The Tragedy of the Seventh Day – By Jon Lee. Republished from California Folklore Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 4 October 1942

Introduction by Eddie Wong. Posted January 18, 2024.

One of the delights of doing research is that of the serendipitous discovery. This is precisely what happened when I was reading Hua Hsu’s A Floating Chinaman – Fantasy and Failure across the Pacific (Harvard University Press, 2016) researching the life of H.T. Tsiang, an actor, writer and playwright. I came across a citation to Jon Y. Lee, writer/folklorist, and his collection of Chinese folk tales and ghost stories. These stories were gathered from elders in Oakland and San Francisco Chinatown in 1934-1935 by Lee, who had just graduated Oakland Technical High. He had demonstrated some writing ability and was recommended by his teacher to join the Federal Writers’ Project’s Chinese American Ethnic Survey. The stories were mimeographed and stapled together as The Golden Mountain: Chinese Tales Told in California, edited by Paul Radin (1940). The book was deposited at the California State Library Sutro Branch where it languished in obscurity. In 1971, the Orient Cultural Service in Tapei republished the stories. These stories can also be found online at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=inu.30000120722909&seq=3.

Chinese paper cut of two boys. Image from Youlin Magazine.

 Jon Y. Lee was more than a fieldworker who collected stories. He was an aspiring creative writer. Anthony Bak Buccitelli’s excellent academic paper “The Reluctant Folklorist: Jon Y. Lee, Paul Radin, and the Fieldwork Process,” which is available via your public library and this link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jamerfolk.127.506.0400, provides a fascinating overview to Mr. Lee’s short stories as well as his experiences as a budding folklorist.  Lee was a fan of American writers such as Erskine Caldwell, Josephine Johnson and William Saroyan.

 One of the short stories that impressed me the most was “The Tragedy of the Seventh Day,” which is published below with the permission of the California Folklore Quarterly, now known as Western Folklore. We thank Paul Jordan-Smith, Business Manager of the Western States Folklore Society for allowing East Wind ezine readers to enjoy this richly textured and moving account of the death of the narrator’s best friend. The story also provides a look at life in San Francisco Chinatown in the 1940s and observes traditional and modern approaches to celebrating Chinese New Year. Lee’s story carries deep emotional undercurrents, accepting people as they are while also commenting on the destructive nature of superstitions, a theme Lee drew from leftist writer Lu Xun (Zhou Shuren 1881-1936) and his story “Medicine” published in 1922.

 Although the story is set in the early 1940s in San Francisco, certain scenes brought me back to childhood memories of the 1960s in Los Angeles where my Toisanese parents played mah jong with their friends while Cantonese opera records blared in the background.  Our people have always been full of life, finding joy and community even when facing discrimination and adversity.

There were very few Chinese American writers who got stories and books published in the 1940s. Jon Y. Lee  now joins the ranks of Pardee Lowe, Jade Snow Wong, H.T. Tsiang, Louis Chu, Charles Leong, and C.Y. Lee. There are dozens of unpublished stories by Jon Y. Lee in four boxes at U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. I hope to dive into those boxes and read those stories plus his World War II diary in which he observes life in China as a military serviceman. Sadly, Jon Lee seemed to have stopped his creative writings after World War II. He worked as a fingerprint technician for the City of Oakland. According to his niece, Lee enjoyed gardening and mah jong. He was a bachelor.  He passed away in 1987.

Jon Y. Lee was the ghost writer for this martial arts book. Photo courtesy of Virginia Lew.

I am ignorant of much of the practices mentioned around the observance of Chinese New Year. My parents worked long hours at the family laundry/dry cleaning business and did not follow the rituals that surround the Chinese New Year festivities. It was fascinating to learn about them, and I have included some notes about those practices at the end of the article. – Eddie Wong.

Happiness and Peace. Chinese New Year’s paper cut.

[This account of the customs and superstitions of the Chinese New Year was

written by a young Chinese for Paul Radin, who has been engaged in collecting

folklore of the various cultures in California. Although cast in narrative form,

it is an authentic description of the beliefs and practices current among the

Chinese residents of San Francisco Bay area. -THE EDITORS.]

It was in this manner that my friend Jung, the son of my Uncle Quan,

met his death, a death which started its fatal course on the seventh day

of the Chinese New Year, the Birthday of Men. And although Jung did

not die till the tenth day of the New Year, the Birthday of the Robber,

all his relatives and friends ascribed his death to what occurred on that

fateful Birthday of Men.

It all happened like this. My Aunt Quan was one of the most superstitious

women in town and during the New Year’s celebration she was

doubly so, being very particular about our manners, our duties, our

speech, and the correctness of our behavior.

Jung, her eldest son, was, on the contrary, very modern in speech and

manner, and he scorned the strange customs and observances of the old

mother country.

I remember very well how, one day, when I was out in the street playing

with him, he said to me, “Ming, I wish my mother was like yours.

Your mother does not have small feet and she does not dress herself up

in the old Chinese clothes. My mother is so old-fashioned that sometimes

I feel ashamed of her.”

And Jung’s face took on a disgruntled and hurt expression.

“You mustn’t speak like that about your mother,” I told Jung. “After

all, she came from China, and you were born here in America.”

“I know,” Jung said, “but your mother came from China. Look how

much she has changed.”

“I guess your mother is a little slow in adopting western customs,”I

said to Jung.

Jung was twelve years old then and I was eleven. Many times he and

I talked about China and how, perhaps, we would someday go back to

the old country together to visit our native land about which we had

heard so much.

My Aunt Quan had two children, both boys. They were so different

that no one would have ever known they were brothers. In looks, in

speech, in the way they acted, they were miles apart.

Aunt Quan used to say to mother, “Although Jung is always quarreling

with me, nevertheless I like him better than Hoi. Hoi is so much afraid

of people. He will never get anywhere in the world like that.”

My mother would then say, “But Hoi is small. When he grows up, he

will lose his fear of people. All small boys are like that. When my Ming

was small, he was just like your Hoi.”

My Aunt Quan and my mother were very close friends, almost as good

friends as were Jung and I.

Jung died on the Birthday of the Robber. It was a tragic year and it

all started because of Aunt Quan’s superstitious beliefs. Perhaps that is

not true but, somehow, I still cannot shake that idea from my mind.

I remember everything connected with that celebration very well,

every single day of that New Year, and especially that seventh day when

Jung came into our house and precipitated the event that was to fore-

shadow his death, so at least, according to my Aunt Quan.

It was on the New Year’s Eve that Jung took me into his bedroom, a

very small room near the end of the house, and showed me the red papers

on the walls.

“This is what I mean,” he began, his face pained at all the bother that

accompanied the New Year, “all this fuss and nuisance. Every single year

my mother puts those mottoes in my room, a small orange under my bed

and a dime wrapped in red paper under my pillow. I’m too big for that

sort of thing. Your mother doesn’t do that to you, does she?” Jung sud-

denly demanded.

I answered, “No, not anymore.”

Jung felt ashamed suddenly, looking around the room, feeling thoroughly

uncomfortable.

“I used to like the New Year,” he explained, “but now everything

seems to be the same year after year. I wouldn’t mind it if I didn’t have

to do all these various things. And my mother is so particular about

everything. Why, last year she locked me up in my room because I happened

to say something that wasn’t the proper thing to say.”

I looked at Jung. He was in tears.

“I guess your mother is a little particular, Jung,” I told him.

Then we went out of the room, and into the kitchen to watch Aunt

Quan prepare the jide for the night.

Chinese paper cut of carps, which symbolize perseverance and good fortune.

Aunt Quan was busily engaged in the kitchen, her hair falling down

in uneven streaks across her brown face, her apron loosely tied on her

thin body.

“Well, Ming,” she said, lighting the gas with a match, “why aren’t you

home helping your mother to prepare for the New Year?”

“Mother isn’t planning anything elaborate this year,” I told her.

Aunt Quan said, “Your mother is getting just a little too modern now.

But she has always been like that ever since I can remember.”

Aunt Quan moved across the kitchen with her quick steps, carrying

bowls of water and fancy Chinese foods to the stove.

“Why don’t you stay for the midnight jide,” she suggested. “Your uncle

can take you home tonight.”

“I’ll have to phone mother,” I said.

I went outside the hallway and phoned my mother.

“Mother says that I can stay,” I told my Aunt Quan as I came into the

kitchen again.

“Fine,” Aunt Quan said. “You and Jung can help me decorate the

tables tonight and help me fold the lay shee.”

And then she went about her duties of preparing the special dinner

for that night.

When Aunt Quan finished her work, she came out of the kitchen tired,

the perspiration streaming down her face.

Aunt Quan cleared the parlor table, put on a new oilcloth with red

flowers painted on it, and arranged three cups of wine, three cups of rice

and three pairs of chopsticks. She took a large coffee can filled with saw-

dust, and in it she put three large red wax candles, and what we call “long-

life” punks. Then she went quickly into the kitchen and came out with a

large steaming hot chicken which she put in the middle of the table. Then

she took up some golden papers, trimmed with designs and lit them with

the flame of the good luck candle.

I stood near the corner of the room watching my Aunt Quan with eager

eyes. I remember my mother doing the same thing many years before.

Jung, too, watched but with an uninterested expression. He had seen

her do it many times and it was tiresome to have to see it again.

Aunt Quan twirled the burning papers around the room, and then

gently let them down in a pan on the floor. She watched the papers burn

slowly and darken into ashes. “Hoi,” she called out, “Hoi, come here!”

Hoi, all dressed up in his new clothes, came rushing into the room. Then

Aunt Quan made Hoi bow his head in front of the table while she murmured

something that I could not hear.

Seeing this, Jung went outside. I followed him.

“She can’t make me do that,” he told me.

“It does look kind of strange,” I told him.

“I guess my mother never will change,” he said sadly, looking

into the distance.

Aunt Quan’s voice called out, “Jung, Ming, come in and help me with

the tables.”

Jung and I got up and went into the house. Aunt Quan was putting

black and red melon seeds in delicate Chinese bowls. Hoi was filling the

other dishes with melon, candy and lichee nuts. Aunt Quan handed me

the filled dishes.

“Arrange them neatly on the table,” she told me.

The double layer Chinese lilies were already on the table, stately and

really magnificent in their queer but fascinating Chinese bowls.

“We have the double layer kind, too,” I said to my Aunt Quan.

“Ah, yes,” she said, “they are the good luck kind.”

Uncle Quan came home just then, and he greeted me with, “Well, well,

Ming, you are here. Why are you not home helping your mother?”

“She can manage alone,” I answered, “and I’m staying for the mid-

night jide.”

“Your aunt makes the best jide in the world,” Uncle Quan said.

Aunt Quan was sitting at the table folding small pieces of’ red paper

and wrapping up quarters and fifty cent pieces in them.

“You must come with your mother tomorrow, and I’ll give you one

of these lay shee,” Aunt Quan told me.

Later that evening Uncle Quan came out of his room with a whole

stack of red papers, and he wrote many good luck mottoes on them about

prosperity, good fortune, and greetings for the New Year.

He pasted two or three of them in each room.

I noticed that the windows and floors had been cleaned the day before.

I also knew that my Aunt Quan would lock up her brooms and dustpans

this evening before she went to bed. She did it every year and she would

not take them out until after the Birthday of Men.

I remember once asking Aunt Quan why she did it.

She answered, “New Year is a time of good fortune. All the dirt and

things that have accumulated on the floors are signs of money and for-

tune. One must not sweep up money.”

Midnight was drawing near and the rice and jide were a

be served.

Aunt Quan was talking to her children, “I want both of you to call

everyone by their right names tomorrow. Tomorrow is the New Year,

and you must be polite. When anyone comes, you must serve tea and

be sure to offer it with both hands. You must pass the sweet melon candy

and the black and red melon seeds. When you give them to the guests,

remember to say, ‘Won’t you gather some gold dust?’ To the men you

must pass cigars and cigarettes. When you offer tea, also offer the slices

of thin coconut candy for the guests to sweeten the tea. And also wear

your new clothes.”

Jung listened to all this in a sort of dreamy disgust.

“And remember, no fighting tomorrow,” Uncle Quan put in.

Midnight was approaching rapidly. Aunt Quan set the kitchen table,

arranging the bowls and chopsticks. The odor of cooked food filled the

kitchen air. I felt very hungry. At exactly midnight Aunt Quan called us

in and we seated ourselves at the table while she brought forth the jide.

There were bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, dried bean cakes, black silky

delicacies and many other ingredients all cooked in one tempting mixture.

We all had a big bowl of rice as well.

“Do you eat jide with your family?” my Aunt Quan demanded of me.

“We have that tomorrow morning,” I told my aunt.

We ate in silence.

After we had eaten my Uncle Quan took me home.

“Come tomorrow,” he said in parting.

“I will, Uncle Quan,” I said. I entered into the darkened house an

went to bed.

Chinese paper cut of historical figure.

Then the first day of the New Year arrived, the Birthday of the

Chicken. I remember that it dawned dark and gray, and that heavy rain

clouds clustered in the distance, threatening to rain on this first day of

the celebration. I remember that I woke up weary and completely tired,

having gone to bed late the night before, after twelve. The sky was gray

and dreary exactly as it had been year after year. Somehow the first day

of the New Year is always dark and solemn.

I came downstairs all dressed up in my new clothes. Mother was wearing

her long silk robe, her face all powdered and rouged with fresh colors.

She looked much younger, the new clothes and make-up making her

much more beautiful than usual.

“Happy New Year, mother,” I greeted her.

Mother took out a fifty-cent piece, wrapped in red paper, and

it to me.

“And here’s one from your father,” she said, handing me another one.

“Thanks, mother,” I said.

On the table there were two bowls of oranges, arranged in a very neat

design. And also there were two dishes of melon seed. We had nothing

elaborate like my Aunt Quan.

Mother said to me, “Be ready to go over to Aunt Quan’s soon. Don’t

soil your clothes with the firecrackers.”

I went out into the street and opened the package of Wong Kong Hing

firecrackers, lit a punk, and then shot them off complete in one chain.

Mother watched me from the window, smiling.

At noon mother took me over to Aunt Quan’s house, telling me on

the way, “Be careful of your behavior and your manners. You know how

particular your aunt is.”

Jung was out in the street with Hoi, and both of them were wearing

their new clothes, looking very clean and neat.

Jung greeted me and said to mother, “May luck and fortune be with

you.” Mother smiled a big smile and handed a lay shee to Jung and an-

other one to Hoi.

Aunt Quan was all dressed up that morning. She was wearing her long

earrings, and golden bracelets gleamed on her slender arms. Her hai

was smoothly oiled with wax and her brown face was white and pinkish

in color. Like mother, she looked much younger than usual that day.

Aunt Quan and mother exchanged greetings and my Aunt Quan invited

us to go into the living room where Jung offered mother tea and

melon seeds. Aunt Quan and mother talked about lottery tickets and

everything pertaining to the good and the fortunate. Uncle Quan talked

about riches, money, and in the end, he said to mother, “May you have

lots of good fortune in the coming year.” And mother said politely, “And

you, too.”

Early that morning Aunt Quan had prepared some gin dur, Chinese

dough cakes, and she brought them out, nice and brown and very good

to eat.

I went out into the street with Jung and Hoi. Each of us had three

packages of firecrackers, a package of Wong Kong Hing, and two

of Silver Flashlight crackers.

“You know, Ming,” Jung said, “I remember how I used to collect all

my lay shee and put them into a tin box. Now it doesn’t seem to be fun

anymore. I guess I am too big for that sort of thing.”

Hoi interrupted and said, “I have already received about ten lay shee

today.”

We shot firecrackers all along the street, and they made a lot of noise

and disturbance.

Mother was about to go home. She said, “Ming, go wash your hands.”

The firecrackers’ powder had smudged my hands black and mother

did not want me to soil my new outfit.

Before mother left she said to my Aunt Quan, “Be sure to come over

tonight. I am going to make gin dur and woo tow go for the guests.”

My Aunt Quan said, “I shall be over at seven.”

Then my mother and I went home.

When we reached home, I saw that one of mother’s friends had come

and he was munching melon seeds and talking to father about business

for the past year. He stood up and smiled a big smile when he saw mother.

He dipped his hands into his pocket and pulled out a fifty-cent piece

that was not wrapped in red paper, for he was quite modern and so did

not wrap his money in red paper. I thanked him and offered him cigars

and cigarettes.

“Why, Ming is a big boy now,” he said to mother.

“He is twelve, just as big as your Wei Mon,” mother said.

“My Wei Mon is thirteen according to Chinese age,” he said.

Father told me, “Go play some good music, ‘The Big Open Door’ now.”

The loud music echoed through the house.

“Don’t play any sad or melancholy music today,” mother told me

“Your father does not like it.”

All day long guests came and went and, in the evening, I found that I

had received quite a lot of money, about four dollars. Mother told me

to save it and put it in the bank after the New Year.

In the evening Aunt Quan, Uncle Quan, Jung and Hoi came over.

Jung was very moody and unhappy.

He said, “All day long I have been offering tea and melon seeds to

guests. This new suit of clothes is just killing me. I hate to wear it.” Jung

was unhappy, feeling uncomfortable and lost in his clothes.

I asked Jung, “How much have you collected already?”

He said, very disinterestedly, “I don’t know. I don’t count it anymore.”

I leaned close to Jung and said in a very soft voice, “I opened my lay

shee and I counted them.”

“Hoi received more than I did,” Jung told me.

As evening drew on, more guests came until the house was filled and

echoed and reechoed with greetings and talk of the New Year. We

children walked together watching everything and everybody. Hoi

stayed near his mother, waiting for the other people to give him money.

Mother was very busy in the kitchen preparing the dinner. The odor

of cooked food was very tempting.

Soon we had dinner. I helped mother to prepare the long table, adding

three extra boards to it. Then mother took out the new white tablecloth

and covered the table with it. Tonight, she brought out the ivory chop

sticks, instead of the bamboo ones. Bottles of Ng Kai Pay wine stood a

each corner of the table. The women, all very young and beautiful that

night, sat together on one side, and the men sat on the other side of the

table. We children squeezed in wherever we could.

First the men drank whisky in their little green wine glasses, picking

up little pieces of the delicacies that went with the wine.

Father poured out the Ng Kai Pay, filling up the cups as soon as they

were empty. The women were a little bold that night, drinking home-

made rice wine. Mother’s face suddenly grew red after she had drunk

one small cup of wine. But father kept drinking and drinking, and there

was no change in the color of his face.

There was roast chicken, mushrooms cooked with abalone sauce,

ducks, bird’s-nest soup, roast pork and many varieties of fancy foods.

Jung sat in his place, eating very little, waiting impatiently to get home.

Hoi sat near his mother, eating whatever his mother picked for him

with her chopsticks.

The party was dominated by the gayest of spirits.

Mother said, “May all you women have many children in the coming

 year.” All the women smiled, and Lum Shee answered, “You are

young, but we are old. Just let me have some luck, that is all I desire.

Not children.”

Mother said to Lum Shee, “You are still young, it is I who am old.”

And all the other women broke into hearty laughter. The bottles of Ng

Kai Pay became empty. The men and women were a little drunk, it

appeared. One of the men began to play a game called Chi Mew.

Father, too, was a little affected by the strong wine.

Mother told me to go over to the food store and bring back some brown

sugar. She melted that in boiling water and told father to drink it. He

was much better after that.

The women put on aprons to protect their long gowns and went into

the kitchen to make gin dur.

Mother was busily cutting up sweet melon and coconut candy, cutting

the small candy with quick movements of her hands.

My Aunt Quan was boiling oil on the stove, taking great care to keep

us children away.

“Go outside, all of you,” she said to us, “we will call you when the

dough cakes are ready.” Another woman was roasting peanuts near

the stove. An old woman whose face was all in wrinkles was putting

candy and coconut into a small round piece of dough, and she rolled

it tightly with her hands. The dough became round like a ball. Quickly

she sprinkled some seeds on the table and rolled the dough cakes over

them, the small seeds sticking to the dough like glue. Lum Shee was

mixing the dough with her bare hands. She poured melted brown sugar

into the dough, squeezing and pounding it with the strong movements

of her hands.

The oil was now boiling on the stove. My Aunt Quan was an expert

gin dur maker. Mother let her do everything. Aunt Quan was very superstitious

and she insisted that the dough cakes for the first day of the New Year

should be nice and beautiful.

My Aunt Quan dropped the dough cakes into the oil one by one,

squeezing and pounding them down with a long flat spoon which

was holding in her hands. The other women crowded around and

exclaimed, “My, but they are beautiful.” And Aunt Quan was proud, for

she loved to have people praise her cooking.

The men sat in the living room, munching melon seeds and listening

to the phonograph records, talking about everything they could think of.

Mother brought the cooked dough cakes out into the room when they

were finished. Jung ate the sweetened kind, but I preferred the salted

kind. That evening, I received many more quarters but I was so tired that

I decided to count them the next morning.

Before Jung went home, he said to me, “Are you going to school tomorrow?”

“I think so,” I told him, “there is no use of being absent tomorrow.”

“Hoi is going to stay home for another day,” Jung said.

“You come and call me in the morning,” I told Jung.

The guests all left late that night, thanking mother for the nice party

and the very pleasant evening.

I went to bed, tired and yet happy, for I had received quite a lot of

money.

And that second day of the New Year, in the year when Jung passed

away, that, too, still remains clear in my memory. I remember everything

that happened.

The night had passed, and the Birthday of the Dog, the second day

of the New Year, came rushing in gray and dark but no rain.

The day was as dreary and dull as the first day. I still wore my new suit

and shoes and the small sailor cap which I admired very much. Jung

came and called me in the early morning and we went to school. When

I came back mother told me that she was taking me to a party in one of

the biggest restaurants in Chinatown.

Postcard of SF Chinatown in 1950s.

Now the second day of the New Year is one on which great and elaborate

parties are given, both the restaurants and the homes are decorated

and everyone is full of the gay and carefree spirit of the New Year.

My Aunt Quan was going to the same party. Mother and I were going,

since father had to stay home and take care of the small baby.

Aunt Quan came in her bright red new car. Hoi was with her. Jung

was missing. I asked Hoi, “Is Jung not going, too?”

Hoi said, “He said a bad word today and mother locked him up in

his room.”

I knew that if Jung did say anything not quite proper Aunt Quan

would surely punish him severely. She was a little more liberal with Hoi.

The bright lights of the restaurant glittered in the streets, red, blue,

yellow, and white. Men and women, dressed up in their best new suits,

new long robes, were evident everywhere. I climbed the long steps up

to the big room where the party was to be held, and the murmurings and

noise of the great crowd sounded like the rising and falling of the great

sea waves, pounding against the shore.

The big room was illuminated with many bright lights and the tables

were arranged in regular party fashion. Some young boys and girls were

passing melon seeds and tea to the guests. Mother dropped a lay shee into

a box, as was the custom.

The party was to start at seven, but it really commenced at eight. The

guests arrived one after another, until the place was crowded with men

and women, all eager to start the party.

Mother and I sat at the same table with Aunt Quan and Hoi. One dish

followed the other. The men drank Ng Kai Pay wine by the cupfuls, talking

and laughing with loud, strident voices.

I thought about Jung all the time. I knew how miserable he was,

locked up in his room, rebelling against his mother, as he had always

done in the past.

At ten the guests began to leave. My Aunt Quan got many paper boxes

together and collected the leftovers to take home for the next day. My

mother helped my aunt, and my aunt gave mother two boxes of leftovers.

And thus, the second day of the New Year passed away….

Then came the dawn of the third day, the Birthday of the Pig.

I saw Jung at school that day and he was mad at what Aunt Quan

done to him the day before.

“My mother is so old-fashioned,” he commenced irritably. “She locked

me in yesterday because I called Hoi a fool. It’s all so foolish and silly. I

know your mother wouldn’t do it to you if you did that.”

I thought awhile and I knew that what Jung said was the truth.

“Mother and I are going over to see the fortunetelling woman tonight,” I

told Jung, “and your mother has handed your name in on a

piece of red paper.”

Jung scowled, his face took on a hateful look.

“She does it every year,” he said slowly, “and I don’t see any good in it

at all.” He turned away and started for home. I followed after him.

“My mother does it every year, too,” I said to Jung.

Jung didn’t feel like talking so I left him alone and went home.

That evening about six, mother called me, “Ming, Ming, get ready,”

her voice echoed through the house.

“I’m ready,” I called back.

My mother came down, her bright robe showing her up to best

advantage.

Putting on her new fur coat, she said quickly, “Come, we must go see

the Goon Yum Goddess.”

I remember going the year before to an old dirty woman living in dark

rooms. She made lots of money with her mysterious ways of telling

fortunes and mother went there every year; sometimes my Aunt Quan

went there, too.

Mother and I stopped in front of a large dark house, the windows

were covered with heavy films of dust, through which could be seen dirty

curtains now blackened from time and grime.

Mother pressed a very small bell. Soon I heard the shuffling of feet and

the door was opened. We entered a small hallway and proceeded up a

dark stairway. Mother and I went up very slowly so as not to fall down.

The old fear that I always felt in going there seized me again and I

mother’s hands tight, frightened lest I be lost in this drab and utterly

mysterious house of the fortuneteller.

After reaching the top of the stairs we had to go down another

hallway, to the very end door and then to the room occupied by the old

woman with the dirty white hair. I saw a small idol, crudely colored with

now faded paint, resting on a small box near her doorway. The god had

an ugly expression on his face and a small glass of oil was slowly burning

in a steady flame in front of him. All around this god there were spread

red papers on which were written many Chinese characters in gold and

black letters.

All of the darkened doors looked the same. Mother knocked on the

very end door. An old fat woman came out, her hair white, yet black from

dirt, and she smiled at mother.

She opened the door wide for both of us, and said in her dry voice,

“Happy New Year.”

Mother took the red paper from out of her pocket, handed it to the

old woman, and remarked “Let us hope that all of us will have good fortune

for the coming year.”

I looked around the room. Nothing had been changed. Everything was

exactly as if it had not been touched since the year before and the year

before that. The same old bed stood near the corner, the same old red

tablecloth and the same box of worn-out bamboo slits.

The old woman picked up the box of bamboo and began shaking it

up and down with easy, graceful movements, chanting the name of one

of our family in that voice of hers which always managed to frighten me,

somehow. She shook the box of bamboo slits until one slit fell down on

the table. Then she put the number right next to the name she was chanting

out loud.

The monotonous chanting, combined with the dim gaslight of the

room, gave a peculiar and spooky feeling to the whole ceremony. Mother

watched everything with eager eyes for she was so interested in whether

our fortunes were to be good or bad that she did not have time to notice

the uncanny characteristics of the whole room.

This chanting went on for many minutes; the longer it lasted, the more

I began to get frightened. But the end came at last. I felt strangely glad

when the old woman finished. She handed the red paper back to mother.

“Thank you so much,” mother said gratefully, taking out a dollar and

handing it over to the old woman.

The old woman smiled and acknowledged the money with thanks.

Then my mother and I left that terribly dreary place.

“We have to get a book for tomorrow,” mother said, “to find out about

the different numbers.”

It was late at night when we got home, and mother decided that tomorrow

we would call Aunt Quan over and discuss the numbers. I was already

imagining how Jung would feel when I told him. I knew that Jung did

not believe in such things.

The very next day, the Birthday of the Lamb, I told Jung. He was not

surprised, just answering, “I knew it all the time. Mother does the same

thing every year.”

“So does my mother,” I told him.

“Well, I guess Chinese women are like that,” he remarked.

That very evening Aunt Quan and her whole family came over to our

house. We found that it was not necessary to buy a book at all, for Aunt

Quan knew a man who had memorized the one hundred rules of the

fortune telling book. He was a genial looking man, short and fat, who talked

with a very feminine voice, manipulating his hands unconsciously while

he talked and making amusing gestures with them.

He told each number for ten cents apiece, explaining the origin, the

meaning and the good and the bad of each one.

Jung sat there, sullen and moody, paying no attention to all that was

said. However, the rest of us took the occasion lightly, joking and laughing

as something amusing turned up.

When the man came to Hoi’s number he said, “This is the best one

of all. Everything that this person does and thinks will be successful in

the end. In luck, in health, in fortune, in everything- success in every

endeavor.”

Aunt Quan’s face beamed with a wide smile, for she believed

implicitly in these numbers. Jung sneered, although I was the only

who noticed it.

The man read on, explaining in detail everything connected with that

particular number. Soon he came to Jung’s number and he became

solemn and said, his tone of voice changed, “This is the first sad note.”

Aunt Quan’s face clouded over with worry.

The man continued, “This says that Jung must be very careful of his

health during the coming year. His health is threatened by dark shadows.”

All of us sat there staring with wide open eyes. Jung was calm. Aunt

Quan was actually frightened.

Later that evening Jung took me aside and said, “Ming, you just watch;

nothing is going to happen to me. If my health does get bad it is not

because of these numbers, but because it has just come about naturally

You know, all of these sayings seem pure nonsense to me.” He cared little

about what happened to him.

That evening my Aunt Quan lost her spirit of gay and carefree joyousness.

What the man had said about Jung worried her greatly. She was

quiet, glancing repeatedly at Jung, fearing that something terrible was

to happen soon.

Uncle Quan was not much worried about these things. He was not as

superstitious as Aunt Quan, for he had dropped many of his old beliefs

after he came to this country, which was fifteen years ago.

Late in the evening mother and Aunt Quan, Uncle Quan and another

man played mah-jongg until midnight. Aunt Quan was so worried about

Jung that her mind was not on the game. She lost over a thousand points

in the two rounds of mah-jongg.

I counted my money that night, and I had received a total of almost

thirteen dollars in lay shee.

When Jung went home he said to me again, “Nothing is going to happen to me; just you watch.”

Chinese paper cut from Asia Society website.

The fifth day of the New Year, the Birthday of the Cow, came and

went without any undue excitement. However, that day some guests

came to visit my mother. I received some more money. The Chinese lilies

had blossomed into flowers. Mother was glad, for she was afraid that the

bulbs might not sprout flowers and that was a very bad sign.

“I think all the flowers will be open by the Birthday of Men,” mother

said to father late that evening.

“This year we have good bulbs,” father said. I happened to think of

Jung that night and was a little bit worried myself, somehow. Would

something really happen to him as the man said? I had thought of the

matter a long while after he went home the day before. I remembered

clearly about a certain man who had his fortune told. He was to come

into great fortune. It came true. Then there was the story of another man

who was to suffer from very bad luck, that he would never have a chance

to go back to his homeland. However, in spite of the prediction, he did

go back and returned bringing a lot of money. Thus worrying and thinking

of Jung, I fell asleep to await the coming of the next day, the Birthday

of the Horse.

The next day I saw Jung again at school.

He laughed, “Well, so far nothing has happened to me. I told you nothing

was going to happen to me.”

I did not tell Jung that I was worried about him.

I said to Jung, “Some of the flowers have already bloomed in our

house.”

Jung answered, “Mother was talking about the flowers this morning. She

was afraid that they might bloom too late. She thinks that it is a sign

of bad luck if the flowers do not bloom before the seventh day of

New Year.”

When I went home that evening, I told mother what Jung told me.

She looked rather puzzled, then said, “Your Aunt Quan is a very superstitious

person. She is always worrying. If her flowers do not bloom, she

will think she is going to have a very bad year ahead of her, a year of

misfortune, sadness and sorrow.”

And yet it was in that year that Jung passed away.

Then the tragic Birthday of Men dawned, the day that Jung came into

our house and did something that clearly foreshadowed his death, at least

according to my Aunt Quan. Not only that. Aunt Quan’s Chinese lilies

failed to bloom on the seventh day of the New Year. The bulbs sprouted

forth, but only long green leaves came out, the flowers were lost inside

the leaves and failed completely to emerge.

I woke up quite early that morning for it was the last legal day to shoot

firecrackers and I wanted to take advantage of every spare moment. I

came downstairs and saw mother opening the brown pudding with a long

sharp knife. The brown pudding had hardened like brown cement and

mother was having a hard time struggling through it

.

I asked mother, “When are we going to eat it?”

Mother said, “I’m going to fry it in the afternoon when your Aunt

Quan comes over.”

Mother cut the pudding into thin brown slices, putting them in

piles on a flat white plate.

There was a big dish of raw fish, cut in small pieces, on the table.

Carrots, sliced in very thin pieces, were on the same dish. Inside a brown

paper bag I saw some fried objects.

“Are these fish to be eaten raw?” I asked mother.

“Of course,” mother said. “It is the custom to eat raw fish on the seventh

 day of the New Year.

Mother was stirring a big bowl of boiling broth. She opened the

big bowl, and the escaping steam filled the air with its delicious aroma.

Mother stirred the broth with a long spoon.

“For those who cannot eat the fish raw, we have this hot, boiling

broth.” I remember that I liked this broth very much, and every single

year I poured it over the raw fish and found the taste very delicious.

In the afternoon my Aunt Quan, Uncle Quan, Jung, and Hoi came

over. Hoi was still wearing his new costume, but Jung had changed into

a less conspicuous one.

Father mixed the raw fish with the carrots, and sprinkled some some small

seeds over them. The fish appeared red and raw. They looked indigestible

to me. Mother brought the hot broth over and she served it to the children

and Aunt Quan.

I could hear the firecrackers exploding all along Chinatown and the

loud noises kept up a continuous rhythm like the flow of a machine

gun. When this rhythm was broken by a moment of silence, the city

seemed quiet and strange until the noise began again. So it was all

through the day.

Jung and I decided to go down to the important shops and watch the

people shoot off firecrackers. We stopped in front of one of the more

prosperous stores in Chinatown where the firecrackers had been exploding

for over a full hour. And still the men were shooting them off, having

the time of their lives. The men lined up close to the store, each with a

burning punk in his hands, and thick stacks of firecrackers near him The

whole street was lined with burnt papers, red, green and white. The

smell of powder burnt into the nostrils of everyone, making their throats

thirsty and dry.

Jung and I watched for over an hour, and when we left the men were

still shooting them. My ears began to ring from having been so close to

the noise and explosion.

When I got home, my father gave Jung and me some packages of lady

fingers, small Chinese firecrackers which had to be shot off in a whole

chain or else they would not explode at all.

Jung tried to separate his firecrackers into single ones.

I said, “They will not explode well unless you shoot them off in a whole

chain.”

Jung answered, “This way it will last longer.” And he separated his

firecrackers into single ones.

But I was right. And Jung gave up in the end.

Chinese paper cut from Youlin Magazine.

It was late afternoon when we heard the prolonged sound of gongs an

Chinese music. I knew that the good luck dragon was coming. Mother

hurriedly prepared to receive the dragon. She went to the kitchen and got

out a fresh lettuce and tied it to a long string.

Father hung the lettuce up near the top of the outside door. He

wrapped up a dollar bill and tied that to the lettuce. Down the street

the dragon parade slowly made its way, stopping at every store or house

that had a lettuce hung up in front of it. Jung and I went down the street,

running so as not to miss anything. The dragon was a huge one, with

bright colors. The head shone as it caught the reflection of the sun, and

gleamed in all its splendor, the bright red and green tail moving now in

this, now in that, direction as the men manipulated the head in rhythmic

movements.

The moving dragon, followed by a group of musicians, stopped in front

of our house. My Aunt Quan was looking out of the window, her bright

new clothes glittering in the sun. Father shot a package of fireworks,

and the dragon danced an intricate dance. Then it bowed three times

before the door of our house, deep, placid bows. After that the musicians

played a noisy Chinese tune, the cymbals and gongs melting together

a melodious harmony. The man under the dragon head moved it with

great skill, while the man who held the long silk tail of the dragon fanned

the tail up and down, swinging it in accord with the movements of the

head.

Father shot off one package of firecrackers after another. A man was

stationed there to sweep the exploding firecrackers onto the sidewalk

so that they would not interfere with the dancing of the dragon. The

dragon’s mouth was wide open, and the man under the dragon chewed

off the lettuce, money and all with one bold sweep. Then the dragon

made three bows of thanks and continued on its goodwill tour of the

different homes and stores.

Father continued shooting packages of firecrackers.

A man approached and gave two red cards of thanks to mother, and

mother said to Aunt Quan, “The good luck dragon has visited our house,

and now we must have luck for the coming year.”

Aunt Quan answered, “If I didn’t live so far away from the main town

here, I would hang up a lettuce and some money to chase away the evil

that may be in my house.”

Aunt Quan was staying for dinner that night, and she helped mother

to prepare a large and elaborate meal.

That evening I said to Jung, “New Year is almost over, I suppose you

must be glad of it.”

“Yes, I’m glad,” Jung answered, while munching away on black melon

seeds. “Didn’t I tell you that nothing was going to happen to me? I knew

that all this talk was just pure nonsense. I think it is a waste of money to

spend it on such foolish things as fortunetelling and other such beliefs.”

He got up quickly then and went over toward the table to get some

more melon seeds. Jung was not very tall, and he had to reach up high

to get them. Suddenly I heard a loud noise of dishes being broken, and

when I turned around there was Jung gathering up the broken pieces of

glassware. A sudden fear leapt into his eyes and his face was red with

shame. My Aunt Quan came running out of the kitchen, her hands

holding a long sharp knife with which she was cutting meat, when she

heard the noise. She saw Jung on the floor picking up the broken dishes

with his hands.

“You’ll cut your hand,” mother said, “Ming, go into the kitchen and

get the broom and sweep it up.”

Jung did not look at Aunt Quan and Aunt Quan did not say anything,

so impressed was she with what had happened. Jung said in an almost

crying voice, his face full of shame and humiliation, “I didn’t mean it.

It just happened.” Then he broke into audible crying. Aunt Quan took

him home immediately.

“He’s always getting into trouble,” my Aunt Quan told mother, “and

that this should happen on the seventh day! It is a bad sign.” Aunt Quan’s

face wore a worried expression and she seemed suddenly to have become

an old woman.

Then she said to mother in a very strange and quiet voice, so that no

one else could hear it, “This very morning I broke an electric-light globe.

My bulbs did not blossom into flowers. Now Jung has broken your dishes

on the Birthday of Men. These are all bad omens.”

When Aunt Quan left, mother, too, was worried. And although she was

not superstitious, she couldn’t help feeling depressed and sad. That

evening she said to father, “I wonder if what the man said about Jung’s

health will come true or not.”

Father said, “Let us hope for the best.”

Now the New Year was officially over. There were three more days but

they were of no importance. Yet to us and to my Aunt Quan, they were

the most trying days of the year for on one of them my friend Jung passed

away.

On the Birthday of the Wheat, Jung became sick, a slight and unimportant

illness it was at the beginning. That day I went to see Jung. He was

in bright spirits, still insisting that nothing was going to happen to him.

He said, looking straight at me, “I know what my mother is thinking

now. She is going to blame all this on what I did at your house yesterday

and what the old man told her about my number.” Jung was cheerful,

although his face was white and pale. I knew that many people got sick

during the New Year because of the oil and rich foods they ate. And

undoubtedly, I thought, Jung was sick because of that.

To comfort Jung I told him, “You will get well soon. I know that all

those foolish beliefs have nothing to do with your illness. I will come and

see you tomorrow.”

Yet, somehow, I felt worried when I left him.

My mother asked me how Jung was, when I reached home.

“He is just a little sick,” I told mother.

Mother went over that night to visit Jung. Try as she would, she

couldn’t get rid of the feeling that somehow Jung’s sickness had been

brought about by what had happened the day before.

Aunt Quan was greatly worried.

“We are going to have a bad year,” Aunt Quan told mother that night.

“Everything seems to be against us this year.”

Mother told Aunt Quan not to worry and that everything would come

out for the best in the end.

Chinese paper cut, farming scene with ox.

Then came the Birthday of the Soldier. I went over that morning to see

Jung. His condition had become worse, and he had a bad fever. Jung was

asleep when I arrived at Aunt Quan’s house, so I did not have a chance

to talk to him that day.

The doctor was just coming out from Jung’s room.

He said quite solemnly, “His heart is very weak. It is best to send him

over to the hospital for a few days and as soon as possible. His condition

is quite bad now.”

I told Aunt Quan what the doctor said but there was no need for, from

her face, I knew that she understood exactly what it was. Aunt Quan did

not want to do it. She said, “Jung is such a strong boy. He will get well

soon.”

The doctor went away, shaking his head slightly.

Late that afternoon Jung complained that he had a sore throat. His

voice was low and dry. The doctor had told Aunt Quan that Jung had

diphtheria and that his heart was very weak. But Aunt Quan was

determined to consult a pulse-reading doctor first.

It was late that night, almost ten o’clock, when Aunt Quan telephoned

to mother. She was excited, talking quickly and loud. Mother told me to

phone the doctor to come over to Jung’s house. I did that. When I reached

Aunt Quan’s house with my mother, the doctor was already there. Jung

moved uncomfortably, writhing in his bed. Aunt Quan was sobbing

softly. She was afraid.

The doctor said, “This boy must be sent to the hospital immediately.”

Aunt Quan did not know what to do. Mother tried to make Aunt Quan

see it the doctor’s way, but even in this hour of supreme tragedy Aunt

Quan was very stubborn.

The doctor said to me before he left, “That boy will die unless he is

given the greatest of care.” I told that to mother when I got home. Mother

said, “One can never tell about this sort of thing. It all depends. But your

Aunt Quan should have let Jung go to the hospital.”

That night I dreamt about Jung and that he had died in his home.

I was afraid, but I did not tell mother about my dream.

The Birthday of the Robber dawned, the day that my friend Jung died.

It was quite early in the morning when the telephone rang out through

the house. Mother got up quickly, and she knew that in this early hour

there must be something unusual. She was right. Aunt Quan was sobbing

over the telephone.

Mother hung up quickly. She came rushing into my room, holding a

small glass. She wanted some urine to save Jung.

Jung was acting so strangely and queerly that Aunt Quan was afraid.

Mother took the filled glass, and told me to telephone the doctor to go

over to Jung’s house.

Mother hired a taxi and rushed over to save Jung with the urine. Aunt

Quan poured it down Jung’s throat. He choked; then he died. My Aunt

Quan cried. Jung was now as white as a corpse. But Aunt Quan did not

believe Jung was dead.

She yelled out loudly, frantically, “Get him over to the emergency

hospital. He must be saved!” Jung was already dead, but Uncle Quan and

my father took him over to the emergency hospital.

Jung had died long before he reached there. When Uncle Quan heard

that Jung was really dead, he slumped down on the floor, cold and white.

He had fainted. Father took the dead body back to the house. Aunt Quan

lost control of herself completely, weeping and moaning loudly. I became

frightened. I had never seen a big person crying before. Mother

wiped her eyes. Uncle Quan and father sat very quiet, each unable to

say anything.

The doctor arrived. There was nothing that he could do. He went back

to his office. I went back home, the memory of Jung’s white body still

lingering in my mind. I could not believe that Jung was dead. A few

days ago, I was laughing and talking with him. We shot firecrackers

together. Now he no longer moved; he was dead. And suddenly I burst into

tears, crying for my friend Jung. He was the best friend that I ever had,

and now I would see him no more.

The next day I brought some flowers to Aunt Quan. Her face was full

of lines and her eyes were red with weeping. Aunt Quan gave me a dime

wrapped with a piece of brown sugar. Then I came home.

The New Year was over, and the tragic death of Jung threw us all into

a sad and unhappy state. How many times in the days that followed I

heard Aunt Quan telling the old folks that Jung’s death was inevitable!

Jung simply had drawn a bad number, she said, and the flowers had not

bloomed on that seventh day. Jung broke dishes on the Birthday of Men

and she broke an electric-light globe. “How could all this be coincidence?”
she asked.

And the very old folks, who were ready for the grave, nodded their

heads and agreed.

I missed my good friend Jung. In school and when alone I thought of

him. I remembered how he had said to me, “Nothing is going to happen

to me, Ming.”

Yet it did happen, and I do not know whether it was fate that caused

his death or whether it was due to those ill omens that occurred that New

Year in such rapid succession. What difference does it make? I know only

that I missed my good friend Jung very much indeed.

-the end –

 

Additional Notes:

Jide: whole chicken, which represents good luck, wealth and reuniting families.

Gin Dur ak Gin Doy:  Sesame rice ball with red bean filling. The fried dough expands in size when cooked symbolizing growing wealth.

Woo tow go: taro cake

Lay shee:  red envelopes which contain money, usually given to children and those who are not married, signifies wishes for good fortune in the new year.

Mah jong:  Chinese game played with tiles.

Goon Yum Goddess: Goddess of Compassion.

The Chinese New Year – Explanation of Days from Wikipedia.

“In Chinese mythology, Nüwa was the goddess who created the world. She created the animals on different days, and human beings on the seventh day after the creation of the world.[1] Questions and Answers on Rites and Customs (答問禮俗說) by Dong Xun (董勛) of the Jin dynasty and the Book of Divination (占書), an earlier of publication by Dongfang Shuoin the Western Han dynasty, both specify the order of creation:

First of ZhengyueChickens

Second of ZhengyueDogs

Third of ZhengyueBoars

Fourth of ZhengyueSheep

Fifth of ZhengyueCows

Sixth of ZhengyueHorses

Seventh of ZhengyueMankind.[2][3]

Hence, Chinese tradition has set the first day of Zhengyue as the “birthday” of the chicken, the second day of Zhengyue as the “birthday” of the dog, etc. And the seventh day of Zhengyue is viewed as the common “birthday” of all human beings.”

Featured Image:

Photo from Exploria.ca, Nine Facts about Chinese New Year, Feb. 1, 2022

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