’s a proof that rather than wishing happiness it is also possible to make it happen 🙂 I wish you a happy month of may.

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