An elderly Chinese man sat on a Grant Avenue sidewalk Thursday afternoon and played “Auld Lang Syne” on his erhu, a long-stringed instrument that looked as aged as its owner.
It seemed incongruous but somehow fitting: It was the eve of Lunar New Year 4712. The streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown were frantic but festive, teeming with people grabbing branches of quince or cherry blossoms, stocking up on citrus and trying to get ready.
All in preparation for the Year of the Horse, which arrived today. The 15-day New Year’s holiday, also known as the Spring Festival, will end on Valentine’s Day, although San Francisco’s annual Chinese New Year Parade will take place on Feb. 15.
I lived in North Beach for 16 years and shopped in Chinatown markets almost every day, mostly on Stockton Street but also Washington, Jackson and Pacific. Just before the new year begins, I always walk around the neighborhood, partly because it has a special feel but also because I’m a procrastinator – so the Lunar New Year is my ultimate deadline for getting things done.
Last night, my friend Lily Wong Fillmore, a working linguist and retired UC Berkeley education professor, cooked lo han jai, a vegetarian Buddhist dish, for New Year’s Eve.
“There’s lots of interesting word magic in the dish,” said the San Francisco resident, whose parents were immigrants from Guangdong Province in China. “One of the ingredients, the black hairy seaweed, sounds like the word for good fortune – different tones but still a good match. My father told me long ago that the dish is made up of items gathered from the earth, air and sea. Most of them have undergone some process, such as drying, salting or transforming, as with beans into tofu and bean curd. It’s an example of humans cooperating with nature to make its gifts go further.”
Lo han jai is traditional on New Year’s Day itself in many Asian-American families. “My mother declared oysters to be vegetables so she could use oyster sauce in the dish,” Wong Fillmore said.
As the Year of the Snake slithers off, what should we expect from the Year of the Horse, or, specifically, the Wood Horse, as this year is designated? According to a piece in The Independent today, it could be “a fast year full of conflicts … when people will stick more to their principles and stand firm.”
A story in The Guardian today described the equine personality: “People born in the year of the horse are said to be a bit like horses: animated, active and energetic — they love being in a crowd. They are quick to learn independence — foals can walk minutes after birth — and they have a straightforward and positive attitude towards life. They are known for their communication skills and are exceedingly witty.”
The article also mentioned that those born in the Year of the Horse include former President Franklin Roosevelt, astronaut Neil Armstrong, scientist Louis Pasteur, singer Aretha Franklin and Mongol ruler Genghis Khan.
The animals of the Chinese zodiac come around every 12 years and the elements that govern it — fire, earth, metal, water and wood — operate on a 60-year-cycle. These elements can be crucial in determining one’s fate.
Elaine Kim, a professor in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley, said, “In Korea in the old days, women born in the Year of the Fire Horse were considered undesirable for marriage — wild, don’t stay at home by the hearth, fall in and out of love easily and thus have many men around, even cause their husbands’ deaths.”
As a result, she said, some parents lied about their daughters’ birth year, counting backward to the snake or forward to the sheep. When Kim lived in South Korea in 1966, she noticed there were few marriages until summer, ensuring that women would not give birth to a girl in the Year of the Fire Horse. Coincidence? Perhaps.
“In Korea, good years for males were often not good years for females,” Kim said. “And everyone used to love women born in the years of the rabbit, rat and sheep.”
For a less anecdotal take on the zodiac, Kim referred me to San Francisco astrologer and feng shui practitioner Edgar Sung. His forecast for the year, tailored to each zodiac sign, was detailed and not always encouraging: Rats will have a tough time. Tigers might experience the death of a loved one, and Pigs might have to deal with lots of family confrontations. But Ox people will prosper.
Unfortunately, even though it’s their year, horse people will face a “rocky road” in 2014, Sung wrote. They’ll have plenty of money and promotions, but those in business should watch their budgets because someone might steal from them. It’s not a good year to pass an exam, and an unexpected disaster might happen.
“If there is any fight there will be bloodshed,” Sung said. “… To improve his luck, the Horse should do many good deeds.”