Author Archives: Samuel Gong

Festival – Chinese

???  (The Qingming Festival)

The Qingming Festival, which when translated literally means “the Clear and Bright Festival,” is a Chinese festival which is marked by a time of remembrance of ancestors.  Occurring on the 104th day after the Winter Solstice, it usually falls around April 5th on the Gregorian calendar.  On this day Chinese families will go out and clean the grave sites of their deceased relatives.  They will also frequently burn sacrifices to their ancestors.  Common items used are fake money or incense.  Food is often left by the grave as well.

My grandfather Stone Chen explained the basics of this festival to me when I asked him about traditional Chinese customs.  Called the Qingming Festival, this is the day which is dedicated to a family’s ancestors.  Qingming is translated as “clear and bright;” while my grandfather is not sure, he speculates that it is related to both the idea of the physical clearing of the graves as well as the psychological refreshing of past memories that one experiences during the course of the day.  It is an all day occasion; the family usually starts by eating a brunch which is either cooked or held at a restaurant.  If it takes place at a restaurant, it is usually Dim Sum.  Dim Sum is a unique dining experience where one sits at a table and grabs food from passing carts.  Each cart has a variety of different dishes and prices.  That the end of the meal, an attendant totals up the empty plate and presents the diners with a bill.  In any case, whether the meal is cooked at home or in a restaurant, a little extra portion is taken for each ancestor.  For example, if the family is only attending to one grave, they will take food from the meal to the grave equivalent to about what one person would eat.  The idea is that by taking food for the deceased relative, one remembers him and makes a conscious decision to include his spirit in their lives.  This remembrance is most important.  One of the most powerful images I have ever witnessed was the sight of my ninety-three year old paternal grandfather walking nearly a mile to Vons grocery market.  Knowing that we were going to clean his wife’s grave the coming day, he woke up at six and began the long trek to Vons to buy a can of 7UP, which was my grandmother’s favorite drink.  Though the hike took him three hours, we eventually found him at Vons and returned with him and his 7UP.

When the family arrives at the cemetery, they begin cleaning.  This usually includes cutting the grass around the grave, cleaning and polishing the headstone, and doing whatever other maintenance is needed.  Chinese graves are nearly always the cleanest around because of their frequent cleanings, which take place throughout the year, though this is the primary day of remembrance.  The meal the family has packed for the ancestor is laid out before the grave and fragrant incense sticks are lit.  In a way similar to how Western families leave flowers, Chinese leave gifts of food and incense.  My grandfather explained that “obviously they [the ancestors] can’t eat it [the food] or smell it [the incense]; it’s just… it’s just that these are nice things.  It’s a sign of our remembrance and respect.”   Often fake paper money is burned in a metal bowl, with idea that they deceased person will be able to use in to become wealthy in the afterlife.  While my grandfather did not believe in this practice, he simply replied, “If they want to, if it helps them feel better, what’s the harm?”

Every ritual on this day is both practical and symbolic.  The graves need to be cleaned, and at least by dedicated Chinese families, they are quite frequently.  However, this festival serves as a day where the ancestors are assured of remembrance and respect.  Nearly every family will go out to the cemetery on this day.  The food, incense, and money are all visible tokens of the family’s remembrance of the deceased ancestor.

As I am increasingly seeing with my maternal grandfather, he is not particular about the specifics of this custom.  He does not recollect the origins of this festival, but noted that it was a generally accepted holiday in both China and Taiwan.  The festival is as old as he can remember.  He is also not particular that we practice this festival on the correct day.  It is enough for him if we merely practice it sometime; to him it is not the tradition or rules of the festival in particular which is important.  The thought, that moment of remembrance and respect, is what is most critical.  “Without the right attitude,” he says, “you can do all these things and what is it really? Nothing.”  Ultimately it is the thought, rather than the rule and ritual, which truly matters.

Recipe – Chinese

The Chinese New Year Hot Pot

To celebrate Chinese New Year every year, we get together with our family and relatives and have a traditional Chinese hot pot dinner such as the one shown here on the right.  A hot pot is simply a boiling pot of plain water; ingredients are put in the water, making a type of combination stew, broth and soup. Each person cooks his own ingredients in the boiling water, usually swishing the piece of food around until it is cooked, or simply submerging the food and taking it out when it is done.  The food cooks quickly, each person gets to eat exactly what they want, and at the end of the event everyone is left with a rich, flavorful soup.  Each family brings raw ingredients that he or she would like to cook in the hot pot.  The most popular food choices are types of marinated meat, such as chicken, beef, fish, or shrimp.  Vegetables such as cabbage or tofu are also used.  Seasoning is provided by salt, soy sauce, onions, and often white pepper.  Any type of hot pot will work, however since the hot pot is most usually placed on the dining table between the participants, an electrically heated pot is often most convenient.  Often the host family provides other dishes, such as clear rice noodles or plain steamed white rice, which are meant to compliment the food from the hot pot.

I collected this piece of folklore from my grandfather on my mother’s side.  He was born in China, moved to Taiwan for while, and then immigrated to the United States when he was in his twenties.  He attended the University of Southern California and worked the rest of his life as a mechanical engineer.  He eventually owned his own industrial air conditioning design company which was very successful, and retired comfortably in Torrance, California.  He said he learned this tradition of the New Year’s hot pot from his family back in China.  He does not know where or from whom the tradition originated.  However, he says that the idea of the potluck, where each brings his own food, is central to the idea of the New Year.  The idea of many different types of food ultimately making a tasty soup is also important.  He says this event represents a culmination of the past year’s experiences; the hot pot, as it accepts and combines all the different pieces of food from each individual, is symbolic of the group combining and reflecting on all their experiences from the past year.  He said the hot pot “helps them sum up the past year, and get ready for the next one.”  He also explained how the soup, itself a conglomerate of many different foods, is representative of the many varied experiences that each individual will face in the coming year.  The circular nature of the hot pot also makes reference to the circular, continuous nature of human existence.

After talking to my grandparents on my father’s side, I soon discovered that this tradition was not all that widespread in China.  My paternal grandfather had never heard of it.  He was a little over ten years older, and unlike my maternal grandfather spoke Cantonese.  Cantonese is one of the two major Chinese dialects, the other of which is Mandarin.  Mandarin is more widespread and is spoken more often in urban areas.  From this information I was able to theorize that this tradition of ushering in the New Year with a hot pot dinner was either specific to urban areas, or originated after my paternal grandfather had come to America in the late 1920’s.  Or, this tradition could simply be local, limited to my maternal grandfather’s neighborhood.

By establishing this tradition of a hot pot dinner to celebrate every Chinese New Year, my grandfather is in a way preserving Chinese traditions that may have otherwise been forgotten.  Since Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, it falls on a different day each year.  In some years it can come as late as mid February, while it usually comes sometime during January.  Because our western calendar is based on the solar cycle and due to the changing nature of the date of Chinese New Year, many businesses do not recognize it as a holiday.  Consequently, living in the United States, it is very easy to simply forget the biggest holiday in Chinese culture.  When time is not set aside for an event, it is very easily pushed out of the mind of the general public.

Having lived in this country for over sixty years, my grandfather was well aware of this fact; consequently he has always made it a point to celebrate Chinese New Year with us.  Always repeating this same traditional dinner, he instilled in us a greater sense of our Chinese ancestry and heritage. It has not always been easy, as Chinese New Year often falls on a day inconvenient for one or more members of my family.  My grandfather realized the changing times and did not insist that we have our hot pot dinner on the traditional night, Chinese New Year’s Eve.  As a result, we often celebrated it the weekend before or after the actual date.  However, by doing the celebration this way we say the true value of these traditions.  The importance lies not in the mere tradition, but in the psychological involvement of the individual in the tradition.  In other words, it is not the mere hot pot dinner on that specific night that is of great importance.  It is the act of taking the time to stop and think about our Chinese roots that was important to my grandfather.  He did not care if we carried out the tradition on the exact day or not.  He merely wanted us to stop our daily lives and remember our Chinese heritage.  This special dinner has always accomplished this purpose adeptly, and serves as a great way to welcome in the New Year with friends and family.

Tradition – California

Tae Kwon Do Birthday Gauntlet

When it is one’s birthday, he must face the gauntlet if he comes to Tae Kwon Do class.  The students and instructor form two parallel lines, showering the individual with kicks and punches as runs through the lines.  Often the individual would try to hide the fact that it is his birthday; however, if the instructor or another student finds out, he sounds the shouts it out to the studio and the two kicking lines are formed.  This usually happens after class is already over.

I experienced this tradition when I used to attend the J. Lee Tae Kwon Do Center in Hermosa Beach, California.  I started when I was six years old and continued until my senior year in high school, earning my third degree black belt in the process.  My instructor was Grand Master Jae Heon Lee, an accomplished martial artist who had previously served as coach of the Japanese national team and appeared on the covers of numerous Tae Kwon Do magazines.

When I first saw this tradition in action I was surprised.  I  as probably around six or seven, in a beginner level class, with other children about the same age as I.  We were all confused when were told to form lines and kick the birthday boy as he ran between us.  However, in the subsequent years we quickly caught on.  As rivalries formed and anger and bitterness between students developed, these birthday gauntlets took on a different meaning.  While it was imperative that control be used, a cheap shot at the running student could easily be slipped in.  The easiest way was to inflict damage was to kick the student as he ran toward you; while most kicked him on his backside as he passed, one solid roundhouse kick to his front torso, depending on where it hit, could either knock the wind from him or leave him crumpled on the ground.

Still, this sort of incident was rare, as everybody was wary of retaliation.  In Tae Kwon Do there is a multitude of ways to take out one’s anger on another without facing disciplinary consequences.  During sparring or kicking practice individuals often had “accidents” where they slipped and ended up striking another person they disliked in a painful area.  At very least the person knew they would have a free shot at the other person on his birthday.  Thus it was not productive to anger a rival at the studio, as there were so many ways in which he could easily retaliate.  Our studio was all in all a harmonious place; everybody got along pretty well and I formed many lasting friendships there.  Still, as it was a competitive place, it would be foolish to say that there were not rivalries and even at times open feuds.

The use of a mock physical punishment during one’s birthday is similar to the Western tradition of giving one a number of spankings, pinches, or punches on his birthday.

This concept of running through two lines where one is attacked on both sides is well known.  Usually called “running the gauntlet,” it is well established in history.  In the archaic picture to the right, a couple of European captives are being forced to run the gauntlet by their captors.  I have taken six years of Latin and have continued my study of the language here at USC.  In ancient Rome, the gauntlet was used as a brutal form of execution.  Execution in this manner was given the term “fustuarium.” The Jesuit Isaac Jogues recorded this gauntlet as a practice of the Native American Iroquois Indians. Having experienced it himself as a prisoner in 1641, he describes it in a letter that appears on page 163 of the book The Jesuit Martyrs of North America, published in 1925 by The Universal Knowledge Foundation.

Legend – University of Southern California

George Tirebiter

Some say that a stray dog named George Tirebiter shown in this photograph to the right actually served as a mascot for the University of Southern California.  Supposedly discovered by a student on the beach at Santa Monica, George was initially a feeble stray mutt.  The student’s mother nursed the poor dog back to health, and in no time it was running around campus with his new friends.  The lovable dog gained fame, happily chasing squirrels, licking students, and biting tires of the passing cars.  He became so popular that he was actually made a mascot of the university. He showed his true Trojan spirit when he bit UCLA’s mascot Joe Bruin.  This feisty trooper heroically gave his life in a tragic encounter with a much larger car.

My friend Grant told me that he had learned this story from a USC student tour guide during a visit to the school during the summer.  He also remembers his orientation counselor briefly mentioning George as they passed the statue and plaque dedicated to George on the South side of campus.  Raised in Berkeley, California, Grant had no idea whether the story he had been told was true, having no prior knowledge of the famed puppy.

Even though I had been following Trojan football since I was young, I had no recollection of little George.  I checked out the memorial constructed for George and it revealed a small amount of information; George was a legitimate Trojan mascot during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  The plaque notes his feisty character and records the incident where he bit the UCLA mascot on the nose.  It tells how he led the marching band and even had a 3.2 GPA after taking courses such as Chasing Cats 101 and Biting Tires 270.  However, they entire text of the plaque is written in whimsical, hearsay tone, even including the phrase “rumor has it.”

A story about George was published in the Daily Trojan, volume 135, number 23 on October 6, 1998.  The story began on page 1 and ended on page six.  This article includes more stories about George.  Apparently he was kidnapped by UCLA students and rescued by the Trojan Knights, a student organization at USC designed to protect the spirit of Troy.  The article mentions that there were actually four George Tirebiters, one at a time, each in succession of the previous ones.  The first two George Tirebiters were tragically killed in car accidents.  The article mentions a book about George, entitled Bite On by George Reichart.  However, I was not able to find any publishing information about this children’s book outside of the article.  Still, George’s legacy lives on and is immortalized by the striking, playful memorial dedicated to George on the South entrance to campus shown here.


Saying / Philosophy

“What goes around comes around.”

This simple saying references the philosophy that one’s events in life are partially influenced by one’s previous actions; more specifically, this conveys the belief that the actions done in one’s earlier life will come back later in life.

When I asked my friend Alex for a saying she had learned, she instantly mentioned this phrase.  She said she had heard it numerous times from her mother, father, relatives, and even friends.  She explained that this concept, that the prior actions of an individual have a direct effect on the future events of the individual, was a primary source of influence on her decision making process.  The idea was, if she did foolish things earlier in life, they would inevitably catch up with her.  In a similar way, if she mistreated somebody, she could count on the same harshness later on in life.  On the other hand, if she acted with benevolent good will towards everybody, in the long run she would be met with friendliness and kind deeds.  This principle, she felt, also applied to other individuals.  If she saw somebody “getting away” with evil deeds, she thought of this concept to console herself, reassuring herself that they would get what they deserved in the end.  In short, she applied this saying to all areas of her life.

I have also heard this saying in a multitude of places.  Friends and family alike have expressed this sentiment, or a very similar one. This concept has many other forms.  Friends, when giving words of advice about decisions, have often expressed this warning. My parents also explained to me this basic concept, but instead used a derivative of a Bible verse – “You reap what you sow.” By stating the concept this way they put more emphasis on the individual’s actions and the effects his actions would have on him later.  While “what goes around comes around” can be cited to assure oneself that others will get their due, “you reap what you sow” only makes predictions about the individual himself.  This perhaps goes along with the biblical concept that a person should choose the righteous path in life himself, without worrying or being influenced by the wicked actions of the others around him.

The idea expressed by this saying is also closely related to the concept of karma.  Described in Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, this concept deals with an action and the cycle of cause and effects that it sets off.  An action generally creates either good or bad karma; each individual is responsible for his or her own karma.  Though the original transcripts involve processes such as incarnation, in Western interpretations it is generally taken that good karma entitles the individual to acts of kindness and good luck, while bad karma brings misfortune and peril upon him.  This is very similar to the saying “what goes around comes around,” as well as the Biblical concept “you reap what you sow.”  In all three idea, the prior actions of a person have a direct relationship with the events that befall him later in life.

As we found in my discussion with Alex and my own personal experiences, the concept expressed by “what goes around comes around” is very popular and widespread, exhibiting its influence in Eastern, Middle Eastern, and even Western culture.  Fittingly it is also widespread in pop culture today, published many times over.  One of the most interesting published instance of this is in the single “Karma” by Alicia Keys.  Released in 2004 on the album The Diary of Alicia Keys, this song contains the phrase “’cause what goes around, comes around.”  It is noteworthy that this artist also sees the similarity between this phrase and the concept of karma as expressed in this song.