For Chinese in the world, January 23 is the most important Chinese holiday. It is the beginning of the new year of Water dragon.
Chinese New Year is the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese calendar. The origin of Chinese New Year is itself centuries old and gains significance because of several myths and traditions. Chinese New Year is celebrated in countries and territories with significant Chinese populations, such as Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Vietnam, Phillipines and also in Chinatowns elsewhere. Chinese New Year is considered a major holiday for the Chinese and has had influence on the lunar new year celebrations of its geographic neighbors. In Indonesia, that fifteenth day or the Lantern Festival is call Cap Go Meh. Cap Go means 15, and Meh means ‘night’.
During the Chinese New Year, lion dancer troupes from the Chinese martial art schools or Chinese guild and associations will visit the houses and shops of the Chinese community to perform the traditional custom of “cai ching” (採青), literally means “plucking the greens”, a quest by the ‘lion’ to pluck the auspicious green normally ‘vegetables’ like lettuce which in Chinese called ‘cái'(菜)that sound like ‘cái'(财)(fortune) and auspicious fruit like oranges tied to a red envelope containing money; either hang highly or just put on a table in front of the premises. The “lion” will dance and approach the “green” and “red evelope” like a curious cat, to “eat the green” and “spit” it out leave it in a nice arrangement, like an auspicious character but keep the “red envelope”. The lion dance is believed to bring good luck and fortune to the business and the troupe is rewarded with the “red envelope”.
In modern day, however, people who come to watch lion dance can wave the red envelope in the air, for which the lion will come and, after “eating” the envelope, will bow down in gratitude and the patron (who give the envelope) can touch the head of the lion. Giving red envelope (containing money) to the lion and touching the lion’s head is considered auspicious.
Now onto another story.
I once read an article by a Catholic Filipino lay missionary about “giving back to God” The impression that article left me is that if Robert Kiyosaki (author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad) said “pay yourself first” this Filipino evangelist say “pay God first” by giving a part of our income back to God through charity. He said in the article that most people think they are too poor for charity, especially those in debts, or with small wage who always worry about what to eat tomorrow. However, he believed (by citing some verse in the Bible) that giving back to the Lord is a great exercise to feel of “abundant” and that “God give enough” as well as training us to “cast our worry to God because He cares for us”, and that the more we give for charity, the more God will bless us abundantly. Long story short, I promised God that I will give part of my income – regardless of how small – to Him, regardless I never have enough for the whole month, and I always take a few percent of my salary since then, and anonymously put it in the charity box at the church.
Partly, I felt challenged by St. Francis of Assisi’s first student and follower: St. Bernard, a very rich nobleman who actually sold all his belonging, give it to the poor and live just by what people give him as he begs on the street with the poor. Stupid? surely, but I did it anyway.
Believe it or not, my luck changed since then. Before I set apart my salary, I have always run out of money, sometimes as early as the first week of the month, leaving me with meager to eat and none to spend for all other things; but after I start to set it apart, there’s always something coming: a small donation, a pet store allowing me to pay on credit, a lending from one of my brother, or an order from the Whiskers’ Syndicate’s on-line shop. I always have nothing left by the last day of the month, but whenever the last dime were spent, and I have no idea how we are going to eat the next day, there’s always something just enough to fill our stomach and therefore, to live another day.
Fast forward to now: Last week my half-dead rice cooker had finally gone over the rainbow bridge. I said it was half dead because it can still cook, though the rice it cooks is never well done (there are part of it that still half cooked). I have no money to buy a new one yet, and I promised one of my significant person that I would never survive on instant noodle and water again, so for several days I live with rice flour mixed with soy milk and made into a porridge. I got myself a severe diarrhea that way, so at the end I borrowed money and went buy one at the weekend.
I read it in a big advertisement on the streets that Bandung will celebrate Cap Go Meh 3 days in a row starting Friday (Feb 9) to Sunday (Feb 12) in an extravagant 70 lion dances, parade of the statues of Buddhist/Taoist/Confucianism Gods and venerated persons, as well as lantern festival from Temples/Groups/school across West Java. The parade will pass on every main street with major Chinese populations. That means detours, traffic jams, and waste of time. Worst part is, since my rent is in the city center, all main street around my area will be passed by the parade. So if I am to buy the rice cooker, I need to do it in utmost rush, or got caught in the crowd.
I was stuck in the crowd anyway, and ended up being pushed around to the front row of the sea of people that comes watching. Children were lifted up on their parent’s shoulder, and some of them is crazy enough to step on the head of people below them, including mine. Bandung people has no sense of respect, that is ultimate truth, so I can’t expect their children to be respectful to others.
At my side and front, Chinese with bundles of red envelope are waiting in excitement. It is auspicious to give an envelope to one lion, so I think it is naturally abundant to give them to all 70 lions. I sometimes give red envelope, when I have some change to spare, but that was long time ago.
Beyond my expectation, the lions, as well as the dances were skillfully beautiful, so as I watch the parade I keep groaning that I don’t have any money left except for two thousand Rupiah, that will be spent when I took a the bus home. At one point, however, my attention was drawn by an elderly lady beside me, who open her purse in secret (there got to be more than a dozen freelance pick pocket there, I suppose) and wave her hand timidly. So shy that some of the lions can’t see her waving and come pick her gift. She knew that I was watching her, so she told me, with a crimson cheek, that she didn’t have a red envelope, hence fold the money and have the lion eat it “raw”.
It was certainly laugh inducing, at least for Asians who are familiar with the tradition. However, I was touched by her sincerity, and simultaneously remembered that I have a small envelope I keep in my wallet. I always keep one or two ready in case I need to leave the Syndicate’s business card somewhere, or happen to pass an under-maintained church in need of charity.
It shocked me when I realize that there are 50 thousand Rupiah bill inside each envelope. I got 100 thousand when I thought I don’t have even a dime left! It’s a miracle!
Well, perhaps no, maybe it was just me, actually. I put that money there as the part of charity that I promised God, but I ended up giving my charity to a sick baby by a bank transfer last week, and I forgot that I put money in that envelope, but at that moment it does feel like a miracle for me: a good fortune fall straight from heaven as a reply from my endless groaning as each lion passed.
I was terribly thirsty for having to walk a long distant (the bus stopped halfway due to the crowd) So I slipped into the back, with much effort, and buy bottled water from a merchant with one of the 50 thousand, and the merchant gave me a lot of small change in return. He has a lot of bigger bills, and gawker merchant usually keep the small change for later transactions, but this one give me all his small change. A peculiar happening that I take as another divine sign.
I think you can guess where the change goes. To the lions. I don’t have envelope, so I gave it to the lion “raw”, just like the lady, who was encouraged to give more because she is not alone.
It is ridiculous, really, to give part of my money to someone else when even I don’t have left over, but lion dancers are all volunteers; they have never received payment, and all the money from the envelope goes to support the life of their group. I saw their eyes. Those dancers are tired, and hungry, and confused to be surrounded by such wild spectators (who most of them are not Chinese nor Buddhist but unknowing and often time disrespectful spectator of majority religion in this country), but they still move on. Throughout the dance they cannot drink or eat, and have to continue moving throughout the route: a long 10 kilometers (around 12 miles). A small change bill as a token of appreciation and respect is nothing compared to their dedication.
Besides, I felt that heaven is reminding me. Those dancers came from even the most remote area of West Java, some even comes from another island. Given the organizer pay their transport and accommodation, they still have a lot to pay from their own pocket, and they still perform their best do it in their faithfulness to their religion and belief. My tribulation is trivial in comparison.
I feel warm, actually, and less lonely. I don’t feel like I am the saddest person in the city: away from family, in an unsympathetic town, defending a deviant cause, of little means, and definitely cobbling down confidence. For that time being those dancers and I, albeit strangers, are in the same boat.
So, I am doing it for the syndicate. Every time I “fed” one lion, I prayed for one mobster that had left me to the other side. Not to Buddha, to my own Lord Jesus. The lion is just a symbol, part of the tradition. I whisper the name of all my sisters and brothers who are no longer with me: River Phoenix, Edward, Trea, Koge Pan, Tanenah, Eden, Picassa, Kaitou, Orange Pekoe, and many other, and asked that God took care of them wherever they now are.
Every time I wave my hand to give another I prayed that He’d bless my service toward Him saving animals. Because I heed His word that, to the extent that we did kindness to one of these brothers of Him, even the least of them, we did it to God.’ (Matthew 25:40). Aren’t animals considered the least of God’s creature? And so far I have found my greatest joy in working with them.
Every time I touched the head of a lion I wish the generic wish that other people do: that this year is prosperous, though I ask for prosperity because my rent will be over in June, and I have no money to pay the next term, much less buying a piece of permanent property that the Syndicate and I can stop moving around all over again (moving is stressful to cats) and stay in peace, away from evil neighbors or cruel majority, as we continue to save the lives of less fortunate kins.
Even as I left the parade I am still praying, in gratitude for the 100 thousand miracle, and wish that as much as I haven’t forget my promise to give part of my income back to God, God too will not forsake His promise, that whoever faithful to Him shall not perish, but live abundantly to the end of time. I will remember to cast all my anxiety on Him, because He cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).