Tag Archives: fishermen

Flipping the Fish – An Asian Seafarer Taboo

The informant, AW, was in a position where he couldn’t call because of WiFi restrictions and of course, in quarantine we couldn’t communicate in real life. However, he had a story he wanted to tell, so he texted me the following:

As a child, we had all kinds of superstitions about things you shouldn’t do because they were bad luck

Our family is Chinese, but specifically Shanghainese, and the family business was shipping, so a lot of the superstitions were around avoiding bad luck in business kind of realms

For instance, if you had a whole steamed fish for dinner, you absolutely had to work through the fish by filleting the meat aside and then removing the bones as is, without flipping over the backbone, let alone the fish overall

This was because if you actually, heaven forbid, flipped the fish over, for shipping/fishing family, it was symbolic of a boat capsizing on the water, which was about the worst kind of catastrophe a culture like that can imagine

Were you would lose the bounty of your harvest, your business venture would not come back to port and attain fruition, and there would be loss of life along the way

And so, we were taught very early on, but you must absolutely never “flip over the fish”, and anyone who actually did that would not be invited to dinner again, and no one who was aware of that superstition, whatever continue reading or otherwise touch a fish on the dinner table that had been unwittingly flipped over by some unfortunate ignorant guest

So as to avoid the bad luck created by the flipped over fish

It’s funny, I realized in later years it’s not even a Chinese thing, since I do remember seeing other Chinese, inland, non-seafaring Chinese flip fish with no problem. So I realized over time it was a seafaring thing, and a subset of Chinese culture not something universally Chinese or even Asian

And the funny thing is, to this day I still continue to observe that tradition and superstition, and if you ask my kids whether it’s okay to “flip a fish” they’d answer unthinkingly, reflexively, “obviously not, why the hell would anyone do that??” 

 And while it may seem funny, to all of us it’s simply obvious, and not even worth a 2nd thought 🙂


This story is a family tradition. The informant, AW, is my father, and we come from a family of fishermen. We always thought it was a Chinese tradition, but it actually might not be. This story was collected over text, due to technology restrictions.


Before AW wrote this story down specifically for me, I never realized it wasn’t a Chinese tradition, but rather a seafarer tradition. I think that his decision to include the sarcastic part about “you would lose income by flipping the boat, and loss of life along the way” speaks to a seafaring tradition that is not romanticized/kindly views Chinese seafaring tradition. Rather, it says rather plainly that the wealthy did not care/were exploitative of the fishermen who worked for them. Many people in the west view fishing as a gentle, kind, simple life; whereas in 20th century China in an industrial setting, it was anything but.

The no-flip rule for fish

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.