Author Archives: Maria Peltekova

When Tigers Used to Smoke

Interview Extract:

Informant: So I work in for a publishing company called Kaya Press, and it focuses on the Asian Diaspora, so it publishes Asian authors mostly. And well, it’s logo, you can find it online if you go to, and their logo is a tiger smoking a cigar, or smoking—I think originally it was supposed to be a pipe, but they updated it to be more modern. Although I think they should have kept it as a pipe because now it just looks like a joint.”

Me: “What does the tiger and whatever its smoking symbolize, or why is that the logo?”

Informant: “So we got the idea from the Korean mode of storytelling. Like instead of starting their folktales with ‘Once upon a time,’ like in the Western European tradition, they started ‘Back when tigers used to smoke.’

The tiger is just, I guess it some sort of culturally important image, and by invoking that image, it goes back to some mystical, legendary days. Yeah…I don’t know too much about it or about Kaya’s link to the tiger, but I suppose the idea behind the logo is that we celebrate literature and strive to pull from Asian culture, so it makes sense that we’d like, incorporate the beginning of folktales into our logo. And I think it does give it some legend-like quality or mysticism anyway, because you don’t like really see tigers smoking.”

Me: “Do animals typically smoke in Asian folklore?”

Informant: “I’m not really too sure. Like, I guess it was just limited to when they started their tales, but I don’t really know.”


“When tigers used to smoke” is quite the mystical beginning and would appropriately set the tone for any magical or supernatural folktale, as well as any that involved animals. It has an even more distant connotation than the Western “once upon a time,” because it personifies the tiger and allows him to do something very sophisticated. In a sense, there is a story within that opening itself, and it

Unfortunately, that Korean folklore may be lost to many people as they become more and more used to the typical “once upon a time.” The Kaya Press, which my informant mentioned, acknowledges this and helps to revive the smoking tiger with its logo and dedication to publishing Asian authors. This not only allows for increased globalization and spread of different cultures, but also allows the saying to remain intact, albeit through a visual form instead of a spoken or written one.

Also, Kaya Press is updating the phrase itself, by modernizing the tiger to be smoking a cigar instead of a pipe, as they had done so before. It’s documented proof of how a piece of folklore can transform throughout the years so it can reach a wider audience, although my informant did lament this fact. She claimed the tiger smoking a pipe would have been more impressive, although who knows, that may not have been what it was originally intended when the story opening was coined in the first place.

Fraternity House Shark Burial

Interview Extract:

Informant: “We have this story in our frat, about the shark. So apparently, one of the classes back in the 70s had a full-grown shark in their house. Like they kept it in a tank or something, I don’t know. But it was huge. And when it died, they had to carry it down to the beach, down to here in Dockweiler, and they buried, a full-grown shark, right under those crossing palm trees over there. They had to do it at like, the middle of the night obviously, but can you imagine, just a bunch of guys somehow carrying a giant shark and burying it, and they buried it properly, like six feet deep and everything,”

Me: “Do you really believe that?”

Informant: “I don’t see why it can’t happen. Our frat was really crazy back in the day, you know. They did stuff like this all the time. Now our class just has to figure out how to have a shark.”

Me: “So this wasn’t some hazing activity, it was just what the frat guys did?”

Informant: “Yeah pretty much. And the actives in the house all told us about it, and this goes back for a while, but they always talk about it. It’s well-known history of our frat.”

Me: “Do the other houses know too?”

Informant: “No, I’d doubt that. It’s probably actually illegal, you know, what they did and all, so um, it’s just what we all know, in our frat. It’s our own history.”


My informant realized the implausibility of his story as he was telling it to me, but he wouldn’t admit that it was untrue. He was still firm in his belief that it actually happened. As a new pledge member to his  fraternity at Loyola Marymount University, he proved to be very loyal to it, despite having just told me horrendous acts they had to do because of hazing. It sounds to me like a story the older members of the frat would tell the younger ones, in order to impress them, intimidate them, and ultimately initiate them into the house. Perhaps because the new members desperately want to believe they are joining an exciting and extraordinary organization, and that their hazing high-jinks will ultimately be worth it, the students willingly believe any such incredible story about their house. Additionally, maybe because I am not in the same situation as the members, I don’t often go to the beach where the shark is buried and I don’t personally know the actives who claim this is true, I don’t have the same contextual belief in the legend.

I was quite taken aback by how long this legend has survived. It’s obviously important they keep it a secret if it really did happen, and yet, through almost forty years of passing it on, it’s been contained to only this specific fraternity. They take pride in the fact that their brothers owned an adult shark of some kind and actually buried it on the beach. Incidentally, Dockweiler happens to host many of the frat’s meetings and activities, so the members have the opportunity to acknowledge the shark nearly every week, thus keeping the story in their memories. I wonder if there will come a time when the members try once again to house and potentially bury a full-grown shark, thus making a tradition of this legend.

Duck, Duck, Gray Duck

Interview Extraction:

Informant: In school, instead of playing just ‘Duck, Duck, Goose,’ we changed up the ducks. So you’d say different types of ducks, like ‘red duck, blue duck,’ whatever, and then when you said ‘gray duck,’ you’d run and ad the person you’d tag would chase you. So you just run at ‘gray duck’ instead of ‘goose.’”

Me: “Where was your school?”

Informant: “In Minnesota. They’re actually very militant about it, and they’ll insist that it’s ‘Duck, Duck, Gray Duck’ and not anything else, but like, I moved there when I was eight, so I knew from before that almost all other places called it ‘Duck, Duck, Goose.’ But they um, yeah, they insisted on the gray duck part and they thought the ‘goose’ portion was weird.”


Schoolchildren can be very adamant about protecting their games and creations. No matter where they are or what they are playing, their way will be the right way. This is evident in the  Minnesota elementary school kids who were “militant” about playing “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck,” as well as my informant, who despite being a college student, still showed signs of being upset at her old classmates. She strongly felt that it should be “Duck, Duck, Goose,” and that the Minnesota version was a singular place for playing the game differently. I admit that upon hearing the story and being introduced to the adaptation, even I felt slightly angry at these students for playing the “wrong” way. Neither I nor my informant still engage in “Duck, Duck, Goose,” but I imagine we expect to still see children playing in preschools and elementary schools years from now, and furthermore, we both expect to see it played the way we did.

Distancing myself personally from this game however, I must acknowledge that it’s interesting how “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck” even evolved. Upon researching this, I found out that Minnesota was the only state in the US and even Canada that had this version, though without any sufficient information. Even more intriguing, evidently one can now call someone a “gray duck,” and use the phrase in a derogatory way to refer to that person being born or raised in Minnesota. Clearly, childhood vendettas can run very deep, and changing up a traditional staple of schoolyards is frowned upon by all adolescents. While the Minnesotans don’t retaliate by calling residents of other states “gooses,” are determined to persist playing their own adaptation, either to distinguish themselves or to simply continue a game their own parents or teachers taught them.


Silly Pens

Interview Extract:

Informant: “One little thing that me and my friends used to do, like before every exam—and in China, every class stayed with the same students, so we all had the same tests at the same time—and what we would do was buy these ridiculous, feathery pens that were really brightly colored and had these puffy, feathery tops and ribbons, and we used them on our tests for good luck.

Our teacher would obviously look at us like we were weird, ‘cause our whole class had the crazy pens, but they made us feel like safe, and they were a good luck charm.”

Me: “How long did you do this for?”

Informant: “Um, in middle school we did it, so for like three years there, and then we stopped our first year of high school ‘cause then we outgrew them, I guess.”

Me: “Do you still wish you did it?”

Informant: “Um, I don’t know. It was our kind of rebellion I suppose, because we had to use blue or black ink on our tests, so we wrote in blue or black ink with feathers the most obnoxious pens ever. In China, like there were a lot of thrift stores that sold them, so we’d go there before every class to get them.”

Me: “Did you get a new one for every test?”

Informant: “Yes. They didn’t last very long, but they were cheap so it was like, whatever.”


It is clear why this silly pen tradition was important to my informant. They provided solidarity, a quiet way to rebel against school and authorities, an opportunity to keep secrets from adults, and perhaps most importantly, a way to simply have a laugh on an otherwise stressful occasion. While the students may have honestly believed that the fluffy, feathery pens bought them good luck on their exams, I think they continued this tradition for three or so years mainly because it did bring them together as a class. In my personal experience of test-taking, there is always a sense of jovial camaraderie within the class if everyone is doubting themselves or if everyone is worried over a particular question. This isn’t exactly a positive thing, and yet there is comfort in knowing that everyone else is in the same situation. The pens would serve as a physical reminder to the students that they are joined together against the institution, especially as they go on outings to buy the pens with their own money and then use them ostentatiously in class. There is even the added glee that the students were committing an act that wasn’t entirely within the school rules. They were following directions, but bending them slightly, and in such a manner that they couldn’t actually get in trouble.

It would be doubtful that anyone would abstain from using the silly pens, even if it was ridiculous or uncomfortable to write with them, simply because no young student would want to be left out. After all, I’d imagine they would provide an abundance of fond memories and laughter.

Gloomy Sunday

Interview Extract:

Informant: “Do you know about ‘Gloomy Sunday?’”

Me: “No, what is it?”

Informant: “It’s a song, I think by a Hungarian or a European composer. Yeah, Hungarian, because they also call it the Hungarian Suicide Song. And the composer, there’s a story about him, that after writing it, he killed himself and it goes that if you listen to the song for too long, you’ll commit suicide too because it’s like so sad.

Billie Holiday did like a jazzier version of it; it’s not so depressing, and no one obviously is scared of killing themselves from that one.”

Me: “Where’d you hear about it?”

Informant: “I heard about it in high school. Someone just like, played that song for us and a bunch of people freaked out But there’s been a lot of reports about people dying when they hear that song, or they’ll die like holding the sheet music or something like that. And I think the composer himself did jump or a building, I think because um, he had never achieved any greatness after that one hit he had with ‘Gloomy Sunday.’”

Me: “Were you ever scared of the song’s legend?”

Informant: “Not really. Like, I believed that people would maybe commit suicide after listening to it, but I think they felt like that before and they just sort of got pushed over the edge after listening to this sad song over and over again on repeat.”


The fact that song with Hungarian origins managed to travel all the way to a Chinese school playground proves that children love to scare each other. There is something tantalizing about hearing a legend such as this one, and it naturally creates a environment in which students would dare each other to listen to the song. Competitions could arise perhaps, to see who can withstand listening to the sad song for the longest period of time, or as was the case with my informant, students would just play “Gloomy Sunday” to others in order to frighten them.

If the background of the song was only that the composer had committed suicide, then perhaps its folklore would not be so scary. But as it spread around the world, “Gloomy Sunday” naturally accumulated urban legends that either existed before and became tied to it, or were invented along with the song. Once a person hears that many people have committed suicide directly because one eerie song, then it’s certainly terrifying. When my informant was telling me about it, she herself seemed to mystify the song, almost revering its power in a way. She may have been putting on a show to scare me, in which case it certainly worked, or she herself had some lingering fears from when she first heard about it. Either way, I became too nervous to play the song even though I had originally wanted to hear what exactly made it so depressing.

This Hungarian song isn’t the only song or object that has been claimed to have the power to make people suicidal. There have been pictures that supposedly have a influence on people similar to “Gloomy Sunday,” and even a whole forest, the Aokigahara forest inJapan, has that sort of sway. The forest is one of the most popular places for suicides, and this leads to many urban and ghost stories about the place. Yet one must wonder, does the forest, or the picture, or song actually force people to kill themselves, or are suicidal people drawn to these objects regardless? Most likely, as “Gloomy Sunday” and the Aokigahara forest draw more attention, they will be credited for more deaths, and the cycle will continue.

The way to break this seemingly endless sequence is indeed by lightening the mood. Either the song can be used as a playground game or it can be rewritten into a more cheery melody, the way my informant says Billie Holiday did. No one will link Billie Holiday’s adaptation to mysterious deaths, and that will limit the legends, and potentially, if they really are true, the suicides themselves.

The Sparrow Story

Interview Extract:

Informant: “Well, we have swallows in our house, like a nest on the side of our house, and the swallows come every year, for like four years now. And um, my dad told me this story about swallows, and basically, there were these two brothers, one very rich and the other very poor. The richer brother was annoyed by the poor brother ‘cause he was a um, he was a beggar and he’s always coming around asking for something and finally, like the rich brother, I think he was also the older brother, but the rich brother stopped giving him food and things.

Then um, the uh, poor brother noticed a swallows’ nest on his house, and saw a baby bird like, fall out and break its wing, so he took care of the bird. I think he just like, had nothing else to do.

Then like, all of a sudden, all these pumpkins start growing in his yard from a pumpkin seed, all this other good agriculture starts growing. And the poor brother was curious how he had all this food, but also he was very grateful. Then, uh, the sparrow got better, and it flew away. And then when the rich brother saw the good crops, he got jealous, so he tried to find a sparrow and break its wing or its leg so he could nurse it back to health so he could get good crops too. But of course, it didn’t work.

The sparrow only left a pumpkin seed on the poor brother’s garden because he was good and did not expect anything in return. So the moral of the story I guess, is when you just do good things, good things will happen to you.”

Me: “So is this a traditional Korean folktale?”

Informant: “Yeah, my dad told me about it just recently because we had birds next to our house, and we’re not supposed to kill nature, even though people would want to crush the nest because the birds can poop, you know, and make a mess, but apparently, it’s like special to have sparrows. They’re very symbolic in Korea I guess, so we keep the nest, and they just come back every year.”


Most of us would have heard stories similar to this one, where the younger or poorer sibling does a deed out of the kindness of their heart and is rewarded for it, while the jealous, richer, and usually older sibling will try to do the same but fail because of their avarice in some way. This theme, that the good-natured underprivileged character will prevail, is seen in Indian and European folktales as well and is extremely popular. People like to see the kind characters succeeding in the end and gaining the wealthy, happily-ever-after ending, especially when it doesn’t come true often in real life.

The sparrow was the equivalent of a fairy godmother in this story, and important to my informant because she saw the sparrows in her own house. They are also what spurred her father to tell her this story, a fact that she obviously valued since as a college senior, adults don’t usually relate fairy tales to her anymore. She clearly cherished the memory of her dad taking the time to tell the story, as well as the sweetness of the sparrows flying back to their house year after year.

My informant’s parents are from Korea, so they would have seen sparrows often, and it’s interesting that even though they moved thousands of miles, the same story is relevant because the same type of bird is found in California. My informant would not have heard the story if they lived in another state possibly, and neither would have I. This emphasizes how some folklore is spread throughout the world because of similar surroundings, and why some of is changed in order to adapt with any differences.


Interview Extract:

Informant: “Have you heard of gonggi? It’s a game we played as children, with these sort of like marble-ly things. They’re like round, and colorful, and they’re just like, made out of plastic and have little things inside to give it weight or something. But anyway, to play the game, you’d throw one in the air, and then try to catch it before it dropped to the ground. Then you throw two in the air and try to catch both the little ‘balls,’ I guess you can call them. Then you throw three, and catch them and so on.”

Me: “Did you play this game often?”

Informant: “Yeah, I remember our parents used to buy them for us, me and my brothers and my friends, like all the time. It was a really fun game to play.”


This was the first thing my informant thought of when she tried to remember something from her childhood. Evidently, she would play them all the time with either her brothers, friends, or even by herself, since it’s an easy game to learn and participate in. The gonggi pieces are sold in many cities here, probably in Koreatown shops, so my informant was able to play this traditional game while growing up in the Southern California area. Her parents didn’t seem to mind buying her multiple sets, either because she lost them or broke the pieces, because they still tied her to Korean culture. Since it appears that this was one of my informant’s favorite games to play growing up, if they continue to sell them here in the years to come, I’d imagine she would buy gonggi sets for her children as well.

The simplicity of the game is attractive, as well as the colorful balls, or pebbles, children use to play with. This makes it popular worldwide and a game that can no doubt make a lasting impression upon a young child. While gonggi is still only known to Korean children, there have been variations of this game that are known by other names, and there’s a possibility that this will allow gonggi to become more popular within other cultures and ethnicities as well.

Dressing in Red for Chinese New Year

Interview Extraction:

Informant: So like, so like say, so like say I’m born in the year of the monkey for example, so in the year of the monkey on Chinese New Year, I have to wear all red, like red clothes, red underwear even. I think it’s because when it’s your year that you were born in, you’re supposed to have bad luck, but wearing red counters that so you’re safe.”

Me: “So have you ever dressed up all in red then?”

Informant: “No, no. We always, my family and I, we always say we’re gonna do it, but we never do.”

Me: “Do a lot of people in China do it?”

Informant: “I don’t know. I hear a lot about it in dramas, but I don’t actually know anyone that dresses up.”


Naturally, just because it is one’s birthday month or zodiac year, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will bring good fortune, but after celebrating the anniversary of birthdays so much, I did not expect that it would be bad luck to be in the zodiac year you were born in. I would have thought that it’d be the opposite, that if it’s the same year you were born in, that it would have been a lucky year for you. Yet, it’s just the contrary. Perhaps it can be because one’s personal zodiac sign has completed a whole cycle and is somehow vulnerable to bad luck entering the new cycle. Hence, protection is needed to ward off the negative energy or demons that can get in. One would envelope him or herself in red, used commonly in Chinese culture to ward off evil.

My informant does not live in China currently, so presumably, even when she is with her family, she feels no cultural mandate to follow this tradition. It appears to still be in vogue however, especially if television shows are referring to it. At the same, it can be somewhat difficult to find clothing and garments all in red, so while her family means to follow through with custom, it is understandable why they wouldn’t.

The color red itself is used extensively in Chinese culture, as a color of celebration and also protection. It is the color of the New Year celebration, and throughout the many facets of the holiday, red is always stressed. Coming from a European background where red symbolizes blood and usually has a negative connotation, it is fascinating to understand the different meanings the color can take, and the great cultural meaning it has as well.

Chinese New Year Firecrackers

Interview Extract:

Informant: “So during Chinese New Year, there’s a fear of the evil beast coming. It’s called ‘Nian,’ which actually literally means ‘new year,’ so you’d say ‘oh new year is coming, the evil beast is coming!’ And um, he’s afraid of the color red, and he’s afraid loud noises. So then that’s why people use firecrackers, to scare off the evil beast. And the firecrackers are the kind that have a rope on one end and you light it, and then you have to hold it away from you and turn away like this (informant demonstrates) so it doesn’t blow up your face…And it’s really loud, and it’s really scary! It explodes and there’s like all these pieces of paper flying everywhere, and I hated them when I was younger. They were so scary.”

Me: “But I guess it was an important tradition, so you still had to do it and light the firecrackers?”

Informant: “Yeah, I did. And my parents would always try to take pictures of me while I was lighting one, but I really hated it. In modern times, though, they do have some where you just throw them on the ground, and it’s like a smaller explosion. It’s still loud though, so I don’t really like those either. And also, I hate them because boys, like teenagers, will throw them at girls’ feet, and like it would blow up and lift their skirts, and yeah, ugh, I hated it.”


This is a tradition that emphasizes red and noise as modes of protection. The color red is usually linked to dynamic tendencies and human vitality, while noise is an indicator of live presence. Both elements assert human life and agency, which is combined in the firecracker, thus enabling it to easily frighten off the evil beast or spirit, or anything nonhuman.

My informant did not particularly enjoy this aspect of the Chinese New Year, yet she was surrounded constantly by firecrackers during the celebration, showing that they are an extremely vital and crucial part of the holiday. Even if people do not necessarily believe in Nian, they will engage in the firecracker experience to demonstrate their excitement, or in the case of my informant, cultural and familial duty as her parents try to take pictures of her with the firecracker.

What was most intriguing in her narrative was the fact that boys would use the firecrackers to intimidate and possibly flirt with girls. This shows that the folklore is adapted in unique ways, depending on who is performing it, and has evolved. While it may not be polite or even safe to shoot the firecrackers at girls, it gives another dimension to the Nian-scaring tools and demonstrates that many elements of the Chinese New Year are being used in slightly different ways. The traditions may still be very strong and they way in which they are used can remain unchanged, but the same cannot be said for their meaning. My informant is proof of this, as she herself seems to cringe at the very word “Firecracker” and is likely not to use the original form, but a rather smaller and quieter firecracker in her future New Year celebrations.

Hungry Ghost Festival — Singapore

Interview Extract:

informant: “So in Singapore, around August or September, I forget which month but somewhere there, we have this festival sort of, called the Hungry Ghost Festival. And it’s where all our deadancestors come alive again for a day, but we sort of like, celebrate it for a whole week kinda. And what we do is we buy lots of paper money…it’s like square paper with a gold leaf…impression on it, and we’ll fold it into shapes, like ingots. It’s kinda like origami. And this represents money, which we’ll dump into bins that everyone has. Not like every person, but like, every apartment complex or every house. Like any public complex or space, we’ll dump the paper money shapes there.”

Me: “What does the money signify, or rather, why would it be necessary on the day the dead come back?”

Informant: “Oh, well in Singapore, when someone dies, you’ll burn paper money for them, sorta like to send them off with good fortune and wealth. And we do the same thing for like, when our ancestors come back.”

Me: “I see. So what else do you. You celebrate for a whole week?”

Informant: “Yeah. We’ll burn incense, have lots of food. Like there’s cakes, oranges, eggs…boiled eggs, I don’t really know why, but boiled ones, and rice and fruits, and just like, donations or offerings. It’s for the dead. And it’s really one day but we have the preparation last a while and there’s concerts and performances too.”

Me: “It’s a bit like Halloween or Day of the Dead celebrations.”

Informant: “Yeah, kinda. You have something similar here. But ours isn’t focused on like, creepiness so much.”


The Hungry Ghost Festival is indeed like Halloween, a day in which past spirits are recognized, but it is also much more like the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, where past ancestors are treated with respect and given offerings. The ghosts don’t seem to pose any danger to the people celebrating, and are in fact welcomed since these are the old ancestors of families. The donations and offerings are there as signs of respect and a way to ensure comforts of passed family members. The fact that there are performances and concerts, as well as a whole community effort to make the paper money shapes, demonstrates that this is a bonding festival, bringing people together.

My informant was very eager when talking about this festival. She especially seemed to enjoy paper ingots that she would make and that the whole apartments would collect. It is a very neighborly tradition, and brings not only families close, but communities. The ancestors’ ghosts become a communal experience, instead of just focusing on personal ties. Everyone participates in buying the special paper, folding it, and collecting it, also showing that this festival is extremely inclusive, and unlike Halloween, does not limit who can join based on age.

Had my informant been back in Singapore this past year during the festival, I’m sure she would have joined in on the celebrations. It seems like a tradition heavily embedded into South Chinese culture, emphasizing money and food, the basic things needed to provide comfort and security. Evidently, it is a kindness to bestow these things to those in the afterlife as well as the living.