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In the monkey year

/ 12:41 AM February 10, 2016

If we were to look for a good case study on cultural change, it would be the way Chinese New Year has come to be adopted outside of China and Taiwan.

I looked through the Internet to find out where Chinese New Year is an official holiday and was not surprised to see that it is a holiday in Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, countries with significant Chinese populations—“pure” or “mixed.” What did surprise me was that Chinese New Year is also a holiday in Indonesia, Mauritius and the Philippines.

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I’ve written about my ambivalence about Chinese New Year being a holiday in the Philippines. After all, we never used the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which is shared as well by Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, Vietnam and, until the 19th century, Japan.

Lunisolar? I wrote about this many years ago. Briefly, the “Chinese” calendar is based on the movements of both the sun and the moon. Purely lunar calendars are used in many Asian countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal and others) and in Muslim countries, with wide variations.

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But let’s return to Chinese New Year. The second reason I’ve been surprised by its adoption as a holiday in the Philippines is that the Chinese population is quite small: the highest estimate being about 2 percent, or 2 million. This is supposed to be for “pure” Chinese. The term “pure” is, of course, elusive; scientifically, no one can claim to know how “pure” one’s ancestry is.

If Filipinos of mixed Chinese ancestry are considered, going back several generations, the estimates of ethnic Chinese run from 18 percent to 27 percent. That does make for a larger population, but still not necessarily enough to justify, I feel, a Chinese New Year holiday. After all, if we were to argue for a holiday based on mixed ancestry, we would be talking about people whose sense of being Chinese is probably minimal.

It’s this Chinese population component that made me wonder about a Chinese New Year holiday in Indonesia and Mauritius, which have an estimated 1.2 percent and 3 percent ethnic-Chinese component, respectively.

Then I found out that although there are only tiny ethnic-Chinese populations in these countries, they are quite visible economically, with many large companies owned by the ethnic Chinese, especially in the retail trade.

‘Feng shui’

That strong Chinese element in retail sales provides us with an explanation for a Chinese New Year holiday. I don’t know how Chinese New Year got declared a holiday in the Philippines, Mauritius and Indonesia, but definitely, it’s the shopping malls that stand to gain the most from this added holiday. That’s simply because more people get to go shopping on that day, but with an added boost to sales with commodities linked to Chinese culture, in particular all those amulets and charms for feng shui and good luck.

Chinese feng shui (or, in Quiapo among the fortune-tellers, rechristened as punsoy) alone is the best example of contemporary cultural change, with non-Chinese Filipinos adopting the use of ba-kua mirrors (to deflect negative “energies”) and assorted charms on a large scale. The charms for good luck are tied to the animal that the new Chinese year is supposed to be associated with, so this year there were monkeys—paper ones, that is—jumping all over the malls, and, in the shops, more monkeys made out of resin or plastic, and even stuffed ones.

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I expect to see many of these monkeys in people’s homes this year, whether they are ethnic Chinese or not. All this isn’t confined to the masses. The ones who seem most interested in feng shui and other “lucky” paraphernalia seem to be business people, whether those in large conglomerates or your ordinary street vendor. (Look hard and you’ll find even street vendors will have Chinese charms in one corner of their sales areas.)

BusinessWorld had a whole special section for Chinese New Year, filled with advice on feng shui and business prospects for the new monkey year. There were also all kinds of expensive seminars and lectures, held in five-star hotels and the more posh malls, on how to improve business prospects through feng shui.

I wasn’t surprised because business people can be an insecure lot, especially with the current financial upheavals that have come about because of the declines in Chinese stocks. (I’m almost tempted to suspect that the Chinese instigated the current crisis so they could sell more monkey charms.)

From ‘fat choy’ to ‘fa cai’

There have been changes through the years with the celebration of Chinese New Year in the Philippines. The most welcome one has been a slow but sure decline in the use of the popular “kung hei fat choy,” which is actually Cantonese, a language used only by a minority of Chinese Filipinos. Just before writing this column, I actually saw a taxi with the words “fat choy” painted on one of its doors!

The ancestors of most local Chinese came from Fujian, where the greeting is “gionghi huatchay,” but that greeting didn’t catch on. Instead, what seems to be taking off is “Gongxi facai” (pronounced gong si fa chay), which is in Mandarin, or the national language of China.

I still wish Chinese New Year would be used more to promote an improvement of Filipino-Chinese relations, but I’m willing to accept a Chinese New Year holiday for another reason, which I picked up after talking with my sister and two of her classmates. All of them are balikbayan and, over a Chinese New Year lunch, were complaining about how the traffic just kept worsening.

One of them then decried the way our government had so neglected housing and mass transport, the keys to getting a nation going. She observed how her family company’s workers are so exhausted even coming into work first thing in the morning. I then thought of my own students, who take so long to get home that they can’t do their homework.

Our conclusion? Let’s not complain too much about having so many holidays, including this strange Chinese New Year. Each holiday, each break, is a welcome one, if only to allow Filipinos, especially the working class and our students, an opportunity to recharge.

To that, I’ll say, “Hao!”—meaning good, OK. All the rest, good feng shui and all, should be incidental.

* * *

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