June 2005


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."