It’s Once Upon a Time season again and I’ve been submerged in fairy tales of all sorts, coming up for air only when necessary.
Ok ok, in reality though, it’s more like I’ve been sneaking reads on my Kindle or tablet or an actual paper book (a bit harder with a baby) whenever I can. It’s always hard reading with two kids around. Today for example, the baby took more than half an hour of patting and fussing, picking-up-ing and putting-down-ing before he fell asleep for his morning nap. He usually drops off by himself within a few minutes so I’m not sure what’s happening. Teething maybe, growth spurt? Only he knows. And he can’t tell me anything. He sure likes to point though.
And then there’s the blogging thing. I’m at the laptop in the kitchen, typing furiously away while the 3yo reads his birthday books with Grandma (thank goodness for visiting grandparents!). But should I be spending the time reading instead of writing? It’s a toss up!
But as I ponder my selection, I realize that they are largely stories set in the western world (made up worlds, yes, but with a tendency towards the west more than the east). Where characters are fair of face and all that (although not fair of hair, it seems from the covers of the books I’ve been considering). Where are the tales of Asia among my reads? I’ve searched the catalogues of my library system but nothing comes up (and we have a decently diverse collection, with quite a few books written in other languages like Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean).
We are of Chinese descent by way of Singapore, and as we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, far from our own beginnings, I want my children to know where they come from. I don’t just mean knowing their grandparents and other relatives, but their traditions and customs, and the stories they are told. So I try to include books that are written by Asian writers and feature Asian people in my kids’ library loot. They aren’t the easiest thing to find but we have found some favourites like Anastasia Suen, Wong Herbert Yee and Roseanne Thong. But when it comes to nursery rhymes, folk and fairy tales, or delving into history whether fictional or non, the options are fewer. Maybe if we were in Singapore, or if I could find more books written in Chinese, there might be more choices.
I think back to my own childhood and realise that in some way, I did know about these Chinese tales. Perhaps there were mentions in school textbooks? There was a popular Chinese TV adaptation of Journey to the West (a Chinese classic that I’ve never read) that I remember watching. But were these fairy tales? Not really. Are there actually such things are Chinese fairy tales (what really does the term ‘fairy tale’ mean?)? All of these stories that I remember seem to be of gods and goddesses, deities and demons. Mythology might be a better word for it. Folktales? I think I need a crash course on all these terms.
But when I was growing up in Singapore, among our shelves of books written by and about the western world, there was a collection of Chinese myths. It was a large hardcover book with stories and pictures. There were tales of Nezha and Pan Gu.
But the one tale I always remember is that of the cow herder and the weaver girl. A tale that is still celebrated as a festival today. A romantic tale of forbidden love. The zhinu (织女) or weaver girl is actually the daughter of a goddess, who comes down from heaven in search of fun, and falls for this cow herder or niu lang (牛郎). The goddess finds out and orders her daughter back to heaven. The cow herder follows her but the goddess draws a line across the sky, the Milky Way, separating the two lovers forever. Once a year though, the crows (or is it magpies?) fly up to the sky and form a bridge for them to meet. Awww, it’s a bittersweet tale that is celebrated as kind of like a Chinese Valentine’s Day in China. In Singapore though, it is the 15th day of the Lunar New Year (Chap Goh Meh) that is seen as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, and coincidentally, it fell on February 14 this year, resulting in a flurry of weddings and hotels all being booked up.
I’ll have to wait for my next visit to Singapore to figure out if that book is still in my parents’ house. I asked my mum about it and she has no recollection of that book at all. It’s not a figment of my imagination. At least I don’t think so. If a book that you remember from your childhood is no longer among your collection and you’re the only one that remembers it, did it ever exist?
My search for Chinese folktales/fairytales/myths continues.