Author Archive
general
Legends
Narrative

Ghost story – Hong Kong

This is a story about a haunted school in Hong Kong that Theresa heard from her father when she was growing up. She told me two versions, one that supposedly took place 20-25 years ago and one that takes place when the school was newly built (date unknown). In both cases, the main thrust of the story is the same.

The school was built when the Hong Kong government were expanding the rural areas to accommodate a large group of low income, low education people to settle away from the city center. The kids were absolute terrors, and the teachers doesn’t care. Generally, most schools in Hong Kong are six or seven stories- concrete buildings, with stairs and hallways running on the outside like balconies. Windows looking into the class rooms run the entire length of the hallway. There were small recesses a couple of square feet in size, that leads into the rooms, offering more protection from the elements. Most schools don’t have a gymnasium, usually they have a courtyard with basketball hoops that also doubles as an assembly area.

In one version, twenty, twenty five years ago, the boy was in grade six and by all accounts a little monster. It was after school and he was running down the hall on the third floor when he crashed into the walls outside the staff room. None of the teachers inside noticed when the kid bounced off a wall and fell onto the floor. The kid had a concussion and died on school property, right outside the staff room door. The school swept it under the rug and the parents, being uneducated, poor and most likely influenced by the school, said nothing.

The second version cast the school in slightly better light. The accident occurred when the school was newly built. The town was still new enough that there were no little to no road signs and most addresses were still using the land’s lot number. The boy was in the courtyard when he fell after climbing something, hitting his head on the ground and lost consciousness. The school called for an ambulance but it being a relatively new school, and a lack of a real address other than a lot number, the ambulance took too long getting there and the boy died before help could arrive.

The incident should have ended there and given enough time people would have forgotten it, except not long after, the janitors noticed some nights there was a student still around the school when they were closing. They complained to the principle that they seen him around the second floor bathroom and the third floor after school, then runs away when they tried to get him to leave, and would the teachers please do something about it. Not much was done and they were told not to talk about it. The janitors got increasingly frustrated since they can’t close the school with a student still inside.

“They finally caught him one night on the third floor. There was a janitor on each end of the hall stairways to prevent him from escaping. The student started running towards the other end of the hall, then turned into the staff room’s door recess. The janitors thought they had him, only he wasn’t there when they arrived and the staff room door was locked and padlocked on the outside. None of the janitors mentioned the student again, except now it’s the school’s worse kept secret, kinda hard not to know when every once in awhile, someone would see a student run down the third floor hallway and into the staff room after school.”

I think this story is fantastically interesting because it stands in contrast to some of the more prominent ghost stories in Hong Kong. A brief internet search revealed many stories related to grisly murders and horrific accidents, while this story stand apart as more of a cautionary tale. There is no way of knowing whether or not this is true but, to me, this story about a school designed specially for low income students to be accommodated away from the city center and where a general atmosphere of apathy persists, even when a student dies, feels like a subtle critique of bureaucracy and class divisions, and I would not be surprised to find similar stories in other cities, both in China and abroad, where there is a significant income gap.

general
Holidays
Narrative

Parable

“There’s a story about a man who goes into synagogue in a small Ashkenazic town [in Germany, along the Rhine] in the 18th or 19th century.  He’s there for Yom Kippur, which is the most important holy day of the Jewish year. (Well, that’s an oversimplification, but go with it.)  Yom Kippur is a day where we pray to repent of all our sins and have a fresh slate for the New Year, to become better people.  We pray, significantly, for G-d to grant forgiveness, so that we may move on.  This man walks into the synagogue, and he starts saying his alef bet (ABC’s in Hebrew–this would have been before the Reform movement, when you couldn’t go to a synagogue that prayed in the vernacular, it was all in Hebrew or Aramaic).  Some people around him start to complain, to ask what he is doing.  The rabbi comes and asks him what he is doing.  He says, “The only thing I know in Hebrew is the alef bet.  I thought I would offer that to G-d as my sincere prayer of repentance.”  The rabbi told the congregants, “G-d is more likely to hear every letter that sincerely comes out of his mouth than all of the prayers said by people without true intent.”

Leslee grew up in a Jewish community in Kansas, and when talking about her the folklore of her  culture, she said “Most Jewish folklore has been published, largely because, when you’ve never been a majority culture, and the majority cultures have consistently tried to eradicate you, and you base your culture on a notion of being “people of the book”, you write stuff down…ask any Ashkenazi Jew how far they can trace back their family: the people who can do it more than two generations are the super lucky (and rare) ones.”

Accordingly, this story emphasizes the importance, not necessarily of words themselves, but of the intent behind them, and (as Leslee says) the way language is used to preserve culture. The man in the story does not have the words he needs, so he uses the words that he has and that rings truer for the rabbi than any thoughtless recitations from people who had been schooled in the language and customs. It’s a pretty great reminder to people of all religions that their rituals have meaning and purpose that is largely drawn from the faith that drives them.

I found another version of this story which supposedly occurred in a Jewish community in Kiev during perestroika. The setting is Yom Kippur, 1987, and the story explains that it was the first Yom Kippur in decades where Jews have been allowed to practice openly, and that the service was not going well. People were uncertain of how to pray together and were growing bored. Finally, the rabbi tells a version of the parable above (set in Poland) where the protagonist is not an adult man, but is instead a shepherd boy who does not know the prayers and cannot read, but very much wants to pray, so he recites the alef bet to the best of his ability and asks G-d to understand. Moved by this story, the people recited the alef bet as a whole and then exited the synagogue. I find this version very poignant because it demonstrates the effect that folklore can have on a community, helping them to retain their identity in the face of opposition and strife, and serving as a reminder that the universal tie that connects all of them is not necessarily ritual, but faith; and this piece of folklore is indicative of the strength of that faith- a faith which has allowed “a minority culture” to survive and thrive throughout the centuries and on into the future.

The version of the legend that I cited can be found here: http://www.ascentofsafed.com/cgi-bin/ascent.cgi?Name=567-02

general
Legends
Magic
Narrative

The Bronze Cat

Although Morgan’s narrative is first person, this story clearly contains intrinsic folkloric value and that is how I will analyze it.

“When I was about thirteen or so, I was in a corner store in Wildwood, New Jersey (where I’ve always spent my summers) when a little metal cat caught my eye. I couldn’t look away from it; I was utterly enchanted. I had to have that cat. I had to buy it no matter what. It wasn’t that it was cute; it wasn’t. It didn’t have pupils. It was misshapen. It was bronze and smelled like money. I couldn’t put it down, though–it was like it was begging me to take it home.

When we got home, though, it felt totally different. I looked into its face, which had looked so sweet in the store, and suddenly it looked malicious. It made chills run up and down my spine to be anywhere near it, and I could hardly stand touching it. I felt nauseous and scared. So I left it upstairs and came down to the TV room–it was waiting for me. I rounded on my sister, demanding to know why she’d brought it down, but she hadn’t touched it. Its pupil-less eyes followed us around the room.

We both agreed that it was evil, so we sealed it in a little box with a rubber band and a note that said DO NOT TOUCH, DO NOT OPEN, along with a short story that I made up about its origins. We took it to the attic, where there was a floorboard that, when struck in a certain corner, could be pried open to reveal a hidden compartment. We put the box in there, sealed it, and climbed down the ladder.

It was waiting in our bedroom.

We ran, crying, to our parents, who promptly sealed it in a plastic bag with salt in the fridge while they determined what to do with it. Eventually, they decided that–since no returns were allowed–we would have to donate it. I protested, saying that I couldn’t bear the thought of passing it on to someone else and leaving them stuck with it, and this is what they told me:

“Donating it removes the curse,” they said. “By doing a good deed, you erase it.”

It never came back for us.”

I asked Morgan how her parents knew how to deal with the bronze cat, and she said that among other superstitions she had grown up with, her parents raised her with the idea that salt and cold neutralizes bad luck and curses. “We do this fairly systematically; if we’ve identified an object as being unlucky, it often gets thrown in a baggy with sea salt and put in the fridge. I once did this with the names of the people who were bullying me, and they left me alone until someone threw out the paper.”

Research revealed that this superstition is present in some form in several cultures. In the Jewish tradition, salt- because it was a pure substance- was believed to have a potency to ward off evil spirits. In the Bible, Ezekial 16:4 briefly mentions the practice of rubbing newborn babies with salt.
Among Scottish and English fisherman, touching cold iron was believed to neutralize the evil eye and protect one from demons (possibly because confronting the metal in its safer form neutralized the power that the evil could send into it).

There seems to be a dual lesson to be learned from this story. The first is the age old idea of “Be careful what you wish for.” It cautions both against the desire for material possessions and against engaging with supernatural elements whose purpose one might not know. Although there was not the traditional “wish” in this story, there was the desire for the statue, which ultimately led to the revelation of its malevolent nature. This sentiment can be found in many pieces of classic and popular culture- the Faust legend in both its incarnation as Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus and as Goethe’s Faust in which an intellectual makes a deal with the devil and more recently (and more irreverently) the American film Bedazzled (2000) in which the main character sell his soul for seven wishes, but uses the last one to wish someone else a happy life. His selfless act negates the contract and allows him to keep his soul.

The information about salt in Jewish folk tradition can be found in Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion by Joshua Trachtenberg (Forgotten Books, 2008) on page 162.
“Touch cold iron” can be found in Evil Eye the Origins and Practices of Superstition by Frederick Thomas Elworthy (Kessinger Publishing, 2003) on page 222.
Full texts of Dr. Faustus and Faust can be found at Project Gutenberg.

Childhood
Game
general

Clapping Game – Scotland

This is a game Christabel learned when she was a child in Scotland.

Basically, you’d sit opposite someone and clap your hands against the other persons’ in a set pattern, and chant the rhyme in time to the claps. There were a lot of verses, but the ones I remember go like this;

My boyfriend gave me an apple
My boyfriend gave me a pear
My boyfriend gave me a kiss on the lips
And threw me down the stair

He threw me over Paris
He threw me over France
He threw me over London-town
Then took me to the dance

I gave him back his apple
I gave him back his pear
I gave my boy a kiss on the lips
Then kicked him down the stair

I kicked him over Paris
I kicked him over France
I kicked him over London-town
Then went off to the dance

However, sometimes the verses changed to:

He threw me over Paris
He threw me over France
He threw me over London-town
And lost his underpants

and

I kicked him over Paris
I kicked him over France
He had to go to Mothercare
To buy new underpants

These rhymes are very similar to several rhymes that are common in American culture- the “Cinderella, dressed in yellow/went upstairs to kiss her fella” jump-rope rhyme and the ever-popular “I see London, I see France” rhyme. All three share similar elements- they are games played with other people, generally of one’s own gender (although “I see London” tends to cross all boundaries when there is an underpants incident), and they all include vaguely transgressive elements- suggestions of liaisons with boys, for example- and although the children may not (probably don’t) recognize the underlying suggestion, these rhymes are indicative of a gradual coming-of-age. “Cinderella” and “My boyfriend gave me an apple” actually make use of liminal space in the air between jumps and claps. One crosses a threshold, and then crosses back over it into innocence.

Folk speech
general
Humor

Chelm

“There’s a whole vein of Jewish humor which refers to the Polish town of Chelm [which is] full of fools, who consistently do unwise things.  So, for instance, at one point, they decide they need to build a new synagogue.  In order to do so, they need to go into the mountains and get large rocks.  Several men go up and carry these rocks down.  When they get to the bottom, one of the townspeople (it may have been the rabbi) is all, “Why didn’t you just roll them down?”  They all think this is a fantastic suggestion, so they take the rocks back up the mountain, and roll them down.”

Leslee was born and raised in a Jewish community in Kansas and currently lives in Illinois. She shared this folklore and remarked (re: the jokes about Chelm), “The town actually exists, though the folklore doesn’t really relate to the actual town.”

Her observation is a very prescient one, because the Chelm jokes are classic examples of blason populaire, folklore designed to perpetuate group stereotypes (often negative) and establish identity in opposition. The idea that one define who one is by defining who one is not. In this case, the idea is “At least we’re not those fools in Chelm.”

The choice of Chelm is interesting, and although there is not a definitive answer as to why Chelm is the town of choice, it is worth noting that it is a place that has had a thriving Jewish community since at least the 14th century, although historically, there was longstanding tension between Jews and gentiles, including a massacre in the 17th century and a violent takeover by the Nazis in 1940. Today, the Jewish community makes up approximately 51% of the population of Chelm. It would seem (although there is clearly no historical basis for the choice) that the decision to base the “fools of [X]” jokes in Chelm was one made affectionately and in good (forgive the pun) humor.

More information on the history of Chelm itself can be found here.

Annotation: More funny stories of Chelm can be found in A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, edited by Nathan Asubel (New York: Crown Publishers, 1948).

general
Legends

Ghost Story

” In St. Charles, Illinois, there is a very fancy hotel on the west side of the river, right downtown on Main Street. The facade is done in a faux-spanish style with a terracotta roof and beautiful painted tiles. Inside, the whole lobby and the ballroom is made a gleaming marble; they are separated by a short flight of stairs and a wall of doors that are always open.  Way back when, a family was staying in the hotel. There was a mother and a father and a little boy that came to the hotel every year in the summer. The little boy used to play in the lobby and the ballroom with his ball. He would roll it down the stairs, and watch it bounce on each step, boing, boing, boing. But one time when he was running down the stairs after the ball he tripped and broke his neck on the marble.  His mother threw herself into the river in grief not long after, and his father only lasted a few years before he also killed himself. To this day, on afternoons in the summer, you can hear the ball bouncing down the stairs. You might see a man and a women standing next to each other in the ballroom, watching the stairs.”

Dawn heard this story when she was 17 and, although it is set in the town where she grew up, she heard it from her manager at a shoe store one town away.

Research failed to turn up this exact story, but there are records of another haunted hotel story in St. Charles that shares some similarities with this one.
From http://www.ghosttraveller.com/Illinois.htm:” As the story goes, a chambermaid was thrown over by her lover, also an employee of  the hotel.  When he left her cold after a bad night of poker, she cried for days and days, finally drowning herself in the shallow Fox river behind the hotel.  Her cries are reportedly still heard by guests to the upscale establishment, and she likes to mess up the sheets once in awhile.”
That story is also documented in About.com’s Haunted Hotel Guide: http://hotels.about.com/od/hauntedhotelsatoz/p/hau_hotellbaker.htm

It is possible that the original ghost story was simply modified into a macabre cautionary tale about what happens when parents leave their children unattended. However, St. Charles, IL hosts ghost tours that are based out of the St. Charles Historical society, so it would seem that there are a plethora of ghosts to be found, and this story could be a distinct, but less-documented one.

general
Myths
Narrative

Body Art

"This too shall pass"

Aya is a Filipino-American living in New York City. This is her second tattoo- Hebrew script for “This too shall pass.”

Her story: “I got my Hebrew script a few days after I turned 22. It’s from a story about King Solomon. He asked his servant to find him a magical ring that had a saying on it that would make the saddest man on earth happy and the happiest man on earth sad. The ring said, “This too shall pass.” It’s kind of a reminder to myself not to give up or get too attached, to keep my head level. It was a belated memorial to my grandmother who died my sophomore year of university. I was really close to her, and when I found out that she died I kind of fell apart. It’s also just a memorial for everyone I’ve ever lost, either by death, distance, or just a falling out…it helps me move on. I got it in Hebrew because the phrase is originally in Hebrew.”

Further information about King Soloman can be found here.

Annotation: Abraham Lincoln used a version of this tale in a speech on September 30, 1859, approximately one year before he was elected president. Source: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler. The speech can be found at http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/fair.htm.

general

Folk Belief

My informant, who grew up in Northern California learned this fortunetelling rhyme from her late father (1922-2005), the first American child of two Irish immigrants.

“Gift,
Friend,
Foe,
Sweetheart,
Journey to go.

“The idea is that if you have a white spot on your thumbnail, you’ll receive a gift at about the point in your life when the white spot reaches the edge of your nail. Similarly with index finger nail and friend, middle finger nail and foe, ring finger nail and sweetheart and little finger nail and journey to go.”
She went on to add:
“I have yet to encounter anyone else who’s heard of it, possibly because it doesn’t seem to have any actual usefulness for fortunetelling.”

While internet research did not turn up any other versions of this song, it bears similarity to another fortunetelling folk song for children which goes:
Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.
The “Monday’s Child” song is not as arbitrary as the fingernails, as there are both underlying and overt religious connotations- “Wednesday’s child is full of woe” could possibly be a reference to the Wednesday preceding The Last Supper, when it is believed that Judas Iscariot accepted payment to betray Jesus, and the Sabbath Day is regarded as a day of joy among Christians because it is the Lord’s Day (and because it is a commonly accepted belief that Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday).
The rest of the days seem arbitrary though, in the style of the fingernail rhyme, although the middle and index finger connotations do reflect two American traditions. Holding up the middle finger is an obscene gesture in the United States and would be reserved for “foes” while the ring finger is so named because it is the finger that wears the wedding band, thus it would be the “sweetheart” finger.

Monday’s Child is actually included in the Roud Folk Song Index with the number 19526. http://tinyurl.com/5r9kjdd

folk simile
Folk speech
general

Folk Speech – Oklahoma

Kylie Sparks grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and began traveling to Los Angeles to pursue acting when she was 13. She moved to California permanently when she was 17 and graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in Theatre in 2010.
When asked if she had any regional phrases (“Oklahoma-isms”) that she could share, she provided some of her favorites with an example of each.
“Naked as a jay bird.”-When someone is totally naked. Example: “Little Luke just decided to take his clothes off and he was as naked as a jay bird running around the yard!”

“How the cow was going to eat the cabbage.”-telling it like it is.
Example: “Ruby was the kind of dog who didn’t just bark. She held a conversation and told you EXACTLY how the cow was going to eat the cabbage!”

When asked if she ever had to explain what these meant in California, she replied, “I always use them and no one ever understands me until I explain them.”

Analysis: Oklahoma has a much stronger agricultural based culture than California does. While there is agriculture in California, it is largely restricted to rural and sparsely populated areas. Thus, it makes sense that regionalisms about cows and cabbage would not register with Angelenos.
As for “Naked as a jay bird,” the saying appears to stem from the observation that baby Jays are born with with very little down, thus leaving them essentially naked. Again, although Jays are native to most areas of the Unites States, California included, this phrase is unlikely to be understood by someone in a city like Los Angeles unless he or she had heard it from someone else. [http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1954982/where_does_the_saying_naked_as_a_jaybird.html?cat=60]

Folk Beliefs
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy

Birth rituals

Jean is a Korean-American woman whose parents moved to the United States in 1966. She shared with me some customs and rituals that her family performed during her first pregnancy.
“I’d gotten an ultrasound and so was told that it was a 70% chance we’d have a girl [they did]. Mom insisted on my lying down, and then she held a string tied around a pencil over my belly and watched it turn slowly. When it stopped in a particular position, she then declared I’d be having a girl for sure.

“My non-Korean husband and I also wanted to give our daughter a Korean middle name, so my mom went to a name broker for a list of lucky names using the second syllable that would be part of it. In Korea, each generation of a particular branch of a particular surname shares one syllable in their first name. There’s literally a list of syllables for each generation (my dad showed me the family book, written in Chinese characters, which he owns because he is the first son of a first son and so on), and the list specifies whether or not the syllable will be the first or second part of the name. All of the male siblings and cousins in that family will have the same syllable. My dad even discovered he had a cousin very far removed because when they met for the first time, they shared the same syllable in their first name. Usually the naming happens after the baby is born because things like date and time of birth affect the naming, but because we were in the US and needed to put something on the birth certificate right away, mom and the broker used the due date. Since this naming is usually applied only to the males of the family, which may be why quite a few Korean people have commented that my daughter’s Korean name is more masculine than feminine.

Mom also made me a traditional after-birth soup, seaweed soup (mi-yuk gook), which I ate for several days, [one recipe available here: http://koreanfood.about.com/od/soupsandstews/r/miyukgook.htm] and then she asked if I could please stay home and not go out with the baby for 3 months. In the olden times, the newborn and mom didn’t go out for that period of time, which makes sense because of cold weather, too many folks who might pass on sicknesses, and general infant mortality rate. We then had a 100-day party (small) to officially celebrate her birth, and then on her first birthday, my parents held a really big party to celebrate their grandchild’s coming out. My daughter wore a traditional hanbok, and at the ceremonial table, several items were placed in front of them. The item she grabbed first would mean something about her life to be. She picked up uncooked rice, so my mom said she would never be hungry. (Pencils represented a scholar; money meant she would always have money; string meant a long life, etc.)”

These traditions are interesting because they reflect beliefs shared by many cultures regarding the importance of birth in determining the way a child’s life will progress. For example, the family book containing the name syllables and the tradition of each member of a generation sharing a particular syllable is similar to the less ritualized Western traditions of “family names” that are passed on through generations- my father is Edward Alexander Jr. and if I had been a boy, I would have been Edward Alexander III.

The 3 months ritual and the 100 days party are very interesting because they are traditions carried over from a time without pre-natal care and obstetrics, yet they still survive. Also interesting to note is that because Jean and her husband were living in the U.S. and needed a name right away, they modified the naming tradition a little bit and had the broker use the due date for the baby. It is possible that future generations of her family will continue to do the same thing, if they continue to live in the United States.

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