Tag Archives: fishing

Chinese Fish Eating Superstition


M, a 21-year-old, Chinese male who grew up in Beijing until he turned 17 before moving to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, California, and attends the University of Southern California with his girlfriend who is from Southern China.

Background info:

M’s first language was Mandarin. His family spoke Mandarin and he only learned English before moving to the United States. Because he grew up in Beijing, he believes himself to be fairly knowledgeable about the folklore that every day people participate in. This is one of the Chinese traditions in their household.


This is a Chinese superstition that M and his girlfriend’s families believe in, despite having different recounts of what the superstition is. Because they are both close with their families, he and his girlfriend would often have to change how they behaved depending on who they were around at the time. This was told to me during a small get-together at his house. The following is a transcript of the piece as told by M.

Main piece:

“Something that is pretty interesting that is a distinction between Northern and Southern China is that… when you’re eating like a fish… You know how when you eat a fish, they’ve like roasted or cooked the whole fish, right? And they’ve got some sauces or marinate on them. So when you eat a fish, it’s like laying this way *shows a horizontal motion* and you eat one side until there’s the fish bones. And then below that there is another side of meat, right? In Northern China, like in Beijing where I am from, people will flip the fish over to eat the other side and it means like. ‘Oh, if I’m flipping the fish over, it means that I am flipping away all the bad luck and starting fresh.’ But in Southern China, that is a big no-no. You can’t do that because if you do, it means that your fishing boat is going to turn over. It’s going to get blown over. I think the reason for this superstition is because in Southern China they were very reliant on the fishing industry for food in like the olden days. So doing something like flipping a fish over would mean that the next fishing trip would be dangerous. It’s weird because doing the same thing has two very different meanings in such close proximity, so like… my girlfriend is from Southern China, right? So when our families cook fish for events or uhh… holidays… there’s this almost contention between us over how to eat it. Though it is mostly just the older people who still believe this superstition.”


I have been out to eat with M before and never seen him do this, so it is interesting to learn that he and his girlfriend follow different traditions based on who they are around. In Northern China, they believe that flipping the fish over is getting rid of all the bad luck and starting fresh. This is very similar to the English phrase of “turning over a new leaf”, as many view that to mean one is starting fresh and discarding whatever bad things were in the past. I do not know of any physical embodiment of that phrase in American culture, but it’s interesting that, in Beijing, people must do a physical action rather than just a saying. The distinction between Southern and Northern China over the same action also showcases how local industries can influence traditions or superstitions. Southern China’s belief that the flipping of a fish will mean that a fishing boat will flip over, there is almost a voodoo vibe about this superstition. The lack of participation or belief in superstitions or traditions by the younger generation also shows that the beliefs are waning, and new ones are being formed.

The Mammoth Shrimp: A Legend

In Galveston, Texas there’s this restaurant that has a huge giant shrimp as, like, I guess a statue or whatever and apparently, like, late in the 1800’s they went fishing and they literally caught this, like, huge giant shrimp that was like 4, 5 feet tall and like 6 feet long and, like, they caught it I guess and that’s what their whole, like, restaurant is, like, surrounded by, like, that whole superstition – or not superstition – that, like, the whole legend of that huge giant shrimp actually swimming in and living in the ocean right outside Galveston.

The Informant, my housemate, is an Econ major at USC. He was born and raised in Texas. The Informant told me about this local legendary catch at around midnight on 4/22 while he played PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, an intensive online battle royale game. When I asked if he thought the legend was true, he responded that he didn’t really know. All he knows is the restaurant’s fried shrimp is “fucking amazing.”


Considering the largest shrimp on the planet are about the size of a person’s arm, this legend is almost absolutely false. In fact, this is eerily similar to a viral news story in 2013 that reported a 320lb shrimp caught along the Canada coast. Snopes declared this false, however, and showed that the photo was clearly doctored to replace a large catfish with a shrimp.

I enjoyed the story. I think it’s convenient to have the rumor be set in a time where records of such a catch would be spotty at best. When I was listen to the Informant speak of the huge giant shrimp of Galveston, I immediately thought of Randy’s Donuts here in Los Angeles, a drive-through donut shop that wields a massive 26-foot donut as a sign. Sadly, there’s no 26-foot donut either, with the largest one ever at 16-feet.

Banana Boats

Main piece:

So, there’s this superstition about fishing – or, I guess it’s more about bananas. Where, if you have a banana on the boat, you’re not gonna catch any fish. And there’s all kinds of stuff related to this too… Like, if someone eats a banana right before going out? Or if you find the banana, there’s a certain way that you gotta get rid of it? But, yeah – it’s kind of ridiculous.


Superstition described by Randy Peffer at Boatswayne Yard in San Pedro, CA. Randy is a career seaman, educator, and writer.


This is a well-documented superstition among sailors. There is a novel explanation which is also commonly discussed alongside the myth. Boats carrying bananas generally moved the most quickly in an attempt to maintain their freshness. Therefore, sailors aboard trolling lines would be moving too quickly. Consequently, they would catch fewer to no fish.


Fishermen are superstitious and sailors are superstitious. It should come as no surprise then, that the overlap of these two groups has a seemingly arbitrary superstition like the Banana curse.

How the Islands were fished out of the ocean

Main Piece: Hawaiian Legend


“So the legend goes, Maui was out fishing with his brothers in a canoe one day, when he cast out a line. He had something big on the line, and told his brothers to row, and not look back, as it was a bad omen when fishing from a canoe to look behind you while rowing.

The brothers did not look back, and Maui continued reeling in his catch. Once he got it up, it became known that Maui had fished the Hawaiian Islands out of the sea.”




Danny told this story as a creation story of the Hawaiian Islands. Maui is a demigod in Hawaiian mythology, being the son of the two major deities in Hawaiian mythology. Danny likes this story because it is a creation story, and although untrue, gives the natives a good mythological explanation of how the Hawaiian Islands came to be that they can pass on as a part of their beliefs.

Danny likes this story because even though it is obviously not true, it is something almost every Hawaiian believes in, and all other people in the world will just disprove with science. He likes that it is a story dating back to the original inhabitants of the island, and gives him a sense of pride in his culture and where he comes from.




Danny told me this is a legend that would be told as a bedtime story. He does not remember the exact details but remembers the main story of it, but he does remember it as a prominent story from his childhood. He says his grandmother used to tell it to him and his siblings, and his mother would occasionally tell it as a bedtime story.

There aren’t many other contexts this story would be told in, other than possibly in a children’s book explaining how the islands came to be, or as a tour guides introduction to the history of the islands.


My Thoughts:


This story reminded me a lot of stories such as the Grand Canyon story where Paul Bunyun dragged his axe behind him as he was walking, and carved out the Grand Canyon, or a Native American story where the Kiowa’s came to earth through a log. Creation stories are generally too far-fetched to be true, but the general consensus of the people who live there is a small sliver of belief in the myth, but more so they serve as something to hold on to as a piece of their cultural heritage.




For another version of this story, see here: Maui (http://kms.kapalama.ksbe.edu/projects/ahupuaa/waianae/wan/wan12maui/index.html)

Red Sky At Morning


My informant is a twenty-two year old deckhand on a lobster vessel out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. He began working part-time on the boat as a senior in high school and began lobstering full-time just out of high school. He has also worked fishing cod, crabs, and halibut. He spends a great deal of time on the water in his free time as well.


“I think everyone has heard this one. ‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor’s take warning?’ Basically it just means that if you’re going out and you see a wicked red sunrise…that’s probably not gonna be good. At night it’s supposed to be red, so that’s okay. We say it on boats and stuff but I think I heard it when I was little somewhere. Everyone says it I guess. Honestly it’s pretty fucking accurate…like, every time I see a red sky when we’re going out in the morning we’re all like ‘shit, this day is gonna suck.’ It’s not like a huge storm or anything, usually, but it really sucks when it’s wicked choppy and rainy or windy or something. I don’t know if there’s science or something about it but I think it’s legit.”


This saying gives some predictability to an otherwise very unpredictable job. Often both the weather and the success of the trip are equally uncertain. Mike was incredibly adamant that the superstition is true based on anecdotal evidence. Despite the superstition, it does not seem that a red sky in the morning would seriously deter a boat from going out; rather, it portends the quality of the day.

Maui and the creation of the islands

The informant, T, is 19 years old. He was born and raised on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. His parents were also born and raised on Oahu. His grandparents on his mom’s side came from Japan and from his dad’s side were raised on Oahu. He is majoring as an Industrial and Systems Engineer. He considers himself American and is full Japanese.

T- “There was this regular boy named Maui who went out with his teacher and they went out on a boat and his teacher told Maui to throw his fishing line into the water and hold it but not look at it. So he would pull at stuff but he would not look at it. He would pull at heavy things and he would fight it and fight it but he would not look, and then like after a while he gave in and looked back and realized he pulled out the islands”

Where did you hear this story?

T-“I’ve heard it many times. I think the first time was in fourth grade we had Hawaiian history class and I think this is one of the histories they went over”

Where do you think the story came from?

T-“There is a lot of fishing in Hawaii and that’s one of the biggest sources of food that they had before the westerners came.”

Is this story more common than other myths about the creation of the islands?

T- “Yea this one is more common. I think so”

Analysis- As mentioned by the informant, Hawaii consists of a lot of fishing, which provides food to the people. During the earlier times, when the stories were beginning to be told, fish would have been a main supply of food. The figure of the child Maui is originally known to be a trickster demigod figure in Hawaiian mythology. The form of the teacher in Hawaii is very common, especially as hula teachers. This is mirrored in the myth combined with the idea of fishing to explain a natural event, the creation of the islands.

For more information see:

Westervelt, W.D. (1910). Legends of Maui, A Demi-God of Polynesia. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/maui/maui04.htm

You Don’t Start Catching Fish Until You Start Bleeding

Informant: “I know I’ve said this multiple times when I’m out fishing with someone, especially if we haven’t caught many fish yet, is ‘Welp, The reason we’re not catching any fish is because I’m not bleeding yet.’ Well, either ‘not bleeding’ or ‘haven’t hurt myself yet’. And if while I’m trudging along hiking to go somewhere fishing and I slip and fall and get all scuffed up or bruised or hurt or whatever, I think to myself, ‘ok, well now I’m going to catch fish because I’ve hurt myself’. And so these are things I’ve said many times over the years fishing, and I’d say that this is actually a true thing…most of the time. And part of the reason why this has ended up being a true thing is that you have a better chance of catching fish if you’re fishing in a part of the river that’s way harder to get to. Because, the average person is probably a little bit lazy, and they’re also not going to take risks. And so if you drive up to some spot and you get out of your car and you walk right down to the river and fish there, that’s probably where like a million people have fished. But if you’re like walking up the narrow steep river canyon, or trying to go down some spot where there’s not a path, and just try to go cross country to get to the river, if it’s really hard to get there, then hardly anyone or perhaps no one has fished there before. When you get to those spots, and I’ve been to a number of those spots in my life, the fishing can be just absolutely fantastic.

Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Washington and Oregon (where he hopes to someday retire so he can “go fly fishing every single day for the rest of [his] life”) and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.

Collector Analysis: In much the same way as there is folklore associated with different professions, there is also folklore associated with different hobbies; in this case, fly fishing. This particular proverb is interesting in that it implies a sort of balance in nature, and that everything has a cost. Specifically, if you want to catch fish, you have to prove that you really want them by bleeding a little. Of course, the informant’s explanation as to why this particular piece of wisdom is more correct than not is spot on. Also, humans tend to have an interesting relationship with pain. This collector has experienced independent times in which, when receiving a mild injury while performing a task, will think ‘well, I knew I was going to injure myself while performing this task, and now that I’ve injured myself, I don’t have to worry about it anymore. This particular piece of folklore is very probably just an extension of a similar chain of thought.



My informant is a father of three who lives just outside of Boston with his wife of over 30 years. He is originally from Cambridge, MA, but moved to central MA when he was younger. Graduating from Tufts, Northwestern, and the getting his PHD at MIT, he is an engineering professor.


Interviewee: I was out fishing with my father-in-law, Billy, on the lake in New Hampshire. He has a house up there. Well not him, but his mom. It is a big house where that side of the family has family reunions. And it’s right on the lake, so me and him go fishing up there a lot.

Interviewer: What type of fishing?

Interviewee: They have like a small boat. It’s almost like a tin can. I mean sometimes we’ll do trout fishing in the brook up there, but not during the family reunion. It’s too much of a hassle.

So anyways, we were fishing and I caught a small fish. Like a small, it wasn’t like a sunfish, you know? Because those I can never get. Especially out there, that deep. It was like a small bass. But it was too small to do anything with; I wasn’t gonna eat it or anything. So I carefully tried to get it back to the water, you know? Took the hook out slowly, made sure I didn’t hurt it.

Interview: Because they’re fragile?

Interviewee: Yeah, exactly.

So, I’m taking care of this fish, and Billy, he’s just watching me. And I let it go, and he says, “If St. Francis saw you he would be so proud.”

And I say, “If St. Francis was here he’d have the fish jumping in the boat.”

So we go back to fishing. I put another worm on my line and everything. Cast it out. Next thing you know I got a big bass on the line. And it’s putting up a big fight. The tin can boat is rocking, I’m reeling and reeling as hard as I can, and then I feel it go under the boat. Suddenly the line goes slack. And then I just here this big “Billy” laugh. A belly laugh, his whole body laughing.

I turn to see what’s so funny, and he just points down. I look and sure enough there was the fish flapping around in the boat. It had jumped in the boat!


The informant went on to tell me that this particular story has been repeated and told by people in the family who were not even there. It has even been performed as a skit for the family. It is considered to be one of the classic stories of New Hampshire and of this family.

First when dissecting this story it is important to note the obvious religious connotations. Both Billy and my informant were religious, though not strict practicers, so when this happened there was definitely a part of them that wondered what just happened. That is of course what makes the story so compelling. Is it a coincidence or is it a story about Saint Francis showing his presence at that moment to those two men? That mystery makes it enticing.

It is interesting because when and where this took place probably has a lot of reason as to why it is so popular to this family. That location is very special to them, so for them to feel like they and that place is blessed makes sense. They feel blessed to be around their family, and fortunate to have had so many happy family reunions there. If someone said God or a supernatural presence was there, I’m sure that they would buy it more than if you told them they were somewhere else.

Bananas on Boats


It was the last full day of my Spring Break vacation in Maui, and my parents and I had signed up for a snorkel/snuba tour out to Molokini Crater and Turtle Beach. The weather was rather poor – a light drizzle – and the water was slightly choppy. I was unable to swim that day, so I stayed on the boat with captain and most of the crew. I got to talking with the captain of the boat, and asked him if he knew of any sailing superstitions, as I knew that there were tons of them.



Me: So do you know of any sailing legends or superstitions?

Informant: Well, I don’t know if this counts as a legend or something else, but there is an old Hawaiian – it started actually as a Hawaiian lore –

Me: Okay.

Informant: And it is regarding bananas on boats.

Me: Okay?

Informant: Yeah. Have you heard of this before?

Me: No, I have not.

Informant: Allegedly, it is bad luck to take bananas out on a boat. The reason being, you know, that it will lead to bad weather or mishaps or something like that. And the reason it came to be, from my understanding, and from now, what I understand it is pretty much worldwide.

Me: Okay.

Informant: From my understanding, it is something that people from anywhere are told this, and they are told to not bring bananas on a boa. But it started in Hawaii. When they did their runs from Samoa to Tahiti to Hawaii to Fiji and to all those places…

Me: Yeah?

Informant: They, you know, obviously needed food for these long journeys in these outrigger canoes, sailing canoes. And os they would load up green coconuts, green bananas, taros – things like that that would last a while. And they would start their journey. To you know, to Tahiti or Fiji or wherever they’re going.

Me: Yeah.

Informant: And they would be fishing the whole time because they needed protein and such and so you would catch fish. And the fishing was not really all that good until the bananas were gone. And so, after the green bananas finally ripened and the everyone ate the bananas, all of a sudden they would start catching fish.


Informant: and so they believed that, you know, that once the bananas were gone they would catch fish and good things would happen. They didn’t really put two and two together that once they got a few days out where the fishing was better and they would start catching fish. So that’s where that came from.

Me: That is really cool.

Informant: Yeah. Here’s one of my more memorable experience concerning this. I remember, before I captained this boat, doing tours out to Molokini and Turtle Beach and other snorkel/snuba spots, I was a fisherman. You know, big game fish – ahi, mahi mahi, the like. Huge fish.

Me: Uh huh.

Informant: And my first mate was a Hawaiian, and he believed in this superstition wholeheartedly, would refuse to bring a banana on board. So one day, I wanted to prove to him that this superstition was baloney. So I hung a huge, huge bunch of bananas on the boat, and proceeded out to go about my day.

Me: And what happened?

Informant: At the end of the day, we brought in about 3200 pounds of fish.

Me: Wow, that’s a lot of fish.

Informant: Yes, and I told my mate, “See? There’s nothing to this banana superstition.” And he replied to me, “But, if we didn’t have the bananas on board, we would have caught 4000 pounds today, rather than 3200 pounds.” I gave up on trying to convince him that bananas did not bring bad luck when on a boat.

Me: Hah. That is awesome. Well, thank you very much for this. It is certainly something that I did not know before.

Informant: You are very welcome. I hope this project of yours goes well.



This superstition, like many others, deals with the forbidden, or something that is believed to bring bad luck. The explanation that the informant gave for the origins was truly interesting, in that it revealed how a superstition comes into being. The Hawaiians, and the Polynesian peoples in general, taking green fruits, including bananas, onto their outrigger canoes, and supplementing their provisions with fish, would have realized quite quickly that it wasn’t until the bananas were gone that they began catching more and more fish. Thus the belief that bananas on boats were unlucky.  A superstition is born when one action is believed to be correlated with another action or state of being. In this example, the first action is bananas on boats, and the second action is no fish getting caught, and the state of being is unlucky. Also, the fact that this belief spread worldwide is interesting. The Polynesians were some of the greatest seafarers of the Pacific, and so they would have passed on the superstition of bananas on boats being unlucky to the peoples that they met on their voyages at sea. Furthermore, they almost certainly would have influenced the American and European sailors who can to Oceania as well. Thus, given that the only method of travel between Oceania, America, Europe, and Asia was by boat, it is not surprising that a, originally Polynesian superstition has now become a belief that sailors worldwide are familiar with, whether they actually believe it or not.

The god Maui forms the Hawaiian islands

My informant was born and raised in Hawaii. He talked about one of the Hawaiian myths that he learned while growing up:

“So one of the stories of ancient Hawaiian folklore is the story of Maui—the God Maui, and how he pulled up the Hawaiian islands. So one day, Maui being a little bit mischievous in his own right, tricked his brothers to take him out fishing. But as he paddled, Maui was on the other side of the canoe, and so he tossed his line. But instead of letting it hook a fish, he dropped it all the way down to the sea floor. And so his brothers, surprised by the large ‘fish’ that Maui caught, asked Maui what was going on. But Maui, the trickster that he is, convinced his brothers that it was just a really big fish. And so his brothers pulled and pulled, and eventually, Maui brought up what we know today as the Hawaiian islands.”

This story is a myth because it takes place “before” the real world, and has a sacred truth value. It is an example of a creation story; it explains how something came to be. This story has been passed down since the times before there were any scientific explanations of volcanoes or how they worked. Because of its antiquity and its association with an important Hawaiian god, this story is still told to people like my informant. Knowing this story connects him to the ancient Hawaiians and reinforces his own identity as a local Hawaiian. Thus, the functions of this folklore evolved: it was originally explanatory, and now its significance lies more in its cultural relevance. People no longer refer to it to explain how the Hawaiian islands came to be, but it is still a valuable piece of folklore because it keeps old Hawaiian beliefs and customs alive.

**For a written recording of this story, see Maui Goes Fishing by Julie Steward Williams (1991). It is a published version of the same story; it was written and illustrated for children.