Getting an ang pow is the only time people love to see red. These flaming packets, though, come with rules that some non-Chinese may not be aware of.
First, some basics:
- You never give an ang pow if you’re not married and for those who tied the knot less than a year ago, it’s two packs per pax (tough luck, but it’s for the greater good)
- It totally isn’t cool to give cheques or coins – having to cash the thing really takes the fun out of it and c’mon it’s an envelope, not a purse.
- Don’t ever give an empty packet; like most symbolic gestures, the thought isn’t the only thing that counts.
- For the love of snake rice, don’t ever commit the Ibrahim Ali boo-boo of giving a white packet unless you think it’s awesome to tell people “Gong Xi Fa Cai! May your parents die well!”
- Never give ang-pows before the first day of CNY or after the fifteenth day; kick-off begins on the dot and there is no extra time. Even if you get an ang pow way after the Chap Goh Mei deadline, be smart enough not to brag about it on Facebook.
Then, there is the subtle stuff:
- Always accept the ang pow with two hands; the giver isn’t some TESCO dude handing you change.
- Never send or receive electronic ang pows; ‘virtual’ ang pows makes as much sense as virtual air.
- Finally, no matter how much the Chinese talk about wealth and prosperity, one does not simply give CNY cash to people without the red packet (it’s safer to walk into Mordor naked). “Oh, sorry I don’t have a red packet but, look, here’s RM20, why don’t you take the cash and pass me those pineapple tarts?” – that’s messed up
‘Pointless’ Yet Productive
Ang pows, like everything about Chinese New Year, remind us that forms and rules cannot be ignored. Just because those dancing lions aren’t real, it doesn’t mean they don’t matter for what’s real. Firecrackers, the Mandarin oranges, not sweeping the floor for fifteen days, winning at Black Jack – and even the colour red – they mirror a world (of spirits, of convention, of the virtual) co-existing with our ‘everyday’ world (of cheese-burgers, traffic jams and Windows crashes).
The ‘fiction’ of giving money in a shiny crimson paper envelope upholds our being ‘wrapped up’ in roles and identities not quite our own. This is a game of Pretend at its communal best – it may be ‘fake’ (or so we think), but it still ‘works’.
For isn’t it true that every day we play pretend and it’s not all fun? We pretend to care, to bother, to know, to be thinking. We pretend to be more than we know we’re not. Every hour we struggle with roles like ‘parent’, ‘spouse’, ‘leader’, ‘activist’ – even ‘human’. We’re wearing so many hats we sometimes wear another hat simply to minimize the trauma of hat-wearing.
What’s more, we also need to be pretended to – life would be unbearable if everyone was completely honest with us. Our world would shatter if people smiled at or greeted us only ‘if they felt like it’. The financial world would collapse if bank brochures told the truth that everybody pretends they don’t already know: that the only thing worse than robbing a bank is starting one (i.e. one makes thievery an anti-social felony, the other makes it a politically protected privilege). The social world would be in disarray if ‘pointless’ statements like “How are you?”, “What’s up?”, “Hi/Bye” (or our all time favourite, “I love you”) were probed too deeply for their essences and sincerity.
We’re all in this together. Yet by feigning, we commit ourselves to each other even if we ‘really’ don’t want to. We help others create fantasies for their world even as we rely on everybody else acting as if they believe what we do. These are the worlds ‘in between’ this one: The mutually constructed yet non-negotiable holograms we need in order to exist socially.
They are pseudo-realities everyone makes and half-breaks every day and moment. They appear through our words, his façades, her cries, their hand-shakes, those emails and everybody’s silences. We survive by pretending and we cannot live if others don’t. Occasionally, our fragile veils are taken off and we detect strange things in others but also – thankfully – the desire to be loved and to contribute despite having had their innermost lives exposed (or status-updated).
Worlds Dark and Divine
Of course the worst kind of feigning – and thus the blackest of realities produced – is by leaders who make it a point to deceive or incite all in order to strip society of its resources and values. This is the most insidious sort of masquerade because it hides the wilful exclusion of others, especially the least of the least.
Thus, Tun Dr Mahathir can pretend to care about the citizenship status of immigrants to Sabah whilst hardly pretending to care about the living conditions of the orang asli and the poorest in that very same state. Our dear PM himself can pretend to care about Chinese and Christians whilst he allows folks like Ibrahim Ali to continue being entirely honest about how much he hates them. The only good news from all this is that the veils can’t hide the darkness anymore. In such a rot, the people are forced to throw off all pretenses, not to mention the gloves (think HINDRAF, BERSIH).
And then there is a more sublime kind of unveiling showing off a better kind of world. It’s the kind that Michelle Ng alluded to in her Feb 5th essay, written in the context of the on-going ‘Allah’ controversy. She, a Christian, declared to her Muslim friends that:
“(Even if) the day comes when Christianity is prohibited in Malaysia, when our churches and bibles are forced to cease to exist, I can assure you that we will still welcome you into our homes with open arms; we will feed you when you’re hungry and we will care for you if need be; and we will pray for you every day.”
That’s our new world right there. An in-breaking imaginary which not only brings hope to the country’s politics but also redefines the political. Ng’s promise to forgive and pray for those who persecute her is undoubtedly too Christian for many Christians; we should only hope it’s not too un-Malaysian for Malaysia. Her remarks proclaim another world so blindingly beautiful that most folks can’t deal with the shock of taking Ng seriously. Maybe this proves that the best kind of world is that which has to remain obscure for now, and presented to us in drama, sign, gesture and spectacle – like a wooden lion turned on by cymbals and drums, suddenly needing to gyrate and eat oranges and lettuce.
Chinese New Year is not only a celebration of a new twelve months under the Lunar calendar, but it can also be a declaration that enjoyable fiction begets new realities. The noise, the food, the colours – they all point to the casting out of evil and the inviting in of the good. It’s a 15-day nation-wide concert to ask the universe to do it again – better this time. Red storm rising, new worlds coming.
Happy Chinese New Year, Malaysia.