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  • Catching Up: Santana, Taj Mahal and a déjà vu ‘Blue Christmas’

    Posted by Ben Fong-Torres

    By Ben Fong-Torres It’s short shrift time. I have a life that’s ripe (and slightly wrinkled) for blogs and tweeting; for facebooking and updating. I’m just no good at it. My last column here on AsianConnections was about the memorial in late July for my sister Shirley. My last posting on the authors’ site, Redroom, was about a radio promo tour I did (20 stops, all on the phone...

Telling Stories and Barking Like Dogs

Ben Fong-Torres

Chinese New Year: Time to exchange those oranges!

Not long ago, I was invited to participate in the Porch Light storytelling series thats taken hold here in San Francisco. Produced by author Beth Lisick and various pals, it fills local nightclubs with people who wantof all thingsto sit and hear anecdotes. Not standup comedy; not improv sketchesjust plain old stories.

It was astonishing to walk down the stairs of Caf du Nord on upper Market Street and into a packed house, all these friendly people ready to lend an ear to the likes of Chuck Prophet, the singer-songwriter; Oscar Villalon, the book reviews editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, Andrea Michaels, former writer for the sitcom Designing Women and game show contestant (she won a motor home on Wheel of Fortune)and me (I lost an RV during my 1993 stint on the Wheel, but am still driving my prize Acura Legend).

I am not a story teller and cheated by riffing, as briefly as I could, on the topic for the eveningfamily, and then, because it was Christmas (remember that word?) and I was talking (vaguely) about how our family observed holidays, I cheated by launching into Elvis Blue Christmas.

It went over all right, but, still, it was cheating. But it couldve been worse. I couldve ignored a cardinal Porch Light rule and done a reading instead of telling stories.

In fact, until Beth pounded that into me, Id prepared to read from a chapter in my memoirs, The Rice Room. It told of my mother, freshly landed in Oakland, Calif. and left at home while my father worked at his restaurant, got freaked out one night when bands of youngsters, dressed up like ghosts and witches, began knocking on her door and shouting Trick or treat.

Thanksgiving wasnt much more easily explained. And then there was that fat guy in the red suit coming down your chimney. Whatta country.

So, I wouldve picked up with the holiday they did know something about, and read:

While we had tricks and treats and Thanksgiving and Christmas, we also had Chinese New Year every February, or whenever the first day of each Lunar Year arrived. To us, the Chinese calendar was confusing, with New Year --and Mom's and Dad's birthdays -- falling on different dates every year.

The Chinese also make New Year a two-week-long affair, and I never did figure out the difference between Hon Neen (which seemed to precede the actual New Year) and Hoy Neen (which meant "open year" and, Id guess, the beginning of the new year). At some point, we knew that we'd receive hoong bow -- little red envelopes containing a coin, given by adults to children to reward them for good manners and to wish them good luck.

I knew that, no matter how far from home, the children were expected to gather for dinner on those days hon neen and hoy neen -- in a show of family unity. Every year, our parents would put out their round, lacquered, wood platter -- called by some a "tray of togetherness" and by others a "tray of prosperity" -- with eight compartments for a variety of sweets: candied melon (for health), sugared coconut strips (togetherness), kumquat (prosperity), lichee nuts (strong family ties), melon seeds (dyed red to symbolize happiness), lotus seeds (many children), and longan (many good sons).

All over the house, there'd be bowls and platters piled high with oranges and tangerines, which meant good luck and wealth, and wherever Chinese visited during the two weeks of New Year celebration, they would bring gifts of fruit and go through an exercise of manners that befuddled us.

The hosts would chide the visitors for bringing oranges.

"Oh, not necessary," they would say, knowing full well that the gift was almost mandatory in Chinese tradition.
The guests would insist; the hosts would relent. Then, at the end of the visit, the hosts would pile the guests up with oranges and tangerines.

"Oh, no, no," the departing guests would protest, fully prepared to accept the exchange of fruit -- which they would bring to their next hosts.

At dinner, every course, as with every aspect of the New Year celebration, was laden with symbolism and purpose. We had to have chicken, simply steamed and presented whole, indicating completeness. The same reasoning applied to fish, roast suckling pig with thick, crunchy skin and an even thicker layer of fat, and, as a yin-yang balance, a vegetarian dish called "Buddha's monk stew," composed of Chinese vermicelli (noodles, uncut, symbolize long life), fermented bean curd, cloud ears, tiger lily flowers, and gingko nuts.

Before dinner, we'd set off firecrackers outside the house -- to ward off evil spirits -- and create an echo of what for most Chinese was the highlight of New Year's: the parade through Chinatown, San Francisco, with its block-long golden dragon. We rarely made it over to Dai Fow, but contented ourselves with Oakland's street celebrations. On Webster and surrounding streets, teams of young lion dancers from judo and karate schools made the rounds of business establishments and family associations, which hired the lions to chase off bad influences with their supernatural powers. While neighbors and passersby gathered to watch, they performed amidst gongs, drums, and exploding firecrackers, and, at show's end, climbed high, ignoring lit fireworks at their feet, to snatch a string of hoong bow -- payment to the lions for warding off the demons.

I was fascinated by the lion's head, with the blinding primary colors, the bulging, bejeweled, fur-browed eyes and the pom poms springing out of its forehead. The lead dancer would hoist it over his head, thrust and jerk it up and about, and flap its extended tongue and white-whiskered lower jaw, dancing acrobatically with two other men who worked under a long, multicolored fabric train behind him, forming the body of the lion.

Back at the New Eastern, I'd take a cardboard box that had held eggs and, with paper, water colors, crayons, string, and fabrics Mother had left over from her garment work, fashion my own lion's head, complete with a flapping lower lip. Barry and Shirley were happy to pound on garbage can lids or a Quaker Oats box while I pranced around the backyard.

Our parents were delighted that we would embrace Chinese New Year with such enthusiasm.

So theres yer story. Its odd. Now that, in my dotage, Ive begun having oatmeal as my breakfast (supplanting my ususal Spam frittata dusted with Baco-Bits), I have Quaker Oats boxes in my life again. But the tops arewhat else?plastic, and its just not the same.

P.S. After the Porch Light show, Andrea Michaels, my fellow Wheel of Fortune contestant, and I stayed in touch. In fact, she came over the other night, and we showed our videotapes of our Wheel runs to each other. When she discovered shed won the motor home, she exclaimed, Oh, no!

Hilarious. But she meant it. The good news is: she did manage to get rid of it.

Its time for the Chinese New Year Parade, for which, for the ninth year, I get to be co-anchor on KTVU (Fox 2) on February 11th. Itll be my sixth time with the lovely and unflappable Julie Haener, the stations 6 oclock news anchor. And, because its the year of the dog, I helped KTVU score Amy Tan for one of its Chinese New Year vignettes, short features aired numerous times in the weeks ramping up to the parade. Amy is known for her devotion to her two Yorkies, Bubba and Liliput, and they put in an appearance with her. I understand there was very little barking. And the doggies behaved, too.

They will not, however, be attending one of the biggest events associated with the new year: The San Francisco Symphonys Imperial Dinner and Concert, on February 1st. I was happy to serve on the event committee. The dinner, in City Hall, sold out quickly, but there are still tickets for the concert, an East-meets-West program of Chinese music, featuring 18 year-old pianist Yuja Wang and pipa virtuoso Wu Man. For info, go, quick, to SFSymphony.org.