New Year in Beijing

By Patrick Murphy

Letters from ChinaWe call it Chinese New Year, but they call it Spring Festival. I’ve argued with many Chinese over the years about this misnaming. I think it should be called Winter Festival, because the weather is always cold. “No, no,” they tell me. “Now it is Spring and it will soon be warm!”

One interesting thing I just learned is that until recently the Chinese did not use weeks. Weeks, with weekends, are a Western concept not used in China until the adoption of the universal calendar. The Chinese lunar calendar (also misnamed, as it doesn’t really match up with the lunar cycle– which is why the Chinese have not mere Leap Days, but entire Leap Months) simply started on chu-yi (Day One) and spun through until the end. There was no weekend of rest, just steady work or school, punctuated by the holidays.

Which may be in part why Spring Festival lasts so long. Starting with what we might call New Yearís eve, the night everyone stays up late watching special programs on CCTV and playing mah jongg, the holiday runs through until the Lantern Festival. That comes on the fifteenth day of the new year. But school kids have vacation starting about two weeks before New Year, so they really have about a month off. In Beijing, many restaurants and shops close for ten days or so, as the staff disappears to hui jia or ìreturn homeî to visit family and friends. Planes, trains, and busses are absolutely jammed with people on the move. This year, unprecedented winter storms disrupted travel for hundreds of thousands.

In Beijing, officially sanctioned fireworks stores (more like large tents) sprang up. There were about 550 of them across the city. The result was predictable. Fireworks are officially allowed only on New Year eve and New Year day (plus the fifth, the day to eat chun bing or “spring rolls” filled with sprouts, vegetables, and shredded meat, and the Lantern Festival). However fireworks were a daily, or rather nightly, barrage. Nightly there were Roman candles, firecrackers, and pyrotechnics in the sky. The mood was quite jolly: “Could you sleep last night?” I would ask. “Oh, not very well. Ha ha ha!”

[From May 2008 CAFAM Newsletter]

A Chinese-American Tragedy (1979-91)

By Gary Libby from the May 2008 CAFAM Newsletter

Portland area old timers will recall that, in 1979, a new kind of Chinese restaurant opened on Congress Street. It was called Hu Shang, and it offered a different menu from the familiar Cantonese-American fare, including Sichuan dishes that would set your mouth on fire. It quickly became one of Portland’s hottest restaurants, with customers lining up at the door.

The owners of that restaurant were two brothers, Ken and Henry Ng. While Henry worked the kitchen, handsome and personable Ken became the public face of “K & H Corp,” as their business was named. And a successful enterprise it was. By 1981, needing more space, they bought a building on Brown Street, with $75,000 cash down. They closed their Congress Street place and named the completely remodeled Brown Street restaurant “Hu Shang II.” The business continued to thrive. Two years later, in 1983, they opened Hu Shang III on Exchange Street, with a full bar and disco. The money poured in. More

Review: Authenticating Tibet

Authenticating TibetEdited by Anne-Marie Blondeau and Katia Buffetrille (Univ. of Ca. Press 2008)

Review by Craig Dietrich from May 2008 CAFAM Newsletter

For people outside China, the Tibetan situation typically appears black and white. Probably most non-Asian Americans sympathize with the Dalai Lama and the exile Tibetans. Mostly it is a question of human rights and repression of Tibetan culture and religion. They see no problem with the Tibet reporting of Western media.

They are probably unaware that, many people in the Chinese-American community are inclined to take a view closer to the Chinese government’s. It asserts China’s right to Tibet, points out China’s assistance to Tibet, and criticizes the intransigence of Tibetan separatists inside and outside of China. This view charges that Western media are almost always negative in their reporting on China. More

The Pekin Restaurant, Bangor, and Raymond Huang

By Gary Libby

Wong Jack June opened the Pekin Restaurant in Bangor, Maine in the 1920s. He and his wife, Chin Ngan Kee, had one daughter and five sons. One of those sons, Raymond Li Min Huang, is the subject of this article.

Raymond’s parents gave all of their children Chinese names. Their “American” names were selected to sound like their Chinese names. “Li Min” became “Raymond.” His sister, “Fee,” became “Fay.” His brother, “Ang,” was called “Don” and his brother “Wey” was “Wade.”

All of the children began working at the restaurant when they reached about nine years of age. Their first job was peeling vegetables. In their spare time they played with the neighborhood children, skied and sledded in the winter, picked wild berries, played sandlot baseball and fished in the summer. More

Early Chinese Christians in Maine (1870-1918)

By Gary Libby from the March 2008 CAFAM Newsletter

The earliest known reference to a Chinese person’s membership in a Maine church appeared in the Portland Press on December 26, 1870. It reported that Ar Tee Lam had joined the Congress Square Sunday School on Christmas Day and promised “to become a learner and good exemplar of the Christian religion.” (Mr. Lam’s interest may have been prompted by his recent guilty plea to a charge of bootlegging which resulted in a $50 fine.)

First Baptist Church Sunday school picnic ca. 1920. Courtesy Maine Historical Society.

First Baptist Church Sunday school picnic ca. 1920. Courtesy Maine Historical Society.

Five years later at Calais, the East Maine Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church admitted Zing Neng Chick and five other Chinese men to full communion and elected them to Elders Orders. They were missionaries stationed in China.

About 1880 Mrs. H. F. Crocker, who was active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as well as the Second Parish Church in Portland, gathered together a few local laundrymen into the church’s Sunday school. By 1885 the class had grown to nineteen.


Review: Shadow of the Silk Road

Book coverShadow of the Silk Road, by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins 2007)

Review by Craig Dietrich from November 2007 CAFAM Newsletter

The “Silk Road” has taken on much glamour and romance as a tourist destination in recent years. One notable book that provides a glimpse into the halcyon years of the old trading routes between China and the Near East is Susan Whitefield’s Life Along the Silk Road (University of California, 1999). Another interesting take on the subject is Peter Hopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road (University of Massachusetts, 1980). Hopkirk tells the story of the principal Western scholars, discoverers, and antiquarians who combed many of the ancient Xinjiang sites in the early years of the twentieth century and either “saved” or “looted” much of what they found, depending on one’s point of view. More

Review: Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China

Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China, by Zhengguo Kang (W. W. Norton 2007)

Review by Cynthia Setchell

Not long ago I read the autobiography of a Chinese Christian pastor of a “house church” in central China. House churches are illegal and have been suppressed by the government. The book told of imprisonments and tortures.

More recently, I came across another autobiography, this one written by a Chinese Buddhist who finally escaped to the USA in the mid 1990s. He is Kang Zhengguo, and he now teaches language and literature at Yale University. His book is Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China. More

On Chang E

By Craig Dietrich

Chang E, the lady in the moon, appears in different versions of Chinese folk legends.

She is usually paired with her husband, Hou Yi. The two immortals get demoted to mortals. Hou Yi manages to acquire a pill of immortality, but Chang E swallows it and flees to the moon. (Husbands take note.)

In one version, the heavenly couple are doing just fine, when Hou Yi notes that the Jade Emperor’s ten sons have transformed themselves into ten suns (son/sun is not a pun in Chinese, in case you wondered). To rescue mortals from this situation, he shoots down nine of the suns with arrows, leaving just one remaining. Not amused, the Jade Emperor banishes Hou Yi and Chang E to earth and makes them mortals.

Now the Queen Mother of the West gets in the act, when Hou Yi talks her into giving him a pill of immortality. For some reason, he brings the precious medicine home, puts off taking it, and is shocked when he learns that Chang E has popped it in her own mouth. Immortal again, she floats heavenward, and ends up on the moon. She is stuck there because, after all, the Jade Emperor is still mad, so she can’t go to heaven, and she can’t get back to earth, where she would have to deal with a cranky Hou Yi. More

Portland’s Chinese ‘Rocky’

By Gary Libby

In the late 1940s one Harry Wong battled his way into the boxing scene in southern Maine. Known variously as “little Chinese wildman” and “Bongo Bongo,” Harry fought thirty-seven bouts in the Portland and Lewiston areas between 1946 and 1948. He won seventeen (eleven by knockout) and came away with six draws. But he himself was knocked out five times and lost nine decisions. It seems that his great asset and also great weakness was an aggressive, lunging style, without much defense. This made it likely that he would knock out his opponent or be KO’d himself. It also made him popular among fans, who loved action.

Harry Wong, was born in Portland, Maine, in 1925, the son of restaurateur Charles Tuck Wong and his wife Mark Shee. Harry’s father opened the Oriental Restaurant in Portland’s Monument Square in 1917. That deluxe establishment closed in 1938. More

Illegal Immigration

By Gary Libby from the September 2007 CAFAM Newsletter

The following comes from the Portland Eastern Argus of April 24, 1895, and demonstrates to what lengths human traffickers would go to circumvent anti-Chinese immigration laws.

The Latest Scheme for Smuggling Chinamen into this Country

Montreal, Que., April 23 – A gang of Chinese smugglers has been unearthed here and some arrests are expected shortly. There are said to be 80 or more in different parts of the country acting in collusion. The modus operandi is: Chinamen come here from Vancouver and are shipped in batches of six to Quebec, where they are dressed as women and forwarded to St. John, N. B. There they are kept in hiding a day or two. Ventilated coffins are provided and in these “corpses” are shipped to Vanceboro, Maine, where they are claimed by another of the gang who arranges for their distribution through the States.

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