Addressing Anti-Asian American violence: resources

While this blog customarily celebrates Chinese culture as a way to advocate for a broader understanding of our cultural richness, I can’t find myself posting DIYs and recipes––celebrations of my culture––without confronting that my culture is right now not being celebrated, but rather viewed as a persistent virus. Watching surveillance videos of elderlies resembling my own Ye Ye Nai Nai being shoved on the streets hit too close to home.

The egregious acts of violence against Asian American people uncovers yet another of America’s unhealed racial wounds. The recent incidents of hate crimes against our community is not new: to name a few, Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882Japanese Internment camps, violence that led to the Filipino Farm Worker Movement, and the 2017 hate crime shooting of Srinivas Kuchibhotlato have all bore open racial fissures.

While the onus of racism should fall on those perpetuating the ideology rather than those victim to it, I think an underlying sentiment almost two-centuries-old has barred the Asian American community from raising its voice: the Model Minority Myth. Our parents, in their troubled homelands, journeyed miles to school and could barely ever attain precious commodities like milk; now in the land of abundant dreams, they prefer working hard and keeping their heads low.

I’m not casting this sentiment on every family, or foreshadowing that it will perpetuate into the future, but, for now, this hesitance runs deep. We’ve always been reluctant to draw attention to ourselves. We avoided the spotlight on conversations about anti-racism, not because it’s never happened to us, but because we’ve lacked the awareness to recognize it. The lack of media coverage on these hate crimes compounds the silencing of the API community perpetuates the misconception that we don’t face racism.

The Model Minority has not only debased us from our pedestal but have barred us from recognizing anti-racism against other ethnic groups. We must lean into conversations about the Asian American and black community tensions, and work in unison with other movements fighting for racial equality. I never thought I would quote Detective Chin Ho Kelly from Hawaii 5-O, but he did astutely mention in a GMA interview that this isn’t just about white supremacy and Asian people, it’s about People of Color against racism. In a recent interview, actor Steven Yeun also put into words what we often experience but haven’t been able to articulate: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

“Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

Steven Yeun, actor

What our allies and API community can do right now

(adapted from Resources for Allyship and Fighting Anti-Asian Discrimination by Airbnb)

1. Raise awareness, speak up, and condemn these attacks and anti-Asian racism

2. Report instances of anti-Asian assault and crimes 

Report them at StopAAPIHate.org

3. Protect yourself in the face of discrimination or safely stand up for others as a bystander

Join webinars and training hosted by the Hollaback Bystander Intervention.

4. Learn about the history of Asian Pacific Islander discrimination and other challenges we face 

5. Support, donate, and volunteer with organizations actively combating racism against the Asian Pacific Islander community

Organizations to support and donate to

  • Stop AAPI Hate – aggregates and responds to incidents of hate and harassment against Asian American/Pacific Islanders. Stop AAPI Hate received 1,843 reports of anti-Asian discrimination due to COVID-19 in its first eight weeks of reporting (March 19 to May 13). 
  • Hate is a virus – started as a grassroots movement to combat racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) fueled by COVID-19, Hate is a virus has evolved into a sustainable organization that addresses xenophobia and hate in the AAPI and BIPOC communities.
  • Act To Change – a national nonprofit organization working to address bullying, including in the AAPI community. They published “The Racism is a Virus Toolkit” to support the community in combating racism. 
  • Asian Americans Advancing Justice – a national nonprofit organization that focuses on housing rights, immigration, civil rights, labor rights, and others for Asian Americans
  • National Council of Asian Pacific Americans – a nonprofit organization that serves to represent the interests of the greater Asian American (AA) and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities through a coalition of 37 national Asian Pacific American organizations around the country.

Individual fundraisers

If you live in the Bay Area, here are some ways to get volunteer opportunities

Sticky Business: Worshiping the Kitchen God 祭灶王爷

On the 23rd or 24th of the twelfth month, the most important holiday of the lunar calendar commences in the kitchen, enshrining a color print out with candy and wine.

Chinese New Year gathers everyone in the kitchen, not only for the food that it produces but the deity who is in charge of it. After a year of monitoring each household occupants’ moral conducts, the deity known as Zao Wang Ye 灶王爷–somewhat like Santa Claus–ascends to Heaven to relay an annual report on people’s behaviors to the Jade Emperor. Those on the naughty list would subsequently receive their punishment in the coming year.

In hopes of a good report, our clever ancestors developed several tricks to deceive or bribe the god, which—to our luck—have solidified as Chinese New Year traditions.

The Origin of Zao Tang 灶糖

The devout kitchen god believers would set up a miniature shrine with Zao Wang Ye’s statue in their kitchen, but Chinese nowadays turn to the self-adhesive paper poster version in their homes. While we’ve adapted traditions to the our more modern times, there’s still one thing that should not be simplified: the Kitchen God’s food. Our clever ancestors firmly believed that no foul language could come out of a sweet mouth. With that wisdom, they invented various sweet treats called to Zao Tang 灶糖 bribe Zao Wang Ye before he reported to the omnipotent Emperor Jade.

In northern China, teams of three candy chefs work behind the closed door of a boiler room, twirling and pulling on the piping hot elastic maltose toffee as thick as a boa constrictor. With the soft toffee dangling between their arms, the master chef would suddenly holler before kicking open the door––behind him a burst of steam––pulling the toffee into the sub-zero winter night. He is followed by the second and third chef, stretching and exposing the maltose into finger width thin rope, and what in their hands instantly turns into crispy candy filled with air bubbles and tunnels––that was the old-fashion way of making Zao Tang, the offering candy.

As more began populating the naughty list, some believed there needed to be stronger intervention: the candy not only had to be sweet, but sticky enough to seal Zao Wang Ye’s lips from talking. Varieties of the treats were thus invented to partake in the sticky business, including rice balls filled with red bean paste, sweet rice cakes, candied nuts, candied yam, taro, and even candied fruits.

Perhaps discovered by their own experiences, our ancestors kicked it one notch higher by intoxicating the kitchen god with wine so he could not provide a full report.

Candied Sweet Potatoes

On the 23rd, my family made candied sweet potatoes with spun sugar. Coated in a melted sugar glaze, the sweet potatoes tangle themselves within spun sugar. 

While this dish itself is quite decorative and uncustomary to my Chinese American family, we utilized the sticky power of this sweet treat to bring our sister––who is away in college––back for the reunion dinner on the Chinese New Year Eve. Those who make sweets together stick together.

Don’t underestimate the simple ingredients. This recipe by far has been one of the most challenging dishes I’ve attempted to make; sugar is a tough element that beckons anyone with culinary bravery to temper with. Though I must admit that I’ve not yet perfected the craft, I had a blast standing on a ladder in my kitchen at 9 PM with a pan over my head. I hope you do too. Please take extreme caution, both frying the sweet potatoes and tempering sugar can be very hazardous because the high temperatures.

Ingredients:

  • Sweet potato 500 grams
  • Sugar 100 grams
  • Water 50 grams
  • Cooking oil for frying
  • Candy Thermometer
  • Wax paper

Directions

  1. SETUP: Line your kitchen counter with wax paper and set up a stool for you to stand on for the magic show in the later step.

2. PREP & FRY SWEET POTATOES: Cut sweet potatoes into 2x 2 cm chunks. Fry them in the hot oil till cooked. Set aside.

3. PREP SPUN SUGAR: In a medium saucepan, add in sugar and water. On high heat, cook till boil, do NOT stir because it will form undesirable crystals.

4. Once the mixture is completely melted and boiling, swirl the pan very gently to mix, and turn down the flame to medium low. You are going to closely watch the temperature rise. It will be helpful to use a candy thermometer because the ideal temperature for the sugar solution is set at 375 to 390 F (190 to 200 C), when the mixture turns into an amber color and smells like heaven (now I think like a deity). Once your sugar solution reaches that temperature, you have a very small window of time to work with the syrup before it is either burned or hardened. Please be very careful when you work swiftly with something scorching hot.

5. Once the temperature reaches 375 to 390 F, spoon out half of the syrup into a flat heat-resistant dish. Set aside but close by.

6. GLAZE SWEET POTATO: Toss the fried sweet potatoes into the saucepan to coat them with the remaining syrup. Plate them right away.

7. PERFORM THE SPUN SUGAR: Now, it’s time to flex your agility by quickly hopping onto a stool. Over the covered countertop, pick up the flat dish with the hot syrup, and give the plate a swirl to coat the bottom of plate evenly.

8. Raise the plate high (but not over your head please), then flip and hold the dish upside-down. You will see the sticky syrup drips few drops initially then it starts to drip silk strings. Rock your arms gently side-to-side; a web of golden silk will start to pile.

9. Working the silk strings while they are soft, place them around the candied sweet potatoes. I guarantee Zao Wang Ye will be pleased and put you on the “nice” list.

Finished with some leftover halloween candy (not expired though, don’t worry Kitchen God)

Laba Garlic 腊八蒜

The 8th of the twelfth lunar month––or this year, January 21–– is known as the Laba Festival, Labajie. While we last year covered the rich bean porridge that often masquerades the breakfast table, a lesser known but highly superstitious delicacy includes jade garlics, aka Laba garlics. Laba Festival precedes Chinese New Year because the temperature best suits the soaking of these white pearly garlics and their transformation into jade-colored jewels.

The History of Laba Garlics: Polite Reminders to Pay Up

Laba Festival coincides around the time most businesses “close their books,” or in other words collect any outstanding balances for the year. Overtly courteous, Chinese avoided demanding payment directly but rather devised a friendlier reminder: a jar of jade-colored garlic. “Garlic” and “counting” are homonyms in Chinese, both pronounced as suan. So when a businessman receives a jar of jade garlics at the year end, the gift certainly acts as a great wine pairing but also a gentle reminder – it’s time to pay up the IOU.

Recipe

Composed of everyday pantry staples and extremely low-maintenance, these gorgeous jade color garlics beg ANYONE to make them, as long as they can be kept at cold temperature. If you live in tropical areas, don’t fret, just keep them in the fridge. For those in their winter months, leave your jar of marinated garlics by a cold windowsill so the light during the day and cold temperature at night will help them turn jade in less than 2 weeks.

Ingredients:

  • Jar
  • Garlic cloves; the amount is to your liking, but make sure you have enough to fill 2/3 of your jar
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • Rice vinegar (we used Zhenjiang vinegar)

Directions:

  1. Clean your jar, ensuring that there is no grease.
  2. Peel your garlic into individual cloves. Wearing rubber gloves will ease the peeling process.
Cutting the ends first can ease the peeling process
Peeling B-roll

3. Fill 2/3 of the jar with peeled garlic.

4. Add 2 TBS of sugar into the jar.

5. Pour rice vinegar until it covers the garlic. There’s no need to stir, as the sugar will dissolve.

6. Close the cover tight. Place the jar by the cold window sill if you live in a place with winter weather. If not, just place the jar in the fridge. Those pearly white garlic should transform themselves into jade color by the fourth-fifth day.

They should already begin turning green by Day 4

To finally answer the question that’s been disgruntling your minds throughout this entire recipe, what are the practical uses of laba garlics? Not only are the vinegar-soaked garlic concomitant condiments to a meaty dish, but the garlic-infused vinegar invites dumpling-dipping as well as vegetable-dressing.

Nine Nines Countdown Calendar + Free Printables

From December 21 to 23, people abandon their nine-to-five jobs to return home for dumpling soup and table games, celebrating Winter Solstice or the commencement of winter.

For ancient Chinese, winter not only brought sore throats and sniffly noses, but represented an illness itself, a glut of boredom and yearning for warmth. Households remedied their seasonal depression by “Counting Nine Nine”, or counting down eighty-one coldest days of the winter season. By identifying winter’s rhythmic progression in different stages, ancient scholars divided the entire winter season into 9 intervals with each interval consisting of 9 days. The book Customs and Folk Arts in Chu Country荆楚岁时记 written during Northern and Southern Dynasties 南北朝 stated that “starting from winter solstice, count nine by nine, that is eighty-one days, then that is the end of winter.”

Why specifically count by nine? To recall the Chinese’s auspicious compulsion, the number nine symbolizes regality and opulence, the prosperity of an empty throne waiting to be conquered. 

As COVID persists, and the winter poses arduous challenges from most across the world, we really need a countdown the days. I present to you three free Nine Nine Calendar printables and their histories; treat these as bullet journals to check in with yourself and stay in-tune with your surrounding climate.

Types of Nine Nine Calendars

Nine by Nine Coins

The Weather Coin Grid is the most universal edition of the Nine Nine advent calendar. Segregated by grids – 3 rows down and 3 columns across –  to make 9 squares, each square hosts 9 ancient paper coins printed in black and white. The 81 total coins represent the tedious 81 days of winter.  Customarily, directions at the bottom of the sheet demonstrates how to color in the coins: for example, ”up cloudy, down sunny, left windy, right rainy, snow frost in the center.” Colors represent different weather patterns: teal for cloudy, orange for sunny, lime for windy, purple for rainy, and light blue for snow and frost.

Instructions: each day, color in the weather following the key below:

  • cloudy = teal
  • sunny = orange
  • windy = lime
  • rainy = purple
  • snow and/or frost = light blue

Plum Blossom Advent Calendar

Instead of nine coins, the plum blossom coloring sheet offers nine petals on a branch. By coloring one petal everyday, the artists completes the painting while plum blossoms begin to sprout from the ground. Not only another a tonic for boredom, the plum blossom advent calendar foreshadows the arrival of spring.

Instructions: each day, color in the weather following the key below:

  • cloudy = teal
  • sunny = orange
  • windy = lime
  • rainy = purple
  • snow and/or frost = light blue

Nine by Nine Calligraphy Calendar

The calligraphy advent activity, also known as “Writing Nine 写九”, fancies artists with a hand for penmanship. Writing nine originates from the pampered Qing Dynasty palace: in The Decrees and Regulations of the Qing Dynasty 养吉斋丛录, author Wu Zhengyu 吴振棫 explained that the Hanlin Academy required all of its elite scholars to complete the Nine Nine Calligraphy Advent Calendar every winter.

By tracing the Chinese characters in “亭前垂柳珍重待春風” one brush stroke a day, the completed sheet of this nine-word poem whispers “the willow in front of the gazebo devoted in wait for spring breeze.” Each Chinese character in this poem consists of no more, no less, but exactly nine calligraphic strokes. One stroke a day for nine days would complete one character. After each finished character, winter ends.  

Instructions: fill in one stroke of each day. Keep in mind that in Mandarin, the line you draw without picking up your pencil constitutes “one stroke.”

While countdown calendars may seem silly, only appropriate around Christmas, each day provides you an opportunity to check in with yourself, to recognize the brevity of now, and the cultivate an hopeful excitement for the future.

Festival de Merengue

When asked what she misses most about the DR, my mother brings up mangú breakfasts, the kindship her family built with their neighbor Dorka, and after-school beach culture. She pauses, smiles, and closes her eyes – a familiar sound begins to trill in her head. The tambura sets the beats, the accordion adds the tone, the trumpet pierces through the high notes, and the bright voice sings with passion; then, there is the luring guira – welcome home, old soul.

Every end of July in the Dominican Republic, a festival known as the Merengue Festival enlivens the streets with music, dance, and art. Outdoor stages are set up along the city’s waterfront, where bands play merengue music while couples swirl and shake to the fast-paced, pulsating rhythms. Beyond this holiday, merengue is fundamental to DR culture.

Festivals in the Caribbean are Fun for Locals and Tourist Alike | Visit dominican  republic, Santo domingo dominican republic, Festival
Santo Domingo, DR

While most hear merengue and visualize Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie music video, what makes merengue merengue, what energizes the dance floor with a backbone eight-count, is the music. The usual performing group of folk merengue includes a diatonic accordion, a two–sided drum, called a tambora, held on the lap, and a güira. A güira is a percussion instrument that produces a sound likened to a maraca.

My mom’s prom mixed American music and Merengue – “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang, followed by Wilfrido Vargas’s “Porque No Te Tengo”. They sang on top their lungs to “I Love Rock ’N Roll”; then jived to Johnny Ventura’s “Yo Soy El Merengue”, an almost national anthem to the Dominicans.

Merengue brought back the backdrop of her everyday life in DR. While she was studying US History, merengue would be playing in her neighbor’s backyard; when mom’s family was strolling on the broad walk by the beach, merengue was playing on every corner; when she and her friends bought yaniqueques (sound familiar? It’s DR’s version of Johnny cakes) from street vendors, with––you guessed––merengue playing from a tiny radio. When mom’s family brought Chinese food to a potluck dinner at Dorka’s mom that started at 10:30 p.m., what welcomed them?  Hugs and kisses and merengue played from their boombox.

What was once ubiquitous is now desperately missed. My mother indulges on 10 AM Saturday mornings during her Zumba Toning classes.

Here I attached my mom’s favorite song as my tribute to what has woven her memory and our love for DR together – merengue.

Yo Soy el Merenque by Johnny Ventura

Porque No Te Tengo by Wilfrido Vargas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUXJzcWw-Yc

Towering Jiu Jiu Chongyang Cake

Traditional Chinese superstition feeds a lot of attention onto the seemingly aimless yet highly indicative number nine. According to the Book of Changes or I Ching 易经, “nine” is a lucky Yang 阳 number; nine is also the largest single number, and its Chinese character shares the same pronunciation as “lasting” or 久 jiu. Thus, the holiday celebrates the longevity of elders by hiking, drinking, and enthusing one’s sweet tooth. Communities would gather and host a feast called the Banquet of Longevity to wish their elders long and healthy life, symbolically finished with a coda of Jiu Jiu Chongyang Cake. Made of rice flour and dressed in different flavors, Chongyang Cake must have nine layers for its implication of longevity.

Ingredients

  • 1 Cup Rice flour
  • ½ C Glutinous rice flour
  • ¼ tsp Salt
  • 1/3 C Sugar
  • 1/3 C Boiling water
  • 200 g Jujube date paste or red bean paste, as filling
  • One 7-inch bamboo steamer
  • 1 Cheese cloth
  • Sifter

For decoration:

  • 8 Jujube dates, halved
  • ½ C Goji berries
  • ¼ C Walnut, chopped

Preparation

1 Mix sugar and boiling water, set aside.

2 In a big bowl, mix the rice flour, glutinous rice flour, and salt.

3 Drizzle in the hot sugar water into the flour mix. Mix them well––this process is like “cooking” the dry flour mix with hot water. You will see small clusters form.

4 Caution, the clusters can be hot, so use an oven mitt. Break the small clusters between your fingers. Though tedious, this will make the sifting easier later.

5 Perform a dough consistency test to see if you need to add more sugar water or not. Grab a palm-full of flour mix. If it holds its shape after the squeeze but crumbles between your fingers when you try to break them apart, then the dough is ready.

6 Sift the flour mixture through a sifter (or strainer) couple times. Eyeball to divide the sifted flour into 5 portions.

7 Divide your jujube date paste (or red bean paste) into 4 portions.

8 Place the cheese cloth into the steamer. Put a layer of rice flour mix onto the clothed steamer, that is the base layer of the cake. Place it in a bigger steamer on high flame for 5 minutes.

9 Take the steamed flour base out. Careful, it will be hot. Spread one portion of the jujube date paste onto the steamed base, then add another layer of the flour mix. Steam on high flame for another 5 minutes. Repeat this process of building the layers and steaming after each flour layers until you finish with all the paste and flour mix.

Steps 7-9

10 Your last layer which is the top layer of the cake should be the flour layer. Now it is time to decorate the cake before we steam it for one last time. We used halved jujube dates, dried Goji berries, and chopped walnuts on ours.

11 Place the bamboo steamer into the bigger steamer, steam for 20 minutes.

Enjoy this cake with the elderlies in your family. With each layer, another year of life is added. My grandma is making it to 100.

9 layers

Beef and Hearts of Palm: Ode to My Taiwanese-Dominican Roots

by Jill Tang, NJ & Santo Domingo

For our sixth Holidays All World Round Post, we learn about a holidays foods as rich, unctuous amalgamations of cultural cuisines and values. Yet, as a highly nomadic humans, holiday dishes are often reflections of our cultural dualities––a way for everything to come together, even our cultures. Jill Tang, a Taiwanese immigrant bred in the Dominican, explores the wholeness of half-ness in her recipe for stir-fried beef and hearts of palm.

The Tsang family was and still is one of our family’s best friends. When my family immigrated from Taiwan to the Dominican Republic in the early 60’s, we shared the same flight with the Tsangs. Because a Taiwanese movie producer and his crew “jumped the plane” and disappeared into NYC illegally, we were held up in the JFK airport lounge overnight to wait for their connecting flight next day to DR.

At arrival in the DR, we grew closer. The Tsangs could count from 1 to 5 in Spanish while our’s could from 6 to 10, so we helped each other out in getting by. When the Tsang’s apartment was robbed by some petty theft, it was my dad and my brother who went to chase the young rascals out. We bought a second-hand Mazda so our two families all packed in that brown sedan and drove everywhere. In return, Mrs. Tsang, this wonderful business woman who was very successful at shoe manufacturing was happened to be a great home-cook, would give us shoes from sandals to heels with odd sizes and cook a feast for us very often.

This beef and heart of palm dish is one of her inventions, a mix of Chinese and Dominican, just like us. It was a slice of Taiwan that we could only relish once a year, during the Lunar New Year’s supposed “feast.” Holidays are replicable anywhere, and, often, they are a fusion of many of the intersectionalities that define us.

Now, my family in America and the Tsangs in Canda, we can’t get fresh heart of palm around us. But, one day, perusing the Costco isles, I saw these white little cylinders in a glass jar. Without any hesitation, we snatched the canned heart of palm. Mom said they don’t taste like the fresh ones in DR, but I guess the memory is the same because this dish is one of our dinner table staples. Here is to you, Mrs. Tsang; here is to us, the Asian Latinx – together, it is a holiday everyday.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. beef flank or sirloin
  • 1 jar of Heart of Palm (at least 16 oz.)
Costco hearts of palm: certainly not as fresh as on the DR, but will suffice!
  • 1.5 TBS Soy sauce
  • ¼ tsp Salt
  • 1 TBS Cooking wine
  • 1 TBS Corn starch
  • 1 tsp Garlic powder
  • ½ tsp Black pepper
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 TBS oil
  • 1 Scallion thinly sliced

Directions

Slice beef and hearts of palm into thin slices.

Marinate sliced beef with soy sauce, salt, cooking wine, corn starch, garlic powder, black pepper, and 1 egg. Mix them well.

On high flame, in a frying pan, put in 1 TBS oil, pour in the beef when the oil is hot. Saute the beef till they are still a bit pink (80% done), pour in the sliced palm heart, continue to saute and mix them for about 1 minute. Add in the scallion, saute for 30 seconds more. Turn off the flame. Serve.

We usually serve this dish with rice and a plate of saute green leafy vegetable. Enjoy!

About the Author

Jill Tang is a Taiwanese-Dominican American immigrant residing in Northern NJ. A wife, mother of two, and daughter, Jill is passionate on preserving her families’ cultural identities through food, celebration, and storytelling. Also, she happens to be my mother.

Ghost Month

by hiMe, Vietnamese-Australian refugee

For our fifth Holidays All Year Round post, welcome Vietnamese-Australian refugee under the pseudonym hiMe. hiMe was born in Vietnam in the 60s and is of mixed ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese heritage; her father was a former Signal Corps Lieutenant Colonel of the old Saigon regime before the Saigon Fall, while her mother was a children’s wear wholesaler. hiMe survived a sea journey from Vietnam to Malaysia after many failed attempts to escape Vietnam, then arrived in Australia in 1984. Today she will share activities of her native Vietnam, The Ghost Festival. Intertwined in Buddhist faith, the celebration invites offerings, prayers, and ancestral worship.

There is something similar between the Lunar New Year period and the Ghost Month in the level of spread-out activities around the area where I lived in Vietnam.

If Lunar New Year is an occasion that makes the area alive with crowds of people gathering in front of each house where lion dances were performed and firecrackers were lit during this time span, then there are also crowds of children gathering in front of each house during the Ghost Month where offerings to the forsaken spirits were made.

In front of houses and stores, the lion dances are performed to bring prosperity and good luck for the upcoming year while the loud noises of the firecrackers will scare away the evil spirits. Similarly, the offerings placed at the front of the houses and stores and later given away will help guard the household or commercial stores from hungry, wandering ghosts that can trouble or mess up with them or their businesses.

According to the Vietnamese beliefs, after a person died, their body decays but their soul still lingers in the afterlife. Those who died unjustly, without proper burial, or without living relatives, their souls will roam the earth and they can haunt or harm the living.

Mum was a successful business woman before the fall of Saigon in 1975. She designed children’s wear, distributed materials for the workers to sew them then sell them in large quantities at Saigon’s main market – Bến Thành. These clothes would then be resold in other cities and rural areas in Vietnam.

Every year, in a random afternoon of the Ghost month, joining other businesses around our house which was next to An Đông market, Mum also made offerings to the forsaken, lonely souls during the Vietnam Ghost month. The month is the seventh month of the lunar calendar and that usually is at the end of August.

My job as the eldest was to guard the offerings during the ceremony from the homeless children who lived in the market. It wasn’t unusual that some ceremonies couldn’t even begin as all the offerings were already snatched by the children. With my arms akimbo, I gave the street children a fierce glare. It must be this ready-to-fight-back expression in my body and on my face that had the small crowd of children under control for the ceremony to last till the end.

Mum lit the two candles on the worship table then the incense. In a whispering voice, she prayed to Buddha and the piteous, lonesome spirits then burned the gold and silver paper money offerings for the dead to use in the next world. Around 15 minutes later, as soon as the incense burned out, Mum threw the salt, rice, coins and money notes to the ground and gave all the savoury and sweet food as well as fruits on the worship table to the children circled around. It’s considered bad luck if the children of the house take the offerings after the ceremony as that would mean they had invited the spirits into the house.

On the full moon day of the Ghost month, at noon, Mum also made offerings to our ancestors’ spirits. It usually is a bigger feast of food,fruits and paper money offerings than what was made to the homeless souls. Some wealthy people on this occasion even burn paper apartments, paper cars, paper watches, paper mobile phones … for their ancestors to use in the afterworld.

About the Author

hiMe writes about her life in Vietnam during and after the Vietnam war, as well as in Australia as a refugee and a migrant. hiMe includes a small poem of various styles to each of her 500-word writing piece. There are related political, social, geographical and cultural facts, pictures and videos that accompanied each of hiMe’s writings. Check out her blog.

Mid-Autumn Mooncakes

On August 15 of the lunar calendar, Chinese families make mooncake from scratch or haul metal tins from Costco. While my family usually opt for the latter, we finally tried the seemingly daunting yet highly-approachable recipe for my last Mid-Autumn at home.

Mooncakes, just like dumplings, have an architecture. Encased by a simple thin-layer crust, mooncakes find their flavor in their rich paste-like fillings, the most popular being red bean, lotus, or dates.  For the adventurous, there is mixed nut with bacon and candied winter melon. For the salty-sweet flavorists, you can find 1, 2, even 4 duck egg yolks filled with red bean paste in one mooncake.  Nowadays, young people go for ice cream filled, chocolate or Matcha flavor mooncakes.

Despite the inexhaustible varieties of flavor, mooncake is always meant to be shared: ancient Chinese tradition tells that households should cut mooncake slices based on the number of your family, near or far, in equal portion. Fortunately, each Wang family member consumes a quarter, but 1/6 when the grandparents are over, or 1/15990900 if the neighbors decide to part take.

Ingredients:

  • Flour 240 g
  • Milk powder 240 g
  • Honey 150 g
  • Oil 70 g
  • Alkaline water 70g (1/3 baking soda and 8 oz. water)
  • Lotus paste 510 g
  • Egg wash (1 egg yolk and 1/3 tsp water)
  • Spray bottle with water
  • Lined baking sheet
  • Mooncake mold, can be purchased off of Amazon
  • Pastry brush

Preparation:

Make alkaline water with 1/3 tsp of baking soda and 8 oz water. Mix well and set aside.

Make egg wash with 1 egg yolk and 1/3 tsp of water. Mix well and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 200C (or 400F)

Process:

(1). In a large bowl, mix flour and milk powder.

(2). In another bowl, mix honey, oil and 70g of alkaline water together.

(3). Pour (2) to (1), mixing until a dough forms. Knead dough with hand in the bowl, form it into a ball.

(4). Divide the dough into 6 equal portions of 50 g each. Roll each portion into a ball.

(5). Roll it out with a rolling pin into a flat circle of approximately 10 cm. in diameter

(6). Divide lotus paste into 85 g each portion, roll it into a ball. 

(7). Place the lotus paste ball onto the flat circular dough. Lift up the edge of the dough and wrap up the lotus paste ball, close the opening and pinch off the extra dough. Roll it in both palms into a ball.  Dust it with flour generously.

Video outlining the following steps:

(8). Press it firmly into the mold so the impression of the mold will show clearly on the cake.

(9). Bang the mold on all four sides to release the dough.  Finally, drop and catch the dough into your palm.

(10). Place the mooncake on a lined baking tray, spray them with water to keep them moist. Keep a distance from the mooncake.

(11). Bake in 200C or (400F) for 5 minutes to set the pattern. Take them out, let them cool down a bit before you gently brush on egg wash. Avoid pressing your brush too firmly and eroding the print.

(12). Bake them in 375F oven for another 15 minutes or till golden brown. My prints did not come out as strong; avoid this by pressing your raw mooncake firmer into the mold, as well as misting water farther away and avoiding pockets of egg wash trapped in the print.

Let them cool down. Devour the cake by moonlight.

How Needle-Floating Rituals Bring out Patriarchy Practices in Chinese Holidays

If Chinese had a Valentine’s Day, it would be the Qixi Festival. Based on the legend between the Weaver Goddess and the cowhered––mythology of forbidden love, like that of Hades and Persephone––Qixi Festival provides an opportunity for young unwed women to gather together, worship the Weaver Goddess of love, and compete for dexterity. Qixi is unmistakably rooted in patriarchy: through the holiday, men could judge women’s ability to care for the house, subvert her to the role of homemaker, and value her only for her assets. Modern for a holiday yet traditional in its intention, Qixi is not only one of the earliest love festivals in the world, but a representation for the longing of women during this historical time period.    

Romanticized illustrations of the Weaver Goddess, which young women often worship to. Illustration courtesy to Order of the White Moon

One of these arbitrary yet highly-implicit competitions engages women in needle-floating contests. This test of dexterity supposedly rules out daftness in the female entrants. This year, and approximately 4 centuries later, I decided to parttake on this contest to extrapolate my homemaker capabilities. Boys, listen up.

The Floating Needle Contest

The floating needle contest prevailed during the Ming and Qing Dynasties as a traditional Qixi custom, first recorded in Beijing Geographic 帝京景物略. The day before Qixi, young maidens concocted Yuan Yang water 鸳鸯水, a mix of water from different sources. They either poured half river water and half well water into a washbasin, or took halves from the same sources once in the morning and once at night. The water sat outdoors overnight and bathed under the sun the next morning. At noon of Qixi, awaiting hands tested their dexterity by taking turns to place an embroidery needle on the surface of Yuan Yang water. If the needle floated on top of the water, the woman flaunted a steady hand; if the needle sank, she was out of the game, and maybe even out of the waiting list of potential wives. But she shouldn’t lose her hope so soon: the needle created a shadow at the bottom of the washbasin that uncannily foreshadowed one’s future. If the shadow formed a pattern of clouds, flowers, birds, animals, or even elaborate objects such as a pair of shoes or scissors, she won prosperity and the blessing of happy marriage. Unfortunately, a simple straight line, whether thick as a club or thin as a string of silk, demonstrated insufficient dexterity to bring a promising future. Looks like I’m going to have to find my own means of socio economic self-efficiency.

At noon, I carried out bowls and several of my grandmother’s antique needles onto the patio floor. In order for the needle to cast a shadow in the water, the sun must directly shine over the bowl.

Balancing the needle on the water was more difficult than I expected. I’m uncertain if women were given the leeway to “cheat” a bit by using paper support underneath; ensuring that all the water molecules densify to create an elastic membrane for buoyancy is unattainable. So I caved and used paper, which was supposed to disintegrate and eventually fall into the water.

But even regular paper proved unworkable. I’m really not housewife material. I had to sneak 2-ply toilet paper out into the yard. Fortunately, toilet paper disintegrated while allowing the needle to remain on the surface of the water.

The shape of the shadow came out quite like amoebas or thick rods, despite multiple tries. I question how shadows forming into Nike Airforce 1s, Gucci handbags, clouds, tulips, and birds is biologically possible. Or maybe I’m just a sour loser for cheating and then losing the game.

This 21st-century pursuit of a 16th-century ritual served as an opportunity to reflect upon ancient patriarchal ideals and the draconian contests through which Chinese women could prove their worthiness. So meanwhile holidays demonstrate what’s celebrated by cultures, it also shows what isn’t. I think there’s some power to that.