Now, don’t get me wrong: usually, I’m very much proud of my culture and my upbringing, as deficient as it might have been in anything approaching authentic cultural immersion. Even if I connect with my heritage more through the martial arts than through language and popular culture, I try to always be open to learning more about my heritage.
Even then, I suppose, I must profess an ulterior motive. I have a bad habit of using knowledge as as a weapon. At least one reason for my enthusiasm for Chinese history and culture comes from the many evils perpetrated by the ignorant, who invoke the sanctity of tradition without enough knowledge to provide discretion and context.
That aside, I’m genuinely a big fan of my own culture. I may not be its best ambassador, but I’m generally at least a staunch supporter. I suppose it must show, since I’m spending part of my New Year holidays reading and writing about Chinese socio-cultural history instead of whatever festive venality I’m supposed to be embracing.
At around this time of year, however, during the Chinese Lunar New Year, I always end up being reminded of things that diminish my enthusiasm somewhat. I like Reunion Dinner, I like getting together with relatives I don’t usually see (even if I don’t always say much, victim of language and generational distance as I am), and I love the food and the festivities.
Every year at around this time, though, I always end up asking myself why the Chinese attitude towards prosperity and wealth has to be so vulgar.
That flash git up there is Cai Shen Ye, or the God of Fortune. Insofar as he’s a Taoist deity of some significance, I have no quarrel with him. Deities of wealth are de rigeur for every pantheistic faith I can think of (Lakshmi, Plutus, and Freyja come to mind readily).
I do, however, resent his annual intrusion into a cultural event. Yes, yes, most cultural events have religious myth at their roots, but there’s a difference between, say, Diwali, where the religious myth in question is about renewal and the triumph of light over darkness, and Chinese New Year, where Cai Shen’s religious myth is about materialism, avarice, and greed. There are literally mascots who dress up as Cai Shen and go to schools to throw candy at kids, because I suppose it’s never too early to indoctrinate kids with an ideology of sticky-fingered acquisitiveness. Sure, some people hold Diwali as sacred to Lakshmi too, but I’m pretty sure nobody dresses up as Lakshmi and goes flinging gold-foil-wrapped gulab jamuns at tykes to teach them the importance of scrabbling for cash at the earliest age possible.
Yes, there’s actually a verse in there encouraging you to go buy lottery tickets. Chinese New Year and Easter are both fertility festivals, but I can’t remember offhand how many traditional Easter songs exhorted you to get out there and bet on some horse races or something. And if they want chocolates on Easter, the kids go look for it themselves; the Easter Bunny doesn’t dance up to them singing about the virtues of blackjack and craps while lobbing eggs at them.
Maybe I’m something of a New Year Grinch, but I’d love to be able to celebrate being Chinese without the constant reminder that I’m not properly Chinese if I’m not Taoist (and wealth-obsessed) as well. I’m not sure any of the other major festivals that Singapore recognises suffers from this weird religious/cultural identity crisis. Hari Raya, Diwali, Easter etc are all explicitly religious in nature, while stuff like National Day and Labour Day are explicitly cultural, with their roots in historical events, and all of those things have their appropriate trappings. Chinese New Year, however, often seems like a tacky mash-up between trappings and icons I can get behind (melon seeds symbolising fertility, mandarin oranges symbolising wealth, but tastefully) and ones I can’t (songs encouraging you to gamble).
Everyone loves money, I guess; I’m not immune to avarice, either, and some material-consciousness isn’t an altogether bad thing. You can’t really separate material abundance from the essential virtues of health and longevity that everyone wants to enjoy, and all cultures and religions celebrate fertility and prosperity.
I just wish we could be more tasteful about it.