Category Archives: Chinese Culture

Review : Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi

Book Review of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of Shanghai by Wang Anyi

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A Novel of ShanghaiMy Thoughts after Reading

This literary fiction is translated from a Chinese work. It takes its title from a classic Tang dynasty poem about the tragic love between the Emperor and his favourite concubine.

Right from the opening chapter, the author invites you to step inside the world and relish in every minutiae of Shanghai life. I am amazed at how the author is able to describe so much about everyday things we take for granted, from apartment blocks to pigeons.

I recognised some of the expressions in Chinese. In some ways, I would say the beauty of the language in the original text is lost in translation. I say this because a single word in Chinese, after translation, becomes a three syllable word in English, or a string of words to describe the same context. When the rhythm is lost, the reader can only grasp about 70-80% of the author’s original intent.

This story centres on Wang Qiyao, from a high-schooler all the way to her death decades later. Although she is the main character, this account is narrated from a detached omniscient view. Right to the end, I didn’t really understand her. I felt as if I’ve seen her entire life through frosted glass. People came and went in her life. They seem to be drawn to her, but apart from her beauty, I could not understand why. She lived through the tumultuous times in China history, but the author has skirted round these historical events. We get little hints that it’s going on outside.

Nonetheless, the unhurried pace allows you to immerse completely in every aspect of Shanghai life. 3/5

Goodreads Blurb

Set in post-World War II Shanghai, “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” follows the adventures of Wang Qiyao, a girl born of the “longtong,” the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods.

Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant, and this fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. During the next four decades, Wang Qiyao indulges in the decadent pleasures of pre-liberation Shanghai, secretly playing mahjong during the antirightist Movement and exchanging lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Surviving the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history, Wang Qiyao emerges in the 1980s as a purveyor of “old Shanghai”–a living incarnation of a new, commodified nostalgia that prizes splendor and sophistication–only to become embroiled in a tragedy that echoes the pulpy Hollywood noirs of her youth.

From the violent persecution of communism to the liberalism and openness of the age of reform, this sorrowful tale of old China versus new, of perseverance in the face of adversity, is a timeless rendering of our never-ending quest for transformation and beauty. 

Making Small Talk about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Small talk. That little exchange of pleasantries. An introvert’s nightmare. What do you say? How do you to keep the conversation going?

Here in England, the English love to talk about the weather as it is so changeable here. It’s a great filler topic.Blog 15 Making Small Talk in TCM 1 If you are in the company of the Chinese, however, small talk evolves around food and health. Specifically,  heaty and cooling foods. The Chinese believe in the balance of yin and yang (light and dark) in life. This also applies to food, which can give yin or yang energy. I’d  have a cup of chrysanthemum tea, and someone will say, “That’s cooling. It’s winter, you should be drinking something more heaty.” Then the conversation goes in the direction of what drinks classify as being ‘heaty’. Or during the seasonal durian party in Singapore, someone will the comment about how heaty the fruit is. A huge discussion follows, on the ways to ‘cool’ our bodies down after eating durian .

I stretched this ‘heaty’ concept when I created one of the characters in my story. Ah-Fu was described as having a lot of fire in him. I also mentioned consulting physicians and prescription of herbs. Later on in the book, Yipor, the village elder, used ginger to heal her bad leg. These medicinal concepts tie in with my visit to London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, where I saw plants that heal, nourish and sustain. I will continue this theme of health, particularly as we head into the season of colds and flu. Just like most people, I am not a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) expert, but let’s pretend we are in a social environment and making conversation. Invariably, in this cold winter days, you will know someone whose got the bug or who’s been off sick, or who’s tried countless remedies without avail. Well, here are two things I’d talk about.

Colds and Ginger

Ginger is a ‘heaty’ food, so it’s good to have in the winter to offset the cold. Of course this won’t mean anything to you if you are not familiar with TCM. Let’s put it a different way. Scientifically, ginger is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. This explains the why Yipor treated her swollen leg in ginger. When your ankle swells up due to a sprain, wrapping your ankle with a few pieces of ginger will remove the swelling.

Blog 15 Making Small Talk in TCM 2In the same way, if you have indigestion, having some ginger (in tea or in a meal) will take down the bloating feeling. Same for when you have a cold, or a sore throat. Its spiciness warms you up, and offers relief on your throat. In a childish way, I imagine this is a battle ground. The fiery ginger is blasting off the bacteria in my sore throat. As they die off one by one, I feel the pain go away.

In the shops, you can even buy lemon and ginger tea. Whichever way you look at it, keep some form of ginger in your house. It’s a must-have for the winter months.

Coughs and Heat

Coughs are never pleasant. If you have it, you are exhausted by the involuntary recurring spasms. If you are near someone with a cough, the repetitive sound is wearing. Walk into any chemist and you will find a plethora of cough mixtures: for chesty cough, tickly cough, dry coughs etc. Maybe you haven’t found one that works for you, or you find them expensive during the cold season. If you are open to suggestions, here are my thoughts.

Blog 15 Making Small Talk in TCM 3Cold edibles exacerbate coughs. So if you feel a cough coming, ie literally the first couple of times you start coughing, stay away immediately from cold drinks and food. I don’t just mean refrigerated items. Anything that is colder than 37oC is cold to your body. So when I say ‘cold’, I also include room temperature items like bread. After all, room temperature is about 20oC. If you are peckish, have something warm, like toast. Chilled sandwiches or a pot of yoghurt will bring on the cough. Stay away from them!

Blog 15 Making Small Talk in TCM 4

If you need a drink, make sure it’s hot, not water from the tap or from a bottle. I know it sounds bonkers, but just try it for a day, half a day or even a couple of hours. Then switch back to your chilled or room temperature foods. See if your chest tightens, your throat gets ticklish or you start coughing again. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

If you are not used to this type of talk, it will sound like someone is giving gratuitous, unwanted advice, but honestly, it’s just small, friendly talk.

**If my article has intrigued you and you want to know more about TCM, Shennong gives a introduction. Eu Yan Sang is another good website to check out.

This article was first published 15 Nov 2018. Updated 30 Jan 2021. Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is a middle-grade fiction touching on Yipor, Ah Fu and their ailments. It is published by Aurelia Leo.

Don’t read this if you like Chinese food

So, what do the Chinese in China eat, and how different are they? To make sure the Chinese setting of my middle-grade book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, was authentic, I took a trip to China to get a feel for the place. The places I saw inspired my setting. It was befitting to check out the palates too.

When I say Chinese food, you are probably thinking of sweet and sour dishes, Singapore noodles or egg-fried rice. I love them, and I grew up eating these. But that is the variation in Singapore. What we eat, whether the more widely known ones or the regional ones like Hainanese Chicken Rice, has been passed down and modified from our immigrant ancestors. Later, when I went to live in the UK, I discovered many new Chinese dishes. Some are variations of what I had come across in Singapore, like crispy aromatic duck instead of Peking duck. These regional variations are not surprising really, when you think of how large China is. In this article, I will describe the food I ate in South-West China. I must warn you, if you like Chinese food, I am taking you on a mouth-watering journey that leaves you craving for it.

On my first night, I visited a nearby restaurant. The first thing that struck me was the way my crockery was served. It was all wrapped up in plastic. I am not a beer-drinker, but I associate tall or big half-pint glasses with beer. Not in this part of China. If you wanted beer, it was served with a tiny glass.

When I planned my trip, on days out with the guide and arriving late in a new place, I had asked for meals to be provided. I was very glad for this as I would not have discovered new palates otherwise. Here are some of the food I ate. In every meal, regardless of city or countryside, eateries or restaurants, there was always a big bowl of soup to go with the several dishes. The dishes were 75% vegetables. In the more rural places, we were served mushrooms and other vegetables grown and harvested locally.

On this trip, I fell in love with garlic stalks. After my return to Singapore, I discovered the supermarkets sold them. I just hadn’t noticed them before. From then on, fried garlic stalks was a regular dish on my dinner table. Now that I am back in the UK, I miss not being able to purchase these so easily. I’ve tried to grow my own, but I’ve not had much success so far. Naturally, if I had to pick one food to mention in my book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, it’s garlic stalks.

There was only one dish I did not like. In my story, I described how the food tasted like twigs. That was literally what it was like: thin, brown, hard, chewy twigs. Ironically, in this picture, my favourite garlic stalks was next to my least favourite “twigs”.

Garlic Stalks

Yummy stir-fried garlic stalks and chewy “twigs”

The front of the eateries in rural China vary as you can see in the pictures below

Eatery in Jiuzhaigou

Eatery in Jiuzhaigou

(i) I talked about Jiuzhaigou town centre in a previous article. The blue signs, red ornate doors welcome you. Once you step inside, the white walls tell you they are functional places. The menu is on the walls, with pictures of the food so there are no surprises. In our case, that didn’t matter because we didn’t have to choose anything as our driver did all the ordering for us.

Eatery in Huanglongxi

(ii) I thought the eatery in Huanglongxi Ancient Town is the most rustic. I love the outdoor stove and racks of vegetables, all ready to go.  On the ground, the metal basins had fishes; usually one fish per basin. This was so common I had to mention it in my book. We did not stop to eat in any of the eateries. Read on to find out why.

(iii) Comparing all three pictures, naturally the prettiest is from Taoping Qiang. The place where we ate seemed to be someone’s living room. Apart from a round dining table with a lazy susan, there was furniture in dark wood, including one where a TV sat on. Not surprisingly, we weren’t shown a menu. Our guide spoke to someone in Sichuanese and after a short wait, a feast arrived.

Taoping Qiang tearoom

In both the ancient town Huanglongxi and Jiuzhaigou National Park, there were several stalls selling the satay equivalent of barbecued yak and other meats. Since our arrival in South-West China, we had seen so many Yak products in shops, and enduring the aromatic smell of barbecued meat wafting from all directions. So at Huanglongxi we decided to buy a few sticks to snack for lunch. Sichuan is famous for its spicy food; here you can even smell it in the air when you walk past a BBQ stall. I imagined this was how Han, a character in my book, was overwhelmed with the fragrance when he first arrived in Pumi village.

When my trip came to an end, I went back to my writing. Fishes in metal basins, the market’s fragrance, garlic stalks and ‘twigs’ found their way into my story.

 This article was first published 15 July 2018. Updated 30 Jan 2021. Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is published by Aurelia Leo.

Secrets of the Great Fire Tree Book Cover

Fun with Puns and Chinese Food

Fish, abalone, fat choy and prawns

Following my post on lesser known Chinese New Year facts, this article explains why we eat the plethora of foods during these festivities.

If I had to summary them in a word: Puns.

First let me explain that the Chinese language is made up of homonyms. In other words, there are many words in Chinese that sound the same, but mean something totally different. It is this play on words that certain foods are eaten, to signify something that sounds like what is eaten. Here are a few examples.

Fish

For example, at the start of my book, my characters were having the traditional reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Kai’s father put a slice of fish on his bowl and said, “Have some yu. Yes, it’ll be a plentiful year!” ‘Fish’ is Chinese is a homonym with surplus. Both sound the same (yú). Hence, the Chinese believe that if you eat yú, you will have yú. This doesn’t make any sense, what you’ve just read, but here’s another way. If you eat 鱼(ie yú or fish), you will have 余 (ie yú or surplus). Having fish signifies having a surplus, or never want for anything.

Prawns

In my story, Kai’s father helped himself to a prawn. “Laughing hahaha, that’s why we eat ha during the New Year, so we’ll be happy, like we are now.” I took some linguistic liberties here. Depending on which part of China, prawns is pronounced slightly different. It’s all the same Chinese character 虾. In Mandarin, it’s pronounced as s-ee-iah. In Cantonese, it’s pronounced as ha. In Hokkien, it’s pronounced as hey. Nonetheless, whichever way you look to pronounce this character, it still sounds like someone laughing. Having prawns signifies happiness.

Black Fungus

Black fungus doesn’t have any taste to it, but it literally looks like black hair. This dish is a regular entertainment in households with children. Depending on whether the child is squeamish, imaginative or adventurous, serving this ‘black hair’ creates quite a reaction. Hair is homonym with prosper. In fact, both share the same Chinese character (fa, 发). Being a fungus, it is considered a vegetable (cái菜), which is a homonym with riches (cái财). Eating the fa cái (发菜 or black fungus aka ‘hair vegetable’) means you will prosper fa cái (发财).

Pig’s Trotters

Another food mentioned in my book is pigs trotters. It is usually served with the black fungus mentioned above. The pigs trotter signifies hands. Hence, with the black fungus on the hand, it means you have grabbed good fortune.

Abalone

abalone-2306515_640

In Chinese it is bào yú鲍鱼. If you scroll back up to the section on Fish, you will see that the second word is fish. The first word bào, is a homonym with guarantee (bao, 保). In other words, if you eat bào yú鲍鱼, you are guaranteed surpluses (保余).

Yu Sheng

Funwithpunsandchinesefood C

In my previous article I mentioned that this is the dish we eat on the seventh day of Chinese New Year. It is also known as Tossing of the Salad, or Loh Hei 捞起. Literally translated, it means mixing high up. This has become popular in recent years in Singapore because, I believe, it gives a focal point to the gathering. It’s not just something you eat, but what you do as well. The salad is served with the ingredients presented aesthetically for all to admire. Every ingredient signifies something lucky. Here are a few of them.

Red ginger : red 红 (hóng) is homomyn with greatness 鸿 (hóng), the first word of the idiom 鸿运当头, which means great fortune arrives.

Salmon : fish, as explained above.

Rectangular golden-brown batter:  These signify gold nuggets.

Plum sauce : This is a sweet sauce, to signify a sweet year.

Oil : Sesame or vegetable oil is usually used. Oil make things slippery. The scientists in you will know they reduce friction. Where there is no friction things go smoothly. In other words, a smooth year ahead.

Five-spice powder/ pepper : sprinkling of blessings.

Each member of the party is given a pair of chopsticks. The ritual begins when, together, we dig into the dish and lift the ingredients as high as possible. The higher the better as it signifies climbing high in our careers (this is the only time where spilling food on the table is acceptable). As we toss the salad, we shout out lucky words, some related to the ingredients in the salad, others commonly used during Chinese New Year.

I will end this post by saying some of these well wishes.

Gongxi facái 恭喜发财 Wishing you prosperous New Year!

Wànshì rúyì 万事如意 May all things go smoothly!

Xinxiang shìchéng 心想事成 May all your dreams come true!

Last but not least

xinnián kuàile 新年快乐 Happy New Year!

Known ChineseNewYear Facts 6 C

This article was first published 15 Feb 2019. Updated 30 Jan 2021.

Four Lesser-Known Chinese New Year Facts

Known ChineseNewYear Facts 6 C

Chinese New Year (CNY) this year falls on 12 Feb 2021. On this day we usher in the Year of the Ox. It is the biggest Chinese festival. In the earlier scenes of my middle grade book, Kai and his family are celebrating Chinese New Year and I described a few of the more common traditions like reunion dinner. If this is the first time you’ve come across Chinese New Year, here’s a brief introduction before I delve into the lesser known facts.

The actual day of Chinese New Year varies, as it is dependent on the lunar calendar. It falls somewhere mid- January to mid-February. We start the celebrations on New Year’s Eve by having a family reunion dinner. On the first day, we don our new clothes and visit friends and relatives to wish them well for the coming year. Children and unmarried people get red packets (ang pow, 红包) from their married relatives. These red packets contain a token amount of money. Lion dances are everywhere in the fifteen days of celebration as they welcome in the New Year and bring good luck to the businesses.

The Chinese Zodiac is based on a twelve year cycle consisting of twelve animals and each new year is associated with one of these animals. This is the order of the Chinese Zodiac : Rat, Bull, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Cockerel, Dog, Pig. Last year, 2018, was the year of the Dog, the coming new year in 2019 will be the year of the Pig. Those born in the year of that particular animal are believed to possess certain personality traits, and are compatible with people born in particular years. For example, we believe that those born in the year of the Cockerels do not get on with those born in the year of the Dog. Traditionally, this factor is very important in match-making.

Broadly speaking, if you are born March – December in the Gregorian calendar, you can safely assume that you are born in the year of that animal. It’s more complicated if you are born in Jan or Feb, as it depends of when Chinese New Year is that year. In 2018, Chinese New Year was on Feb 16, whilst in 2019, Chinese New Year was on Feb 5. So the  year of the Dog lasts from Feb 16 2018 to Feb 4 2019. In other words, if your birthday falls between these days, most Chinese Zodiac calculators or charts will declare you are born in the year of the Dog. If your birthday was somewhere 1 Jan – Feb 15 2018, then you belong to the previous zodiac sign, ie Cockerel.

Farmer’s Day 立春 Lichun

Except things are never as simple. In reality, there also exist this term “Lichun 立春”, also known as Farmer’s Day. It is the “beginning of springs”, the first term in the 24 solar terms of China. Technically, this is when the sun reaches the celestial longitude of 315o. For most of us, it suffices to know that this usually falls on Feb 4 or 5 every year. The Chinese believe that if your birthday falls before Lichun, then you belong to the Zodiac sign of the previous year.  If your birthday falls after Lichun, then you are considered to be born in the coming Zodiac sign. Going back to my example in 2018, if you are born Feb 4-Feb 14 2018, even though it’s before Chinese New Year that year, you are still born in the year of the Dog.

Complicated, huh?

Lichun, as the official first day of spring, is considered an important day. As the well-known saying goes, start as you mean to go on. So if you do things right on the official first day of the year, it will bode well for the rest of the year. In Singapore, people queue up to bank in money on Lichun. After all, if you have enough money to save on Lichun, that means you’ll be financially sound for the rest of the year. Read this article on the news last year.

FourLesserKnown ChineseNewYear Facts 1

Another fun fact about Lichun. There is a myth: because of where the sun is, celestially, it affects the earth’s gravitational forces. The result? It is easier to stand an egg vertically on this day. Most of us will have a go at it on this day. My record was an entire box of ten eggs.

7th Day : People’s Birthday 人日 Renri

FourLesserKnown ChineseNewYear Facts 2

Renri 人日is believed to be the day humans and animals were created. It falls on the 7th day of the Lunar New Year. Traditionally those who celebrate it will toss a special salad (yu sheng 鱼生), or go vegetarian on this day. In recent years supermarkets have cotton on to this idea and started selling yu sheng sets in the run-up to CNY. So much so that we eat this anytime during the festive season. I will elaborate more on this dish in my blog about food you encounter during CNY.

9th Day : Hokkien New Year Celebrations

FourLesserKnown ChineseNewYear Facts 3

The Chinese Hokkien dialect group mark the 9th day of the Lunar New Year. On this day, you will see sugar canes used as offerings or decorations. This is in remembrance of the day when the Hokkiens were besieged by enemies over the New Year period, and survived by hiding amidst the sugarcane plantations. By the time it was safe come out of, it was already the 9th day of the Lunar New Year.

15th Day : Yuan Xiao Jie 元宵节 or Chap Goh Mei    

The beauty of living in a country where the Chinese from dialect groups live so closely together is that traditions of one dialect group soon blurs into another. Chap Goh Mei, literally translated means 15th day of CNY, is descended from the Hokkien group. It is the equivalent of Valentine’s Day. If you do the math, you’ll realise that there are some years when the Chinese Valentine’s Day falls on the same day as 14 Feb.

The 15th day is also known as yuanxiao jie 元宵节, another day of celebrations to end the festivities. Apart from fireworks displays, lanterns are lit and sweet dumplings eaten.

So there you have it. Chinese New Year is more than the new clothes, reunion dinners, lion dances, red-packets. If you know of any other lesser known CNY traditions, do let me know in the comments below.

Have a Happy and Prosperous Chinese New Year! 恭喜发财!新年快乐!万事如意!

First published 1 Feb 2019. Updated 7 Feb 2021.

Review : Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Middle-grade book review Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Front DeskMy Thoughts after Reading

This middle-grade book is about the struggles of a family of Chinese immigrants who went to America to escape the Cultural Revolution in China.

Mia’s parents took up this job running a motel as it offered free accommodation. However, the package was not an perfect as they were led to believe and the family have to work very hard just to make ends meet. Mia enrols in a new school and makes a new friend. At home, she takes care of the front desk duties. We are introduced to the weekly tenants and fellow Chinese immigrants. Before long, she shows us how efficient and resourceful she is.

Moving to a new country is never easy, even more so if you don’t speak the language. In this account, we also see the struggles of fellow immigrants, their culture shocks and gaffs and the traps they fall into. There is also a strong theme on racial prejudice she experiences and witnesses. This book has several themes that can be explored in a classroom. Mia’s approach to seeking justice on behalf of her friends is worthy of discussion.

Mia’s struggles means her maturity is higher than your average middle-grade reader. This book can be extended to a young YA reader. If you are looking for a similar theme aimed for a younger reader, Pie in the Sky is worth checking out. 3/5

Goodreads Blurb

Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

The Mid-Autumn Festival – The Singapore Way

The Mid-Autumn Festival this year is 1 Oct 2020. Like Chinese New Year, it is in the lunar calendar, and falls on the 15th day of the eighth month. Although this festival is not mentioned in my middle-grade book, it is an annual festival celebrated by the Chinese. Like the Dumpling Festival, this festival also has several names: Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节), Mooncake Festival, Lantern Festival. This is because there are two key aspects to the Mid-Autumn Festival : Mooncake and Lanterns. Let me give you a little background and how it’s celebrated in Singapore.

Mid-Autumn Festival Background

The moon, being at its biggest and roundest at mid-autumn, symbolises unity and harmony. Offerings are made to the moon and families get together in reunions, eating mooncake and drinking tea. Children get to stay up late and play with one another.

The most popular legend surrounding the festival is Chang-E 嫦娥, the Lady of the Moon. She is the reason why we make the offerings to the moon. She was married to Hou-yi 后羿, a hero worshipped for shooting down the nine suns. Loving his new-found fame, Hou-yi wanted to live forever and ordered the elixir of life to be found. Only Chang-E saw how he had become cruel and arrogant. When it was presented to him, Chang-E stole it. As soon as she drank it, she floated to the moon, where she remains till today.

1 The Mid-Autumn Festival – Traditions, Modernisations and Fusions Chang-E

Mooncake

Synonymous to Christmas, giving of mooncake is customary. Just like shops are inundated with attractively packaged gifts at Christmas, there is a plethora of mooncake for sale during this time. Departmental stores hold special Mooncake Fairs. If you ever find yourself in a country celebrating it, do check it out. It is an unforgettable experience. And I’m not just talking about the crowds.

2 The Mid-Autumn Festival – Traditions, Modernisations and Fusions Mooncake fair

Someone once told me, ‘The best thing about mooncakes is the boxes they come in.’ Indeed, the packaging are very much an art in itself. Mooncakes are often sold in packs of four. Designers have a field day coming up with ways of holding them. Not just your ordinary a square-shaped cake box . Here are some for you to enjoy. Indeed they are the packaging of mooncakes, not mini- furniture, stationery drawers, cosmetic sorters, sewing kits, treasure chests or even vintage lunch-boxes.

We’ve gone through a lot of trouble with the packaging. What about the mooncake itself? The traditional ones have brown pastry and filled with lotus-paste. Some have salted eggs, a symbolism to the note hidden in these first cakes leading to the uprising against the Yuan Dynasty.

This is another reason why we have mooncakes and lanterns. During this era, curfew was enforced, posts and messages were checked. Nevertheless, a rebellion was planned and the exact date and time of the uprising was communicated in a note was hidden in cakes. The guards were taken by surprise and the uprising was successful. Since it happened at midnight, lanterns were used.

Mooncakes have evolved to suit modern palates. All is not lost if you dislike the traditional lotus-paste filling. Modern fusion mooncakes have fillings that range from fruity to stodgy ones like chocolate truffles or ice-cream.

Those who dislike the pastry can now also opt for the snow-skin mooncakes. These snow icing open up the colour palette in mooncake stalls.

There’s so much choice, where does one start to decide what to buy? Fortunately, at Mooncake Fairs, you can taste the flavours when you go around the stalls. The mooncake is cut up into cubes and toothpicks are provided to pick up the little pieces.

At home, when serving mooncake to guests, you cut it in quarters. It is very sweet, and tea is usually drunk with it. Not surprisingly, tea companies have jumped on this lucrative band wagon, selling tea-infused mooncakes, with or without their own tea. I found this in a TWG brochure.

16 The Mid-Autumn Festival – Traditions, Modernisations and Fusions TWG Tea fusion

Piglet Biscuits (猪仔饼)

These are made to attract children with their cutsie little baskets. Traditionally, these biscuits are made from left-over dough from the mooncake pastry, decorated into little animals. Their prices are also a fraction of mooncake, so these are good alternatives for economising households.

Lanterns

During the run-up to this festival, you will see shops selling lanterns. The lanterns have evolved over the years. The paper lanterns you are accustomed to seeing, like the ones below, are mainly used for decorating.

17 The Mid-Autumn Festival – Traditions, Modernisations and Fusions Traditional paper and cellophane lanterns

But lanterns are not just used for display during this festival. They are a treat for children; this is the one night they can stay up late and walk about in the dark with their colourful lanterns. Naturally, for this target audience, they come in all shapes and sizes. Traditionally, these lanterns have a bamboo or metal frame and painted colourful cellophane paper wrapped round, like the bird in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture above. They come in many shapes, mainly animals and transportation. With the metal frames, they can be flattened to thin packages for sale.

In the middle of each is a candle holder. Naturally, for a young child this is difficult to handle, and many tears have been shed on the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival because a child drops the lantern and the candle burns up the beautiful cellophane, leaving only the ugly frame.

Thankfully, today you can find battery-powered lanterns. Some even come with music when you turn it on. Be warned. Buying a child with one of these is synonymous to giving a drum kit. That tune will go on and on and on. And on.

If you are travelling to the Far-East, September is a good time to go as there are many colourful lantern events going on. If you are researching Chinese traditions other than Chinese New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival is one that appeals to both children and adults.

Mid-Autumn Festival books

If you want to some books on the Mid-Autumn Festival, Loretta Seto’s Mooncake is a good picture book to introduce the festival. For middle-grade, check out Grace Lin’s Starry River of the Sky. It is inspired by the legends surrounding the Mid-Autumn festival. As in the style in this series, one of the tales in this book is about the Lady of the Moon 嫦娥.

Happy Mid-Autumn!

27 The Mid-Autumn Festival 6 Lanterns C

 

First published 24 Sep 2018. Updated 19 Sep 2020.

 

Review : Queen of Physics by Teresa Robeson

Book review on Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom by Teresa Robeson

Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the AtomMy Thoughts after Reading

In school we are taught many science concepts which are invariably associated with men from Europe and America, even though China has  existed much longer as a civilisation. As such I am always interested in books about women-in-Science, and this one stands out for me because she is from China.

The illustrations are great. It portrays the lives in China very well. I also enjoyed reading about her background. This is perfect to introduce diversity and culture in picture books. When it came to the science and her achievement, I am not sure what I feel about it. I am not a physicist and the concepts are not familiar to me. Despite it being a picture book, they are still too abstract for me. For this reason, I wonder if this is suitable to be classed as a picture book. It seems more apt for tween readers, who have might have some knowledge of the atomic structure and would be ready to learn more about it.

Nevertheless she is someone we should know about, especially when she has been over-looked for the Nobel Prize, which is yet another example of the Matilda Effect. 3/5

Goodreads Blurb

Meet Wu Chien Shiung, famous physicist who overcame prejudice to prove that she could be anything she wanted.

When Wu Chien Shiung was born in China 100 years ago, most girls did not attend school; no one considered them as smart as boys. But her parents felt differently. Giving her a name meaning “Courageous Hero,” they encouraged her love of learning and science. This engaging biography follows Wu Chien Shiung as she battles sexism and racism to become what Newsweek magazine called the “Queen of Physics” for her work on beta decay. Along the way, she earned the admiration of famous scientists like Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer and became the first woman hired as an instructor by Princeton University, the first woman elected President of the American Physical Society, the first scientist to have an asteroid named after her when she was still alive, and many other honors.

Review : Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

Book Review of Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

Bronze and SunflowerMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Thoughts after Reading

This middle-grade book takes you to the rural areas of China. Bronze and Sunflower are names of two children whose brought together by destiny. Bronze loses his ability to speak after an illness. Sunflower is orphaned when her father drowns in an accident. Right from the outset, when Bronze catches Sunflower being bullied, he came to her defence. This connection carried on throughout the book, even after Sunflower was adopted into the family.

The story takes an idyllic stroll through rural China. It is almost like a compilation of short stories surrounding the lives of Bronze and Sunflower. I got a lot out of reading about their lifestyles, from agriculture to making reed shoes to building roofs made of cogongrass. The struggles of family is demonstrated through various incidents and disasters. Despite their poverty, there is a lot of love in that family.

While Sunflower was orphaned at a young age, she remained a sunshine to all those she met. Bronze is a lovely boy who deserves so much more. He is intelligent, caring and loyal. I wished life was fairer to him. I would say the ending was bittersweet.

PS. If you’ve enjoyed this book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is another book set in rural China. Whilst Bronze and Sunflower is set during the Cultural Revolution, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is set at the start of China’s economic boom.

Goodreads Blurb

When Sunflower, a young city girl, moves to the countryside, she grows to love the reed marsh lands – the endlessly flowing river, the friendly buffalo with their strong backs and shiny, round heads, the sky that stretches on and on in its vastness. However, the days are long, and the little girl is lonely. Then she meets Bronze, who, unable to speak, is ostracized by the other village boys. Soon the pair are inseparable, and when Bronze’s family agree to take Sunflower in, it seems that fate has brought him the sister he has always longed for. But life in Damaidi is hard, and Bronze’s family can barely afford to feed themselves. Can the little city girl stay here, in this place where she has finally found happiness?

A classic, heartwarming tale set to the backdrop of the Chinese cultural revolution.

Qingming Festival – 11 Books to Mark the Departed

The Chinese festival Qingming Jie 清明节, is a day for commemorating the departed. It is a special day for family and friends to gather together and remember loved ones. It usually falls on 4 or 5 April.

Qingming Jie or Ching Ming Festival is also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day. Traditionally this is the day we go to the cemetery to tidy the gravestones and beautify it with flowers. We also offer food to the departed. For some this loss is a very recent occurrence. This physical act of this practice offers comfort. Although not everyone is buried in modern day, families still mark this day in their own way. A book can help with bereavement. Here are some books where the character grieves for a loved one, friend, family or pet.

Middle Grade Books

  1. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

My Sister Lives on the MantelpieceBlurb

Ten-year-old Jamie Matthews has just moved to the Lake District with his Dad and his teenage sister, Jasmine for a ‘Fresh New Start’. Five years ago his sister’s twin, Rose, was blown up by a terrorist bomb. His parents are wrecked by their grief, Jasmine turns to piercing, pink hair and stops eating. The family falls apart. But Jamie hasn’t cried in all that time. To him Rose is just a distant memory. Jamie is far more interested in his cat, Roger, his birthday Spiderman T-shirt, and in keeping his new friend Sunya a secret from his dad. And in his deep longing and unshakeable belief that his Mum will come back to the family she walked out on months ago. When he sees a TV advert for a talent show, he feels certain that this will change everything and bring them all back together once and for all. My review

2. Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Blurb Short

Julia is very short for her age, but by the end of the summer run of The Wizard of Oz, she’ll realize how big she is inside, where it counts. She hasn’t ever thought of herself as a performer, but when the wonderful director of Oz casts her as a Munchkin, she begins to see herself in a new way. As Julia becomes friendly with the poised and wise Olive – one of the adults with dwarfism who’ve joined the production’s motley crew of Munchkins – and with her deeply artistic neighbor, Mrs. Chang, Julia’s own sense of self as an artist grows. Soon, she doesn’t want to fade into the background and it’s a good thing, because her director has more big plans for Julia! My review

3. Us Minus Mum by Heather Butler

Us Minus MumBlurb

George and Theo’s mum is brilliant.

She tells great stories, can wave the fastest of anyone on the planet and, most importantly, she was the one who suggested they adopt a scruffy dog called Goffo.

The boys think she’s invincible. But they’re wrong.

Because Mum is ill.

Really ill.

It’s up to George and Theo to keep Mum smiling. Which will almost probably definitely involve wellies, shepherd’s pie and Goffo’s victory at the pet talent show . . .

4. We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

We Are All Made of MoleculesBlurb

Thirteen-year-old Stewart is academically brilliant but socially clueless.
Fourteen-year-old Ashley is the undisputed “It” girl in her class, but her grades stink.

Their worlds are about to collide when Stewart and his dad move in with Ashley and her mom. Stewart is trying to be 89.9 percent happy about it, but Ashley is 110 percent horrified. She already has to hide the real reason her dad moved out; “Spewart” could further threaten her position at the top of the social ladder.

They are complete opposites. And yet, they have one thing in common: they—like everyone else—are made of molecules.

5. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing About JellyfishBlurb

After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy must have been a rare jellyfish sting–things don’t just happen for no reason. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory–even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy’s achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe…and the potential for love and hope right next door.

6. Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

BlurbKira-Kira

kira-kira (kee ra kee ra): glittering; shining Glittering. That’s how Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason and so are people’s eyes. When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it’s Lynn who explains to her why people stop on the street to stare, and it’s Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow, but when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering — kira-kira — in the future. My review

 

Young Adult

1. Juniper Lemon’s Happiness Index by Julie Israel

Juniper Lemon’s Happiness IndexBlurb

It’s been sixty-five painful days since the death of Juniper’s big sister, Camilla. On her first day back at school, bracing herself for the stares and whispers, Juniper borrows Camie’s handbag for luck – and discovers an unsent break-up letter inside. It’s mysteriously addressed to ‘You’ and dated July 4th – the day of Camie’s accident. Desperate to learn the identity of Camie’s secret love, Juniper starts to investigate.

But then she loses something herself. A card from her daily ritual, The Happiness Index: little notecards on which she rates the day. The Index has been holding Juniper together since Camie’s death – but without this card, there’s a hole. And this particular card contains Juniper’s own secret: a memory that she can’t let anyone else find out. My review

2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a WallflowerBlurb
Charlie is a freshman. And while he’s not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. Shy, introspective, intelligent beyond his years yet socially awkward, he is a wallflower, caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it. Charlie is attempting to navigate his way through uncharted territory: the world of first dates and mixed tapes, family dramas and new friends; the world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite. But Charlie can’t stay on the sideline forever. Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor. My review

3. Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

Words in Deep BlueBlurb

This is a love story.
It’s the story of Howling Books, where readers write letters to strangers, to lovers, to poets.
It’s the story of Henry Jones and Rachel Sweetie. They were best friends once, before Rachel moved to the sea.
Now, she’s back, working at the bookstore, grieving for her brother Cal and looking for the future in the books people love, and the words they leave behind. My review

General

2. Sky Burial by Xinran

Sky BurialBlurb

Inspired by a brief 1994 interview with an aged Chinese woman named Shu Wen, Beijing-born, London-based journalist Xinran (The Good Women of China) offers a delicately wrought account of Wen’s 30-year search for her husband in Tibet, where he disappeared in 1958. After less than 100 days of marriage, Wen’s husband, Kejun, a doctor in the People’s Liberation Army, is posted to Tibet and two months later is reported killed. Stunned and disbelieving, 26-year-old Wen is determined to find Kejun herself; a doctor also, she gets herself posted to the isolated Tibetan area where Kejun had been. There, as one of the few women in the Chinese army, she endures much hardship and rescues a Tibetan noblewoman named Zhuoma. After being separated from her fellow soldiers in the wake of an ambush by Tibetan rebels, Wen, accompanied by Zhuoma, sets off on a trek through the harsh landscape. Years later, after going native with a tribe of yak herders, Wen learns the circumstances of Kejun’s death and understands that her husband was caught in a fatal misunderstanding between two vastly different cultures. Woven through with fascinating details of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, Xinran’s story portrays a poignant, beautiful attempt at reconciliation. My review

I hope this humble list of mine can help in a small way. Are there any books you think I should include? If so, please leave a comment below.

Grief Books 2

 

First published on 1 Dec 2019 for Grief Awareness Day. Updated on 1 Apr 2020.