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Chinese new year
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  1. #1
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    so happy!

    Blood thicker than lucre?

    As young Thais of Chinese descent become increasingly distanced from the ways of their ancestors' homeland, what hope is there for the survival of the ancient rituals associated with the advent of the lunar new year?

    Bangkok post (Feb 1 2003) Story by ALONGKORN PARIVUDHIPHONGS, Pictures by SOMKID CHAIJITVANIT

    Today, people around the Kingdom celebrate the beginning of the Year of the Goat. And this morning, in households all over the land, Thai-Chinese youngsters are waiting with great anticipation for older relatives to hand over ang pao _ the red, cash-filled envelopes it is customary to present on this auspicious occasion. Coming in a variety of shapes and designs, ang pao usually bulge with crisp, sweet-smelling banknotes in green, red, purple and brown hues.

    But in their eagerness to rip the envelopes open, few recipients pay attention to the significance of this tradition.

    ``New year's day is when we get lots of presents of money. I can spend it on new toys,'' said eight-year-old Win Chaivivatpong, his eyes lighting up at the prospect.

    ``Back when I was a kid it was the time for money hunting. I'd become a millionaire in a single day,'' recalled Tat Koochingchai, a 20-year-old sophomore.

    The tradition is thought to have first taken root in China more than a thousand years ago. In the Tae Chew Chinese dialect the gift was called tae ea (``savings'') because adults wanted to inculcate in youngsters the habit of putting money by for a rainy day. These days, however, ang pao are given not only to children, but also to household and corporate staff. Among the latter group, it is seen less as a gift than as an annual bonus since the cash in the red envelope usually amounts to no less than a month's pay.

    ``My friend and I are eagerly waiting to find out how much we're getting this year. It's like a reward for our performance and the hard work we've put in over the past year,'' said Siam Wiriyosutthikul, an assistant manager at a petroleum company.






    The owners of Siam's company are of Chinese descent, as are the majority of their customers, so they traditionally give their staff an extra day off to celebrate the lunar new year. ``And this year we're getting two days off, so I can make a trip somewhere,'' he said.

    Is the prospect of extra money and holidays what is uppermost in the minds of third- and fourth-generation Thai-Chinese as the day draws near? Or do some still believe that the run-up to the new year is an auspicious time?

    ``Frankly speaking, I really don't know what it's all about,'' said Krittakorn Sanguansin, 22, a recent university graduate. ``It's just something I've grown up with. And since I'm of Chinese descent, I just continue the tradition.''

    For Krittakorn and many others, this is the time of year when families get together to celebrate and to pay respect to ancestors.

    ``It's a special occasion in our family. We all assemble in Ang Thong province and venerate all our long-dead relatives,'' said Theraporn Intara-prasong, 26, an executive secretary at a private-sector firm.

    But for Professor Khien Theeravit, a man well versed in Chinese culture, there's a lot more to the lunar new year than family reunions and cash gifts; the occasion has a much more profound significance. ``It the time to worship the gods and goddesses in the heavens who've been protecting us from danger and vice all these years,'' he said.

    Seven days prior to Chinese new year's day is when those who keep up the old traditions venerate the terrestrial gods as they are about to depart to make a report to the ``king of the heavens'' about the good or bad deeds of a person over the past year.

    On new year's eve believers make offerings to the guardian spirit in their houses to express their gratitude to ancestors long gone and to ask for protection in the coming year. According to Prof Khien, the transitional period between the last day of the old year and the beginning of the new year is when people pay respect to Chai Sing Ea, the god of money; this plump divinity wears an elaborate headdress and is believed to have prosperity and career-advancement in his gift.

    ``Some worship other deities too, depending on their individual beliefs,'' Prof Khien added. ``Many also go to visit Chinese temples around the city.

    ``Sadly, however, most people of Chinese blood who were born here treat it no differently to any other holiday in the year. Most ignore the essence of its cultural significance,'' he said.

    Given that the younger generations have grown in an age of scientific advances, in a world increasingly driven by money, it is hardly surprising that many of them see the beliefs of their ancestors as impractical, at best; in their opinion, money spent on making offerings to the spirits is a total waste.

    ``There are too many taboos,'' Theraporn griped. ``On new year's day, you're not supposed to clean the house as that will sweep a family's good luck away. And if you clip your nails or cut your hair, you'll cut off your luck.''

    Since most Thai-Chinese of Theraporn's generation are tied up with study or work, they usually leave all the arrangements for the seasonal ritual practices to their parents and grandparents. ``My parents plan everything. So all I do is get myself ready to meet the relatives,'' she said.

    But lunar new year is still special to Phol Tantasatien, an actor of Chinese descent. For him it signifies a new beginning, a fresh start. He recalls how as a child his mother would buy him a set of new clothes which he wasn't allowed to don until new year's day.

    ``My parents would be upset if I had to work because they believed that working on the first day of the year means that hard work is all you'll have to look forward to for the rest of the year,'' said Phol, who often has to make time in his busy schedule to meet relatives at this time of year.

    But, like many of his generation, he feels it's a waste of hard-earned cash to buy the paper money which it is customary to burn as a sign of gratitude to one's ancestors. He knows that this act is supposed to prompt the dead to extend protection and good luck to their descendants in return but ``I believe the spirit of my ancestors are already reborn so what we are doing today is only for the pleasure of the living.''

    Just as the tradition of giving ang pao only benefits the receivers. In some well-heeled families, parents give gold bars and chains, denoting prosperity and good career prospects, to their children. While some adults regard this as an extravagant custom, they still feel it to be a necessary expense.

    ``Sometimes I'd like to avoid meeting my relatives and their kids because I know I have to give them ang pao. But I can't do that. It's tradition,'' said Kajohn Pipatpong, an unmarried university lecturer.

    ``It's also customary to return to the giver's children no less an amount than he or she gave to your family, so it looks more like a trade than a gift given with sincerity,'' said Siam.

    Although many are concerned that the proper spirit of giving has been devalued, some Thai-Chinese insist that they understand the tradition well.

    ``When I was a kid I learned how to save the money I got from ang pao,'' said university student Tat. ``I never compared the amount I received from each relative. It was their generosity that mattered.''

    Said Krittakorn: ``When I grew up, some of my older relatives stopped giving me ang pao. But I understood. Maybe some of them had had a bad year moneywise. Or perhaps it was just because I was no longer a kid.''

    Soaring food prices and busy schedules have also taken their toll on the observance of traditional rituals. ``I no longer buy duck or chicken as offerings for the god any more _ they're just to difficult to cook. These days I go for cooked ham instead of three-tiered fatty pork. The way I look at it is that as long as there are five types of meats that should be fine,'' said Kajohn.

    Like many, Kajohn goes for fast food items like KFC fried chicken or other household favourites, choosing to please family members' palates rather than the preferences of the deities. He sticks to the traditional choice of fruit, though _ oranges, signifying family unity; Chinese plums representing longevity _ plus the types of fish and flowers which symbolise health and abundance.

    ``There are so many customs to follow. It's all very complicated and confusing. So I tend to go with what's practical, with what fits in with my daily life.''

    ``We give what we can _ that should be satisfactory. After all, it's the thought that counts, not the amount we give,'' said actor Phol.

    The demands of a fast-paced urban lifestyle plus the need to fit in with the ways of the host country has forced some adjustments to the way the event is celebrated. For example, setting off firecrackers in public, the traditional way to usher in the new year, is now banned because of the risk of fire.

    ``The tradition needs to be adapted to modern lifestyles but that shouldn't distort its cultural essence,'' said Sresthabongs Chongsanguan, an architect and Chinese cultural expert.

    But will young Thai-Chinese continue to celebrate the advent of the new year in time-honoured fashion?

    ``Each year, fewer people buy traditional offerings. They tend to go for other stuff that's available in supermarkets . Some don't even know what offerings are appropriate,'' said Nirun Swasdikulavath, 33, who runs a traditional Chinese bakery in Yaowarat. ``Call me superstitious. But I feel blessed when I give offerings to the deities above. My sales also go up a bit,'' he said with a chuckle.

    Advertising also comes into a scene of cultural preservation. There are also exhaustive ad campaigns aimed to lure and please customers with culture-tie-in gimmicks.

    ``It's sad to see the way consumerism has commodified our culture but in a way it helps the tradition itself live on, even prosper,'' commented Dr Kritsadarat Wattanasuwan, an associate professor at Thammasat University's Faculty of Accountancy and Commerce.

    Given the millions of people of Chinese descent living in Thailand and other countries around the world and the fact that China itself is becoming a major consumer market, slowly ditching its old-fashioned, communist image, she said she has every confidence that the Chinese New Year tradition will continue.

    ``But for pragmatic reasons the practices and rituals may have to be modified to make more sense in this day and age,'' she said

    To ensure that the tradition survives, Sresthabongs thinks a more deliberate effort is required, especially on the part of parents and teachers. ``If we want it to continue and maintain its essence, we must make a start ourselves. We can't afford to lose hope in the new generation. It's up to us to teach the youngsters and pass on this valuable culture to them.''

  2. #2
    Mui Guest
    Does the chinese descents in Thailand has the chance to learn about the Chinese culture and the language in schools?

  3. #3
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    I don't know about in normal schools, but it's certainly possible in language schools. I read an article in the Bangkok Post a while back about the fact that there had been a massive increase in the numbers of people wanting to learn 'putonghua' Chinese in Thailand, and not just by those of Chinese descent either. The reason is apparently the increasing emergence of China as a global and especially regional superpower, and it's giving those with Chinese language skills important advantages in the competitive jobmarkert. As Thailand seems to be deliberately positioning itself as a major trading partner and tourist destination for the Chinese (Chinese opt for Thai holidays), it follows that those who can speak Chinese would be able to increase their employment prospects. At the moment English skills still seem to be more important but maybe this will be different in a decade or so. I don't envy those who have to learn it, I am trying to start learning some myself at the moment and it's very difficult!

  4. #4
    Mui Guest
    Learning the Chinese language is never easy. However, it can lead to a better understanding of the Chinese culture which is very fascinating.

  5. #5
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    I don't think normal schools teach Chinese. Around here it is mainly English and I think French also. If someone wants their children to learn Chinese then they might send them to the Chinese International School in Samut Prakan. I know some of my past students have Chinese grandparents and they are "forced" to learn Chinese at the weekend. They said they didn't really enjoy it.

    Gor wrote about this in his Bangkok Post column last week in an essay called The Red Envelope. He asks why does he have to celebrate Chinese New Year when it is his great grandparents who are Chinese and that he has very little Chinese blood in him.

  6. #6
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    My Thai girlfriend has a Chinese father and a Thai mother. Although she should be considered a Chinese, she and her family does not celebrate Chinese New Year and she declares herself "100% Thai". I wonder if this is very common in Thailand?

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