Family Celebrations at Heart
of Many Chinese Traditions
By Charles Talkoff
Rosemary Gong remembers growing up in the small town
of Riverbank, 10 miles from Modesto. Except for a
few relatives living in and around Modesto, hers was
the only Chinese family in the town.
"I wanted to have blonde hair and blue eyes,"
she recalled during a presentation of her new book,
"Good Luck life, The Essential Guide to Chinese
American Celebrations and Culture" (HarperCollins,
publisher). "I wanted to have a different name."
But, after moving to San Francisco's Chinatown, she
found herself embracing her heritage.
Speaking at the Sunset Branch Library in May, she
said, "I lived very close to my grandparents,
and my grandfather brought me close to those things
he had known in China; he came to The United States
in the '20s, before the revolution, so many of his
beliefs were already being forgotten. I embraced them."
Gong's book, a national bestseller, is her first
and, she hopes, a celebration of the old cultural
traditions of China that can be passed on to the next
generation. The book is a collection of traditional
rituals, recipes for traditional foods to be prepared
for weddings and other celebrations and the symbolism
behind many activities.
"I was born in America," she said. "I
even think like an American, but these (traditions)
are part of me too."
When her grandfather passed away, Gong became motivated
to make an effort to record her family's traditions.
The exploration led her into many interesting discoveries.
Investigating traditional approaches to burial, she
found the morticians in San Francisco's Chinatown
to be knowledgeable about the cultural practices of
many Asian communities.
"They were very helpful," she said.
In her book, Gong points out that a Chinese-American
funeral is an especially difficult ceremony "further
complicated by cultural practices that straddle eastern
rites and western beliefs. Although the customs may
appear incompatible or even contradictory, the deceased
and the family share in cross-cultural similarities
of solemnity ..."
The beginning of life is celebrated with its own
ritual, where new babies are the focus of "red
egg and ginger parties."
"A baby's first full month is celebrated with
dyed-red hard-boiled eggs and pickled ginger root.
Eggs are an auspicious symbol of fertility, birth
and life and the color red is a symbol of happiness
and good luck."
At the end of the first month, the child receives
a series of other celebratory "firsts,"
including the first bath, first haircut, first new
outfit and, finally, a new Chinese name.
"Some traditional families," writes Gong,
"will shave the baby's head except at the top
of the crown to remove the hair they considered was
grown in the womb. The fine baby hair is then bundled
up and tied with red string and then stored as a keepsake."
Seated before her audience, with several examples
of items bearing cultural significance, the diminutive
Gong, a smiling bundle of energy and enthusiasm, spoke
of the Chinese tradition of treating funerals as a
part of life - the beginning of a new journey.
"In San Francisco's Chinatown, you usually see
a funeral procession accompanied by a marching band.
That's a local custom," she said, "that
highlights the unique character of the city's Chinatown."
Asked about the difficulty of keeping traditions
alive, she said the history of China shows how each
time a new regime assumes power it makes an effort
to erase the past and rewrite history.
"There's a tradition of new dynasties,"
she said, "and the traditions keep being recycled
and changed, but somehow preserved."
Pointing to a pair of tiger-faced slippers, Gong
spoke of how the tiger is considered good luck in
traditional Chinese culture.
"The tiger keeps away evil, and a child born
in the Year of the Tiger is said to be courageous.
The slippers have big eyes because the tiger is always
alert and on guard."
Gong is happy with the response her book has received
and she says it has struck a chord with younger Chinese-Americans
and reached beyond Chinese-Americans to people of
different cultural backgrounds.
"Members of the younger generation are getting
married and having children and they want to pass
on a sense of culture. Many third, fourth and fifth
generation Chinese-Americans want to reconnect with
what they experienced in their childhood.
"It's been very gratifying," she said.
"I'd like to write another book."