Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lost in History vol. 50 - Year of the Rat? Don't we got Enough of them Already?

And another Chinese New Year came and went, with firecrackers in the air, bright bursts of multi-colored party decorations festooning what few trees are left in Chinatown, confetti in the gutter, oranges on the cheap paperboard signs promising untold good luck and the glitter of gold paint everywhere. Unfortunately, we missed it, as we were down in Virginia Beach at a tourism convention. And we hate missing street carnivals and joyful celebrations, especially celebrations in Chinatown, our flat-out favorite neighborhood. So when we learned that the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) was hosting a Chinatown walking tour with a particular focus on the signs, symbols and good fortunes of the Year of the Rat, we gladly signed up to get down with our four-legged furry friend. Only in New York would people pay good money to spend time with these scurrilous creatures.
Our guide was Erica Jee, an interested and interesting Chinese-American from California, and a former educator at MOCA who was back in town to help out with the local festivities as well as the museum’s events. She was visibly sad to be on the East coast during the Chinese New Year, as it meant she was missing her family get-together and feast back home. Regardless, it was her pleasure to provide an hour-and-a-half walking tour of Chinatown for a small group of twenty people, mostly New Yorkers, but with the occasional out-of-towner. All of us were interested in the cultural meanings of the public revelry on display in one of just two working-class neighborhoods in Manhattan that still receives immigrants on a regular basis. (The other would be Washington Heights.)

Our tour started in Columbus Park, at the intersection of Bayard and Mulberry streets in the heart of “Old Chinatown,” and catty-corner to MOCA’s tiny museum space. Erica explained that the newly refurbished park has many amenities for the dozens of Chinese seniors and residents who utilize the green-and-asphalt: tai chi, checkers and cards, reading the paper, feeding the birds and talking about current events. The park was particularly empty this Saturday, which might have been due to the gray skies, but was more likely due to the fact that during the Chinese New Year, people spend lots of time at their family homesteads. For the Chinese, their New Years is like Christmas and Thanksgiving combined: feasts and gifts, which include money, flowers, fruit and toys.

The Chinese New Year, Erica went on to explain, was based on the Lunar Calendar, so that the date changes from year to year. What’s more, the cycle runs by twelves, so every twelve years, the dates switch back, as do the personifications of each year. The Year of the Rat, the first symbol of the dozen zodiac signs, therefore invites a season of change and renewal. While crossing through Chatham Square we heard the pop and burst of small-scale fireworks, which are traditionally used to scare off evil spirits. (At least symbolically. Never underestimate the thrill and fun of fireworks to bring crowds together. The Chinatown fireworks pre-Giuliani used to be much larger, but now it’s a small, controlled burn in the center of Chatham Square.)
We headed towards the Bowery, but ducked into tiny Doyers Street, one of the most whimsical streets in the city, as it runs one block long, and at a sharp right angle. Decades ago, it was far from whimsical, as it was known as “Bloody Doyers,” as the ninety-degree turn allowed Chinese Tongs (Mandarin for “hall” as in “hall of brothers”) to sneak up on each other, but nowadays has multitudes of barbershops. Chinese custom maintains that one should always get one’s hair cut before the New Year, so that one doesn’t cut away the good luck approaching. Erica wouldn’t say anything with certainty, as she maintained that customs shift from family to clan to region, as well as mutate over the centuries.

One thing that has stayed true through the ages is the symbolism of fruit and flowers in the New Years’ iconography. Since the Mandarin language is pictorial and glyphic, there are a lot of homonyms inherent in the system. The ubiquity of oranges in Chinese culture makes sense when one understands that "orange" sounds like "fortune" in Mandarin (and, come to think of it, English as well). "Fish" sounds like "abundance." "Bat" means "luck" and "green" also means "wealth." As the tour rounded up, we stopped to purchase an orange or two for fortune’s sake, as another burst of confetti exploded above us. Happy 4709, everyone!

(originally published on 2/12/8 in

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