Beware of the corners!


By Regina Hong, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

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One of the most memorable things my GP teacher ever said to our class (apart from calling our essays “waffle”) was that the Chinese were the most superstitious people around.

And I can’t refute that. A game of cards during the Lunar New Year (LNY) reveals the most of these superstitions in full force.

For starters, wear red on you somewhere. Red is believed to be an auspicious colour that will lend great spiritual powers to your hand as it draws a card from the intimidating deck in front of you. It will magically transform that three of clubs in your hand to an ace of spades and also mysteriously ensure that the banker doesn’t get a larger hand than you. I’m jesting. Or am I?

So what happens if an unfortunate slip of your mind led you to commit the worst wardrobe crime of full black? Grab anything red in view and hug it to yourself, be it an apron or a cushion decked in red or the red containers containing food. Or if it’s your own house, just go for a change of clothes.

Another thing that I can personally attest to is that when playing cards (or any game that involves chance), do not sit at the corners of the table. I made the unfortunate mistake and went superbly bankrupt in my one and only time as banker at that fateful game and wasn’t aware of it until I heard of it from a friend’s mother. Talk about spooky. It sounds better than admitting I just have no luck at games of chance anyway.

The list of superstitions can run as long as a college Biology textbook and is not merely limited to table placements and clothing colours. My mother never sweeps the floor on the first day of the Lunar New Year for fear that luck will be swept away. And for the same reason, we don’t wash our hair on that day as well. Now you know why there was a funkier smell than usual on the public transport on 10th February. Apparently, these LNY-related superstitions are to be broken only on the fifth day, which is why it is also referred to as 破五 (po wu lit. Breaking Five). For obvious hygiene reasons in an equatorial climate, I assume most Chinese in the region break the bulk of the superstitions after the first day.

But such superstitions are not merely restricted to a particular culture. Take the Japanese, who partake in Setsubun, the throwing of roasted soybeans to drive away plagues and herald spring, the Koreans who omit the buttons 4 and 13 on their elevators in many of Seoul’s international hotels and the Thais who believe in constructing spirit houses amid hopes that the spirits will offer them protection in gratitude.  And it’s not just an Oriental thing. The veil, apart from being a pretty accessory, also serves the noble function of shielding the bride from the notice of malevolent spirits. The bridesmaids, apart from handling wedding emergencies, also have the dubious honour of being decoys for the bride (now you know).

In this modern time and age, it is fascinating that such superstitions still exist. One may say that superstitions are mere relics of a time in which education was less accessible. But I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them in this manner. It’s a little strange, I must admit, given that standard education tries so staunchly to prove everything using scientific methods. Often, we try too much to rationalise and painstakingly analyse the reasons why something failed despite all groundwork having been laid to perfection. Maybe superstitions are little reminders to ourselves that the world was never meant to run in clockwork order, and that sometimes, it’s ok to take things as they come and not over-anticipate. It’s ok to feel down on some days and blame it on getting up on the wrong side of the bed. It’s ok to think that drinking slippery seaweed soup instead of eating glutinous rice balls led to your failing your best subject. It’s ok to think that you stubbed your toe on a table leg thanks to the looming spectre of Mr Friday the 13th.

Of course, this is not to mean that everything can be conveniently blamed on bad luck or some ritual that you failed to observe. It means that sometimes, things should just be taken as they come. Life would be a tiring ordeal if everything could be planned down to the last detail, wouldn’t it?

In the meantime, I will eat more spring onions (called suan in Chinese. It’s phonetically similar to the Chinese word for calculate, so it will apparently boost your mathematical skills) in a bid to improve my math. I’m still waiting for the results to show.

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