Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Chinese Superstitions

Chinese Superstitions

I heard an unlucky story the other day. A young man is getting married this weekend. While driving into town to attend the wedding, the future mother-in-law was killed in a car accident. "Are they Chinese?" was my first thought. "No," my husband said knowingly. "Still, every year on their anniversary it'll be marked with tragedy." "They're still getting married, the honeymoon's on, it's been paid in advance, but the reception is off," he quickly recounts. I nod in quiet sympathy. "If they were Chinese...," my voice trails off. "Yeah," my husband commiserates.

It's horrible when misfortune eclipses any auspicious occasion. But, why do I relate it as a Greek tragedy when they're Chinese? Rewind roughly 30 years, I recall our own wedding. All necessary arrangements were made, then his father passed away just before the big occasion. Everything had to be cancelled regardless of cost. No way could a Chinese wedding proceed with death in the wake -- it was unlucky!

So, how does one determine when the right time is to get married? Well, we winged the initial protocol and went with what we surmised was right. Gut instinct was all we had! What references were there back in the 1970's? Soon after my parents blessed the union, my mother immediately went to Chinatown to consult a soothsayer and his magic almanac. (For more detailed information on the Chinese almanac, read here and on Chinese calendar facts, read here.) To be perfectly honest, I think she was so joyful that I was finally getting married that she was busting at the seams to tell just about anybody and everybody; and Chinatown was where she went, beaming with the biggest smile!

Traditional Chinese Almanac for 2005

But, this was different. This was not your run-of-the-mill "when do we get married" question. This was "the" BIG one which could determine the fate of the remainder of OUR LIVES TOGETHER! (Alright...just being a little dramatic.)

My future husband's sister-in-law provided the answer, and we considered her the ULTIMATE authority, even more so than my own mother! Even though she was younger, and therefore normally considered lower in the hierarchy in the Chinese pecking order of the whole communal microcosm of all that is good and holy, she was the expert. Why, you might ask? Good question! Because of everyone we knew, she is the most old-fashioned and superstitious, and carries with her all the traditions of the old world in her back pocket. Looking at her, you would not know this. She is modern-looking, stylish, friendly, outgoing, and owns and manages her own restaurant since she was a young mom. She is the perfect blend of old and new world.

"One hundred days," sister-in-law says authoritatively! "A hundred days?" future husband asks. "Six months at most," she replies. "He's been in a nursing home for a long time, it wasn't unexpected, it wasn't something tragic," she quickly rattles off a litany of plausible explanations. "Are you sure?" I ask future husband as he returns with the holy grail. "Maybe we should wait a year, maybe two," I offer.

Well, sister-in-law's word was sacred. As I said, she is the ultimate authority. Even my mother deferred to her when we asked. Afterwards, my mother went back to Chinatown to check with the soothsayer and the Chinese almanac and found another auspicious date after the 100-day waiting period. So far, we've been married for 26 years and no disasters have befallen us. I guess the Chinese almanac works. It makes me wonder how do Americans survive without this stuff!

Door God, General Qin Qiong, Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD)

I recall the superstitions my mother cast upon me as I was growing up. They'd be strewn about randomly and I'd never know when I was gonna get hit with a doozy! "Don't wash your hair on New Year's Day," she'd warn! Hey, when I was a little kid, no problem...I wasn't gonna do it anyway. I could sleep in mud and I'd be perfectly content. But, when I was a teenager, I'd washed my hair everyday. "Don't wash your hair...New Year's," she'd remind me. I'd roll my eyes and steal a look at my sister who would just smirk. When she left the house, I would take a shower and wash my hair, sometimes twice. We must have been the talk of the neighborhood. "OMG...those crazy Chinese kids washin' their hair -- on New Years!" "Aiiyahh, crazy ABC's!" That pretty much was the bottom line for many faux pas requiring no further explanation to any knowing elder Chinese. Jooksen, ABC, oh (nodding knowingly)...'nuff said. I'd wait a whole year to see if any retribution from the hair-washing police would rain down. Nothing happened.

Door God, General Yuchi Gong, Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD)

I must admit there are some things I just didn't do just out of good manners. Like, don't drop your chopsticks on New Year's Day (or any day for that matter). But holding your chopsticks far at the end (rather than close to the tips), that means you'll get married later in life. I never bought into that one. Another New Year's Day faux pais - sweeping or dusting is a big no-no. Couple these ancient Chinese superstitions, with good old American superstitions, it's no wonder that I was nearly crippled with anxiety as a young adult not knowing what was proper protocol. I was so neurotic trying to sort out all the hurly burly and rigmarole. It was just all too confusing.

Here's a funny look at a new mom's perspective
(half-English BBC journalist woman married to a Chinese man)
on newborns and Chinese superstitions.)

For a little fun, you may want to try this
little quiz to test your Chinese culture acumen.

Feng Shui Bagua

There's just no escaping Chinese superstitions. Even more so now that it's leaking into American culture and being popularized by the beauty of Feng Shui. And when it comes to gambling, how do you keep your cool when you are haunted by the bad number fairy ... how does one keep it all together? It's no wonder Chinese people go nuts! It's ingrained in all aspects of their life, even down to their jade jewelry. And now Falun Gong is mysteriously blamed as an "evil cult" for spreading superstition to deceive people.

Bridge to my parent's past through their stories

But, mother held on to her funny superstitions, regardless of the science you tried to bring into the discussion. That was part of her charm. The strength in her old world beliefs, her childhood stories, her rich culture were what made her uniquely her. She refused to leave those behind in China when she made it to America. I'm glad she didn't.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Chinese Memorial Day

Chinese Memorial Day

Memorial Day was always important to mom. I never refused her when she asked me to go with her to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Detroit, although I certainly dreaded it. The dedication took an entire day in good weather, and let's face it, for a kid that's a major sacrifice! But, from the somber face and quietly spoken tone of her voice, I knew it was a serious undertaking (pardon the pun).

Forest Lawn Cemetery, situated on Van Dyke, south of McNichols

The day would start very early. Being an old-style, home-grown superstitious Chinese woman that she was, mom would not purchase flowers in advance as it would mean she would have to store them in her car or at home -- that would be inviting bad luck! We would load up the car with a shovel, pick axe, butcher knife, rake, broom, and watering can. Yup, we had enough crap to dig our own grave, it was so embarrassing. It's no wonder they made a special section at Forest Lawn just for the Chinese. We must have been quite a sight and scared the white people half to death with all that stuff!

Front gates of Forest Lawn Cemetery

So, on a bright, sunny, beautiful day, we would head south on Van Dyke, just south of McNichols (Six Mile Road) in Detroit. There was a greenhouse right across the street from Forest Lawn on Van Dyke where mom would buy her flowers. She would take an inordinate amount of time selecting flowers befitting the gravesites of our relatives. So, being a little girl, I would glance around the greenhouse and gardens, looking at all the pretty flowers and not being much help to mother at all. I prefer to think she was grateful I just didn't bother her and allowed her to focus on the task at hand.

Chinese Section 38

We drove around to the backside, Section 38, the Chinese Section, where the railroad tracks rattles noisely and don't let the dead rest in peace and where a factory shoulders a nearby fence. Dad and mom got out their tools and memory lead them to the obscure locations, as the meager tombstones lay flat on the ground obscured by crabgrass, grass clippings, weeds, overgrown grass, and dirt.

The mood got more melancholy as we approached the gravesites of my grandmother and my sister, Judy. Without uttering a word, father and mother would kneel down and tend to the gravesites. First, clearing the overgrowth, then pulling the weeds, then carefully cleaning the dirt from the tombstones. Diligently stepping around the gravesite, purposefully stepping over the tombstone they would dig a small hole and plant the fresh flowers which mother carefully selected. The flowers would be given a good dose of water after planting. Mother and father would step back and view their handiwork in quiet satisfaction. Sometimes, they would engage in quiet conversation with grandmother and Judy.

Marble sign in Chinese Section

Every year it would be the same routine. Except as I grew older, I began to understand the importance of honoring our ancestors. When Judy died, she hadn't reached her second birthday, and I was four years old. Judy had a congenital heart defect, and was termed a "blue baby." Despite the fact she's been gone for 50 years, I think about what she would have been like. Grandmother was special to me too. She's been gone for 38 years but I think about her often. Grandmother was quiet and accepting. I only met her when she was 70 years old, I was 10 then. She only lived another 5 years before passing on. I loved her and became very close to her in those few years. But her life was somewhat of a mystery to me. So, I read Chinese history books to connect with my folks.

A Daughter of Han, The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman, By Ida Pruitt,
From the Story Told Her by Ning Lao T'ai-t'ai

I especially enjoy reading books about China in the late 1800's to early 1900's. It helps me understand the difficult living conditions my parents and my grandparents went through. It gives me an appreciation of their courage to leave everything. Hardship is what drove them from their homeland, their familiar surroundings, their family, to endure a different kind of hardship in America. That is discrimination...and yet, they endured, they thrived, they prospered. History helps keeps things in perspective.

So, on Memorial Day, May 29th, 2006, as America honors their fallen soldiers, many Chinese-Americans will take the opportunity to honor their ancestors on Tomb Sweeping Day with spring prayers, or Ching Ming or Qingming which, literally translated, means "Clear and Bright." My husband's family, whose traditions are further deep-seated in religious practices than mine, go further in filial piety and perform the Hungry Ghost Festival rituals, just for good measure!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Welcome Chinatown!

Welcome Chinatown!

Cass & Peterboro is officially recognized as the home of Detroit's Chinatown, but the Chinese have abandoned it long ago. On May 20th & 21st, 2006, I revisted the area my people have desserted in favor of suburbia.

I lament the loss of a casual community center where old friends stopped by, passed the time of day, and relived stories. Lost are the weekends where volunteers visited On Leong and assisted the aged with immunizations and social security paperwork. Long gone are the days of Kung-fu classes and awkward dances. Only memories remain from my childhood when On Leong offered Chinese language classes, live Chinese opera performances, Chinese movies, and gourmet 10-course Chinese New Year's banquets accompanied by a festive lion dance. These are the memories I carry with me from Chinatown on Cass & Peterboro in Detroit.

Welcome to my Detroit Chinatown! Please relax as I take you through a photo journey of the remains at Cass Avenue & Peterboro Street, Detroit, Michigan 48201.

The first thing you'll notice that will signal you're in Chinatown as you're driving south on Cass is Chung's Restaurant. This is simply because it is the largest and longest surviving landmark located right on Cass & Peterboro. As far as I can remember, Chung's has been a pillar of the Chinese community. It was one of the first restaurants to open at the "new" Chinatown (the "old" Chinatown was located at Michigan Avenue & Third Street) and it was the last one to close. Its owner, Tom S. Chin, passed away recently on April 22, 2005 in Lafayette, CA (read more about him here).

Looking north on Cass & Peterboro is the "Welcome Chinatown" sign next to the Birdtown Pet Shop (formerly Wah Lee). The sign is well-maintained (see D.A.Y. Project below), despite the fact that Chinatown has been abandoned for years. Wah Lee was a Chinese grocery store owned by Joseph K. Chin where fresh produce, canned goods, teas, medicinals, and the usual oriental fare in today's Asian grocery stores could be found. I remember begging my mother to buy sticky rice paper candies or perserved fruits as treats and those cheesy little paper lanterns. I dare not ask for what I truly wanted, which was a pair of the kissing (magnet-lipped) couple (she'd never go for that). She usually acquiesced to one of my requests and it kept me quiet for the remainder of our trip. Meanwhile, she would purchase some Tiger Balm for father's sore shoulders or some Chinese winter melon for some soup. It was great going to Chinatown with mom and dad!

Inside the peaceful courtyard on Peterboro, looking north, the tranquility of the trees offer a park-like setting to the urban area.

Looking east on Peterboro towards Cass, the wall paint and lights are well maintained. The D.A.Y. (Detroit Asian Youth) Project mural stands unviolated as a symbol of the community's statement of unity. Read more about the D.A.Y. Project below and at their Xanga site.

A front view of the D.A.Y. Project mural. The mural depicts Lily Chin (lower left) holding a picture of her son, Vincent Chin. Martin Luther King is also depicted (to the right of Lily Chin) in the mural. To read more about its development, click here.

Here is an overview of Chinatown on Peterboro, north (left) and south (right) sides of the street looking towards Cass Avenue.

I just can't get over how beautiful and mournfully quiet it was here, almost as if it were a memorial park. The trees that were planted in the 1960's when the "new" Chinatown was first transplanted to this community were placed in sturdy containers that the residents could sit on and pass the time of day. The planters/seats have not deteriorated and look inviting.

The other side of Chung's, as you walk south on Cass, more accurately depicts the stark reality of the era that no longer resides in Chinatown.

On Leong, situated on Cass Avenue, has long been boarded up and for sale. A strange smell of mildew and decay emanates between the broken boards as I walk by. On Leong (a/k/a the Chinese Merchants Association) was the benevolent association set up by the early Chinese settlers of Detroit. To learn more about it, see the Business/Politics section of San Francisco Chinatown's website.

This is where many of the cultural and social activities were held. On Chinese New Year, firecrackers and lettuce were hung from the windows. As the Chinese lion would dance around to the distinct beat of Chinese drums, the resounding firecrackers were lit. The loud commotion scared off evil spirits and attracted the god of wealth with the offer of lettuce. It was a great show! Gourmet Chinese chefs would prepare a grand 10-course meal, served to people seated 10 per table, and would take an entire night to consume. Throughout the year, live Chinese operas would be performed there as well as Chinese movies. Chinese language classes, Kung-fu classes, social gatherings, business meetings, just about every type of gathering would be held there. If walls could speak! There's a great deal of history there.

Looking north on Cass Avenue, you can see Gold Dollar (the white building on the left and the first place the White Stripes ever played), On Leong (the tall building in the center), Chung's (with the red roof). In my youth, I remember walking by the Gold Dollar Bar and witnessing strange visions. I didn't come to understand what a drag bar was until much later in my life.

No sign ever hung over the site of the old Chinatown Kung-fu Club on Charlotte Street. In the 1970's, with the advent of Bruce Lee, Kung-fu instilled pride in many ABC's (American-born Chinese) and martial arts clubs cropped up everywhere in the U.S. Ours was no exception.

The decrepit Chinatown sign on Peterboro & Second, is the sister sign to the one on Peterboro & Cass, and anchors the northwest quandrant of the Chinatown's block.


There are many tales and much history here left in the recesses of the memories of former Detroit-area Chinese residents. I've had many happy memories made here. If you would like to share your memories, happy or sad, please email me. I will be delighted to post them here. My hope is to keep Detroit Chinatown's memories alive by posting stories here and preserving them for future generations to enjoy.

I am in the process of developing a sister website also entitled, Detroit Chinatown, which looks at it more from a historical and cultural perspective from the late-1800's through today. I would especially appreciate any old photographs you may have of Detroit's Chinatowns, both "old" (Michigan Avenue and Third Street) and "new" (Cass Avenue and Peterboro Street).

Also, I realize that many of the old-timers have gone on. Here is your chance to preserve their history. Let me know about them, their story about how they made it to America, their livelihood, family, struggles, beliefs, and anything else you think is important. Here is a little story about the Woo Family. I have volumes of Chinese history and love reading about it and will post interesting stories here on my blog.

Thank you for your time and I hope you've enjoyed reading this.