The informant told me about the following custom when I asked her about her family customs regarding food and eating.
“When we’re eating fish in my house, after we finish a big fish, after we finish the top layer, we cannot flip the fish. We have to eat from the side that we placed it on the plate. So my dad tells us the story of back in the day, when the fishermen go out to fish, when they come bring the fish home, they never flip the fish because it would be a symbol of their boat flipping upside down, and he learned that from his dad. So now whenever my mom cooks fish, we are never allowed to flip the fish over; we always have to eat it from the topside, down. So you eat the top, and then you take out the bone, and the long tail, and then you finish the fish like that. Other Chinese families do it [as well] because I think it’s passed down from my grandfather to my dad, and then my dad passes it down to us. So it’s a common thing if you ask a Taiwanese person, do you flip the fish, it would be a commonly known thing that you don’t flip the fish”
In folklore, it is well known that groups of people who interact directly with nature, and things that are out of their control, tend to have superstitions and beliefs regarding their actions. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see a belief or superstition such as the above one in a fishing culture. However, it’s interesting to see that some of these beliefs and superstitions are passed on to the next generations even though it might not even be directly relevant anymore.
The joke: “So there’s two people on a boat. And they have three cigarettes, but they don’t have a lighter, or any way to light them, right? So one of them looks to the other and is like ‘What do we do? There’s three cigarettes?’ So the other one takes one and throws it overboard. And the guy’s like ‘Why’d you do that, you just threw away one of our cigarettes.’ And he’s like, ‘Well now isn’t our whole boat a cigarette lighter?’”
The informant heard this joke when a friend texted it to him; presumably the friend got it from either another friend or online. The joke deals with a pun, and the clever use of wordplay. It’s kind of anti-funny, but just enough to get some laughs when the audience figures out and understands it, which is why I imagine people tell it. It took me a few seconds to get it myself.
Informant Background: The informant is originally from Hong Kong. She now lives permanently in the United States but travels back once a year to visit her relatives in Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and English. Her family practices many of the Chinese traditions, folk-beliefs, and superstitions. She celebrates many of the Chinese holidays through cooking of special “holiday food.”
A lot of Hong Kong people used to be fishermen back in the day. So you know when you eat a whole fish on a plate, you have the flip the fish when you finish one side to eat the other…So…when you flip you are supposed to say “neighbor” or “other boat” because the fish is like your own boat and it is bad luck if you flip it you know ‘cause it’s like you’re flipping your own boat. That is why you put the curse on someone else’s boat so your boat is safe and the bad luck will go to other people.
This was taught to the individual by her mother as a common table-side manner. According to the informant, this is still a common table side manner among many fisherman and people who operate at sea. She said it still practiced in her family as well.
I think this practice or folk belief is similar to how people “knock on wood” to feel better about what they said even though it will not create change. It shows the effect on belief as an idea where it does not have to be proven but it is done so the individual can “feel better.”
This folk belief is also similar to the idea of homeopathic magic where “like” creates “like.” Similar to how whistling while you are at sea is bad because it will create strong wind; in this case the magic is in the action of flipping the fish where it would be similar to a boat flipping at sea.
This superstition reflects how folklore can be geographically and culturally tied to its context. In this case the tie is occupation. This belief would exist in different form if the people in Hong Kong used to be farmer or miner. It also shows how belief is contextual. If one is not eating near the ocean or on a boat, the fear would be much less in comparison to eating and flipping the fish on a boat in the middle of the ocean.
Women are not allowed on board on commercial fishing boats
The most common superstition is that women are bad luck on commercial fishing boats. “It is bad luck to have any women on board unless she is a really good cook.” My informant stated that is really the only reason to break the rule. My informant stated that one time a fisherman’s girlfriend was on board for a trip and one of the fisherman sustained a broken ankle; the woman was blamed for this incident. My informant was told about this as the captain brought his wife aboard once, and the boat actually hit the sand, the captain’s wife was soon blamed for this.
My informant stated that this superstition basically spread throughout lineage and cannot really explain the cause of this superstition. He also stated that his boss cannot focus when his wife is onboard, and thus he compares it to bringing your wife to work everyday. This is interestingly only on commercial fishing boats. Another incident where this folklore became prevalent was on the television show, The Deadliest Catch. There was a story about how there was a problem with some of on-site women producers being on the commercial fishing boat.
My analysis of this would be that sailors and fisherman call their boats a “she” or “her,” thus the only woman that should be in their life while they are at sea, should be their boat.
My informant told me a story about his Uncle Colin and the story that his family tells about the 1954 hurricane that struck Cape Cod, MA:
“I have heard from a number of people that in the Cape Cod hurricane of 1954, the sea at Buzzards Bay rose as the Atlantic Ocean swelled. When it looked as if the rising inlet next to his house may rise further and wash his house away, my Uncle Colin went out to his fishing boat with a glass of milk and a baloney sandwich and said if it was going to get his house, he couldn’t stop it and he’d rather go down in his boat. So he rowed out to the boat in the storm and waited and ate. The water rose, but never reached the house and the boat never left the mooring.”
My informant said that each time he head the story it was slightly different, but the jist of it is the same. He particularly liked the story because he was named after this particular uncle, and therefore was proud of being associated with him. The story is also quite humorous, so he often re-tells it to family during gatherings and holidays.
From my point of view, this is a story about bravery. It shows the respect that a family has for its elders and their sometimes odd, but impressive actions. It also ties the family to the property in showing their devotion to it. Uncle Colin would not sit in his boat during a hurricane unless he deeply cared about the property he was willing to risk his life for. It can also be used to teach children the values of their family.