The other weekend, after enjoying “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”, my daughters and I entered Gourdo’s for baking and cooking supplies. I picked out a new pastry brush, a mandolin and a meat mallet, and I was about to pay for my purchases when Alex discovered a box of fortune cookies on a pile near the cashier. Knowing how obsessed Sam is with fortune cookies (probably a result of repetitious viewings of the 2003 remake of “Freaky Friday”), Alex showed the box to Sam who insisted that we buy it. Cheap only, she said to preempt my objections – only eighty pesos.
We didn’t open the box of fortune cookies until the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Not in observance of any custom or tradition – we’re not even Chinese. It just so happened that it was a Sunday when we bought the box of fortune cookies, Sam was on her way back to the condo near her school where she stays during weekdays and she made us promise that we wouldn’t open the box until she got home the following weekend which happened to be the weekend of the Chinese Lunar New Year.
The following weekend, Sam wanted to know where the fortune cookies were. In the pantry, I told her. She opened the box, tore the plastic wrapping of one cookie, cracked the cookie open and pulled out the piece of paper that container her “fortune.” She showed it to me, I placed cookie and fortune on a plate, mounted my camera on the tripod and proceeded to take photos. I’m a blogger, and a columnist, and a fortune cookie is interesting from more than one perspective. I instinctively knew that one fortune cookie could spawn more than one article. So, I took photos.
Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sam crack open a second and third cookie. Curious, I asked why. She giggled and said she didn’t like the first “fortune” so she kept opening cookies until she got a fortune that she liked. I didn’t think it worked that way but then does anyone really believe that fortunes are found inside cookies?
Later that night, I would write my first fortune cookie article. In my food blog, I said: “Since I was very young, I’ve seen fortune cookies in so many movies. And with a very active Chinatown in Manila, which my family has frequented for as long as I can remember, I wondered why I never experienced having fortune cookies served with my meals. Then, I read Amy Tan’s ‘The Joy Luck Club’ and discovered that fortune cookies aren’t really Chinese. Rather, they were an Asian American invention. And they were originally a Japanese confection. Right — all this time, I saw fortune cookies in American movies, not in Chinese films.”
A reader posted a link to a video of a presentation given by author and New York Times writer Jennifer 8. Lee (if you’ve never heard of her, look her up, she’s fabulous). Fortune cookies were brought to China and the Chinese did not know what they were. As to how fortune cookies came to be known as Chinese when they were in fact invented by the Japanese, Lee joked that during World War II, the Americans locked up all the Japanese, including those that made fortune cookies, the Chinese saw the business opportunity and took over. Might sound like a bad joke but it may not be far from the truth. It was, in fact, around the time of World War II when fortune cookies became labeled as Chinese food.
Anyway, the point really is that much as we Filipinos like to celebrate (we even invent occasions just to have an excuse for celebrating) and considering how the Chinese Lunar New Year has become part of the annual celebrations calendar, it is interesting to ask just how much of what we consider to be Chinese actually originated from China.
Pancit Canton, for instance, a dish associated with longevity and traditionally served on Chinese New Year, is not a Chinese dish but merely a generic name we have given to the many varieties of chow mein. Lemon chicken which we find in the menu of almost every Chinese restaurant in the Philippines did not originate in China but was the specialty of the former Pearl’s Chinese Restaurant at 148 West 48th Street in New York City and a creation of a chef named Lee Lum. And, after watching Jennifer 8. Lee’s presentation, I learned a new one – beef with broccoli isn’t a Chinese dish either. It can’t be because broccoli is not native to China.
What about non-food Chinese Lunar New Year traditions? In a previous entry, a reader wrote:
I’m from Mainland China, and I’d like to share a little experience on New Year celebrations.
It’s a big country, and the traditions actually vary more than people expect. At my hometown, a small town in southeast China, dragon and lion dances are not generally part of the celebration now, and instead, they take place more often when a new store opens, probably because the dance is an emblem of vigor and prosperity.
At the New Year eve, some people, mostly elder women, stay up the whole night as a prayer for good fortune, which is literally called ‘guard the year’.
At the New Year eve and on the New Year’s day, we’re not supposed to say ‘unlucky’ words like ‘dead’, ‘finished’, etc., but weird enough, we pay visits to the ancestor’s graves on New Year’s day.
It sort of puts into context why in the Philippines, lion dances are performed in shopping malls owned by Chinese businessmen as well as in the commercial districts of Chinatown.
In closing, I ask: Just how much of what we know of feng shui is real feng shui and how much is just fortune tellers’ crap? Will you spend millions building a house according to specifications spelled out by a manghuhula? Yes? It’s your funeral, really.