Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Super Superstitious

I never realized how super superstitious Hong Kong is. Yes there are many dictums in Chinese culture. For instance the number '8' and '9' are good because they sound like 'prosperity' and 'longevity,' respectively. So if your bank has the address of '8' or '88' or '888,' that will get you lots of Chinese customers. But you never want the number '4,' because that sounds like 'death'...unless, well I don't want to go into that.
So this morning's headline in the South China Morning Post: Short Straw Dims New Year Glow. Turns out the chairman of the rural affairs body drew stick #27 on the city's behalf in the Taois ceremony at the Che Kung temple. A fortune-teller (yes this is front page headline news) at the temple said the short stick showed that the city could not isolate itself from economic turbulence, but Hongkongers could be 'cautiously optimistic.' Feng shui masters differed, one reading that there would be possible conflicts between the government and its people, while another reminded that 'only a harmonious society with people staying united can enable us to get through our challenges.'

That same night, one of the fireworks barges launching spectacle in Victoria Harbour caught on fire. No one was injured.

My first hint of super superstitious Hong Kong was when Tom, just Tom, a friend of my cousin Paul told me that his Hong Kong architecture firm has a fortune teller on their payroll, who makes monthly reports of what should be done. For instance, Tom was born in the year of the Goat and this new year of the Ox will be very difficult for Goats, but a golden Rat will deflect all of the bad fortune. Tom is a Belgian, raised in Sweden, and not particularly superstitious; but when all around him, when the payroll speaks, better go with the flow. Tom soon after bought a tiny gold coin with a Rat embossed on it.

Inquiring about a nicely renovated building that remained empty, a real estate agent suddenly looked glum. 'That street...' My cousin asks, '...has ghosts?'  'No,' replied the real estate agent. 'It's...' he couldn't find the word in English, but took the back of his business card and drew a coffin. 'They make...on that street. So no Chinese wants to buy that building.' He said he used to play on that street as a little boy, this real estate agent, and didn't feel anything. But the air around his telling of the story...perhaps it will remain a permanent listing, until some foreigner comes along.

Speaking of super, the ritual of this week's Super Bowl is not lost on the Brit view from here. The U.S. must be pumped, what with having two national events within 2 weeks--the Inauguration and now the Cardinals vs. the Steelers. New Franchise vs. Legendary Franchise of the 70's.

It's seen as a celebration of friendship, an event celebrated with friends instead of family. It's a moment when American becomes one, especially in this download/tivo age when a giant chunk of the nation is doing the same thing at the same time. The proof of unity comes from the fact that fewer Americans kill themselves during the Super Bowl than other Sundays at this time of year (perhaps the Inauguration too, as a national experience gives vulnerable people a sense of belonging.)

It also celebrates the U.S. of today, whereas Thanksgiving celebrates a semi-imagined rural history, Christmas celebrates Christ's history, and Independence Day celebrates the Founding Father's history. And to mark the occasion: a plethora of newly unveiled commercials, especially designed for this huge demographic--the bud bowl, the exploding tobasco fly, underdog Budweiser clydesdale high-fiving canine trainer to Rocky theme, firebreather impressing first date with lighting candles, only to be allergic to her cat.

A celebration of winners, of TV, of masculinity...'The players are gods of young masculinity, the head coaches are gods of middle age, and the cheerleaders goddesses of femininity designed for males.'

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