Disclaimer: Characters are property of Alliance and Paul Haggis. Used without permission, and no copyright infringement and offence intended.
Comments, criticisms, red crackers and red packets are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
by Hsu-Lyn Yap
"Frannie will kill me if I go home without the spring rolls. Why she wasn't organised enough to get them this afternoon, I don't know. All I know is that she wants them for her catering arrangement tonight, and she wants them yesterday! Sisters! Go figure!" Ray ranted and raved as he and Fraser hurried down the street towards Chinatown.
"What does she think I am? Her despatch boy?" he asked nobody in particular as Fraser had to hurry to keep up with him.
"Well, Ray. I don't think....." Fraser began.
"That's right! I'm not supposed to be running errands for my sister! Whether or not I'm off duty! I am not supposed to be going around getting spring rolls, delivering cutlery, transporting her food... what does she think I am?"
"Well, it is easier for you to do all that for her, Ray. You have a car." Fraser pointed out logically.
"I have a car, and that makes me her transport? Benny, she is the one running the catering business. I do not profit from this at all. I do not get paid for delivering the table cloths she forgot, and I will not profit from rushing to get her damned spring rolls. In fact......." Ray paused in his venting when his cell phone rang.
"Vecchio. Yes, I'm in Chinatown now.... No, I still haven't gotten your damned spring rolls. Do you want to know what I think about your spring rolls? I think you should just....yes! I am hurrying! What d'ya think I'm doing? Taking a leisurely walk? Benny, you tell her! Does it look like... Frannie? Frannie??!!....Damn! I hate it when she does that!" Ray switched his phone off irritably.
"Ray I don't think........" Fraser began again.
"I know, I know. I shouldn't talk to my sister that way. But look. She's my sister, okay? She's used to it." Ray interrupted. "I just hope that Mr. Lee has what she wants. I'm not going to every restaurant in Chinatown just to look for some exotic appetisers!"
"Ray, I don't think Mr. Lee, or any other restaurant for that matter, will be open today." Fraser finally managed to get his opinion in.
"What? What's wrong with today? I went to work today. That means it's not a holiday. If it was a holiday, I would be at home watching tv, and not running around Chinatown. If I go to work, it's not a holiday." Ray said unreasonably.
"Oh no, Ray. It's not a national holiday per se. I just thought that Mr. Lee and most Chinese restaurants wouldn't be open today on account of it being New Year's Day." Fraser explained.
"New Year's Day?!" Ray gave Fraser a look that told him he had finally flipped his lid. "Today is February 7, 1997. I don't know about you, Benny, but here in the good ol' U.S of A, New Year's day is on January 1st. 'New...Year' y'know?"
"I know, Ray. That is what we know as the New Year. The Chinese, however, have a different calendar, and their new year, therefore falls on a different day from the conventional January 1st."
"Oh, you mean when they let off those fire crackers and scare the hell out of me?"
"It's funny you should say that, Ray. The Chinese term for Caucasians, is 'foreign devil'. Now, the fire crackers are lit to scare off evil spirits, or devils. So, since you said that you get scared when they let off the fire crackers....." Fraser looked intrigued as he pursued this logical line of thought.
Ray merely gave him an exasperated glance and shook his head. "You aren't making me feel any better, Benny. So, you are trying to say that I'm a devil?!"
"Oh no, Ray. It's just what we are known as in the Chinese language. They don't mean to offend you!" Fraser was quick to deny it.
"Of course I'm not offended! How can I be offended by a language I don't even understand?!" Ray rolled his eyes dramatically. "So, you are saying that they will take a holiday today?"
"It is usually so, Ray. They will take time off to celebrate their New Year, just as we do ours. It's an important period of time for the Chinese, Ray."
"Right, so what do they do? Light a few lanterns, let off a few fireworks..."
"I think you are getting their festivals mixed up, Ray. They light lanterns during the Autumn Solstice Festival, also known as the Mooncake festival. At Chinese New Year, they let off fire crackers, and..."
"And scare the hell out of me." Ray finished as they turned into the area of Chicago known as Chinatown. A loud explosion and popping greeted them as a string of red fire crackers were let off. People milled about the
brightly lighted street, talking, laughing and generally having a good time. Loud greetings of "Happy New Year!" were called from one person to another in English and Chinese.
"This reminds me of a story I was told, Ray." Fraser said, as they wound their way slowly down to Mr. Lee's restaurant.
"You even have an Inuit story for this ? Where do you get all your stories from, Benny? 'An Inuit story for Every Occasion'?!" Ray looked incredulous.
"No, Ray. It's the story of how the Chinese first started celebrating their 'New Year'." Fraser explained, and plunged on ahead despite the withering look thrown his way.
"Story has it that there was once this monster in China which was terrorising the people of the town. They would live in perfect peace for a year. Then, at the same time every year, this monster called 'N'ien' would come down from the mountains and demand a maiden to be sacrificed to it, or it would destroy the town. The people complied by putting all their daughter's names into a box. The unfortunate girl whose name was drawn would be sacrificed to the monster. And so, it went on year after year, and there was peace."
"Now, it came to pass that the mayor of the town had a daughter. He tried to avoid putting his daughter's name in the lottery, but she found out about it, and demanded that she share the same misfortune as the other girls of the town. As luck would have it, her name was drawn in the lottery that year."
"Now, this was a very intelligent young lady, and she had no intention of becoming the monster's dinner. She told her father her plan, and her distraught father promised to carry out what he thought would be his daughter's final wish."
"On the day, she was dressed in her finest clothes, and waited for the monster in the town square. At the appointed time, the monster appeared, seeking his annual sacrifice. At the last minute, just as he approached the girl, the men of the town appeared, beating drums, gongs, and any matter of substance to make a loud enough noise to scare the monster away. Gunpowder was filled into little red sticks which were set alight. The noise generated so frightened the monster that the people were able to capture and kill it, thus ridding themselves of the evil spirit forever. A huge celebration was held, and the people took the change as the beginning of a new year for them."
"And from that day on, Chinese New Year has always been celebrated with red fire crackers- red symbolising good luck, and the crackers to scare away evil spirits- and it has always been a time to spend with family and friends." Fraser concluded.
Ray merely stared at him. "You made all that up, didn't you?"
Fraser shook his head. "No, Ray. I admit, this is just one version of events. There are many stories as to how this came about. But the essence is always the same. It is a time to rejoice, to start a new year and to meet up with family and friends."
"And what d'ya know? Mr. Lee is closed for today!" Ray sighed. A loud drum beat and clash of cymbals somewhere behind them made them jump.
The rhythmic beat of the drum and cymbals accompanied a brightly coloured, and fascinating sight. Two men were performing with a large colourful papier mache head of what resembled a ferocious beast with a colourful cloth 'body'. The two men under it formed the 'legs' of the creature. The perfectly synchronised antics and acrobatics of the men brought the beast to life, as it pranced, danced, and even gambolled now and then, like an over-grown puppy. The simple mechanism in the head enabled the man under it to operate the eyes so it could 'blink' and open and close its mouth. It was an impressive sight as it leapt from benches and urns and climbed up tall poles to reach for a bunch of lettuce hanging from a rooftop. Fraser watched it all, transfixed.
"They call it a 'lion dance'. That beast is supposed to represent a 'lion', and the men operating it are as good as acrobats." Ray shouted over the din of the drum beats.
"I know, Ray. I have read about it. But seeing one is just.... so..." Fraser's voice trailed off as he sought for the words to express himself.
"Awesome?" Ray supplied with a grin. "I know! I think so, everytime I see it!" they joined in the applause as the performance ended.
"That was incredible! I never thought it would be so fascinating." Fraser looked like a little boy who had just been to the circus. Well, in a way, he had!
"Or so deafening!" Ray shook his head a little. The drum beats still seemed to echo in his ears long after it had stopped.
"That too." Fraser admitted. "Is that your phone, Ray?"
"Vecchio." Ray answered. "Yes, I'm still in Chinatown....No, I did not get your spring rolls.... Why not? Because Mr. Lee, and about every Chinese restaurant is closed. No, I'm not kidding. Look, you can ask Benny. You know he never lies!"
"Frannie, I don't want to know what you are going to do..... yes, I know
you are going to kill me, but it's not my fault! I cannot get you any spring rolls!..... look, Frannie......Frannie! listen to me!... I know you don't want to..... Happy New Year, Frannie!" Ray switched off his phone after that cryptic remark, leaving his sister in mid-sentence.
He turned to Fraser with a wide grin on his face. "I always wanted to do that!"
"Now, I evidently can't show my face at home until she has left. In which case, I know this great Italian restaurant not far from here. I know we do not have an Italian New Year, and even if we do have one, it's not today. So, I'm sure that it, at least, is open."
"You know, Ray. I just remembered another version of the Chinese New Year story. In olden China, there was......."
Ray sighed. It was going to be a long night.
NB: There are many different versions of the Chinese New Year story. This one is just one of them. If there's anyone out there who knows of any others, do drop me a line! YHL