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The Asian Reporter's
BOOK REVIEWS


From The Asian Reporter, V15, #25 (June 21, 2005), page 16.

The best of luck

Good Luck Life: The Essential Guide to
Chinese American Celebrations and Culture

By Rosemary Gong

HarperResource, 2005

Paperback, 270 pages, $14.95

By Josephine Bridges

Why do we Chinese visit the cemetery twice a year? Whatís the significance of bowing three times? How much money should go into a red envelope? Whatís wrong with giving all-white cut flowers as a hostess gift? Whatís the obsession with the color red?" asks Rosemary Gong in her preface to Good Luck Life. The answers to these and many other questions await you in this fine compendium.

Good Luck Life is divided into two sections. The first, "Annual Chinese Holidays," contains a wealth of information on seven celebrations, beginning with Chinese New Year and concluding with Chong Yang, or Double Ninth Day. New Year is considered the most significant of Chinese holidays, and this is the longest, most lavish chapter in the book. Here youíll find Kitchen God lore, the symbolic meanings of 12 flowers, a Chinese New Yearís Eve dinner menu including recipes for two kinds of cookies, the significance of various kinds of food (for example, Chinese black mushrooms signify "Wishes fulfilled from east to west"), activities for each of the 15 days of the Chinese New Year season, how the lunar calendarís twelve astrological animals were chosen, and a chart for easy organization of all your Chinese New Year activities. Phew!

The Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association Dragon Boat Races make an appearance in the "Dragon Boat Festival" chapter among the "largest annually held dragon boat competitions and spectator events in North America." Other annual Chinese holidays include Qing Ming or Clear Brightness Festival, and Chong Yang, or Double Ninth Day, both of which are Chinese versions of Memorial Day, in spring and autumn respectively. Thereís also "Hungry Ghosts Festival," a "Chinese version of All Soulsí Day, when the living appease the ghosts with a feast all their own." A holiday not often celebrated in America, "Double Seventh Day draws on the romantic Chinese folktale of the Cowherd and the Weaving Maiden," forever separated from each other except on this night. "Mid-Autumn Festival" is a celebration of the moon. This chapter includes a fascinating story of the role moon cakes played "in the overthrow of a cruel Mongol state."

The second section of Good Luck Life is devoted to "Chinese Special Occasions." The "Weddings" chapter contrasts traditional and contemporary marriage rituals and offers a sample menu for a wedding banquet, which "typically includes nine items because of the numberís everlasting connotation." Thereís also a wedding planner that counts down from 10 to 12 months in advance of the big day. Two chapters on birthdays are "Red Egg and Ginger Party to Celebrate New Babies," typically given when the little ones are 100 days old, and, at the far end of the life spectrum, "Big Birthdays," meaning decade years beginning with age 50.

The subject matter may be unfortunate, but the chapter on "Funerals" is the most fascinating in the book. "Upon entering and exiting a Chinese wake and funeral service, everyone receives packets to ease the bitterness of loss." Entrance packets typically contain a piece of hard candy and a nickel, and exit packets are small red envelopes "containing a quarter meant for buying more sweetness before heading home." Little sidebars that begin "Auntie Lao says" are sprinkled throughout Good Luck Life, but her comments in this chapter are especially fascinating. An example: "Tears on a casket are like tears on silk; they slow your belovedís departure to heaven."

The final chapter, "Table Etiquette and Other Delicacies," contains information about everything from hostess gifts ó "Never give a clock because the Chinese associate it with death; the word for clock, jung, sounds like the Cantonese word for funeral" ó to the proper function of chopsticks ó "Donít use chopsticks as hair decoration. The Chinese donít put eating utensils anywhere but on the table."

Good Luck Life concludes with the most sumptuous glossary I have ever seen anywhere. Thirteen pages long, it includes chapter and page references, Cantonese and Pinyin/Mandarin words, and English translations and elaborations. For example, Chong Kuai in Cantonese or Zhong Kui in Pinyin/Mandarin is a "Demon slayer whose picture can hang on the front door to avert evil."

Martin Yan, host of "Yan Can Cook," writes in his foreword to this book, "Children and grandchildren of immigrants, second- and third-generation Chinese Americans, Chinese Australians, and Chinese Canadians are showing a tremendous thirst to learn all they can about their Chinese heritage." Rosemary Gong has given not only them, but all of us a wonderful resource in Good Luck Life.

Rosemary Gong will be in Seattle for a book reading on June 25 at 2:00pm. The event will be held at Elliott Bay Books (101 South Main Street, Seattle). For information, call (206) 624-6600 or visit <www.elliottbaybook.com>.

 

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books

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