A Chicago Chinese Spring Festival Parade (in blog format)

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Festivals and Celebrations, Uncategorized at 2:03 am by Benjamin Ross

In addition to being Super Bowl Sunday, today was the annual Chicago Chinatown Parade.  I’ve never actually blogged a parade before, so here goes.

Last year’s parade was witnessed by a miniscule crowd and in abbreviated form due to sub-zero temperatures (that’s sub zero farenheit).  This year, with temperatures in the 30’s, the turnout was huge.  The only other time I’ve seen a single “L” train stop so crowded was on election night.
Wentworth Street, the main thoroughfare in Chinatown is lined with onlookers, and an especially large number of small children lighting off whipper snappers.
Performers gear up for the parade set to start at 1 o’clock sharp.
Police line in place
Mexican guys with Obama hats sell cotton candy to the spectators.
Swarms of onlookers eagerly await the impending parade.
And the parade begins…
…care of Macy’s.
Dragons & Dragons & Dragons, Oh My!
We take a small moment to remember Western Union is (as the Chinese characters indicate) the world’s fastest way to send money.
Floats… I hope they’re throwing out hong bao’s
Presumably local dignitaries…Mister and Miss Chinatown 1982?
More banners, these traditional characters are a little to small for my astigmatic eyes to comprehend.  Can anybody read them?
A Chinese New Year Parade wouldn’t be the same without a marching band, would it?
Another float, this one sponsored by the Chinatown Parking Corporation
Another float with cute children.
Firetrucks!  It was at this point I was realizing that had I been 5 years old, this parade would have been shaping up to be one of the all-time highlights of my short existence.
An Irish bagpipe troop!
Anybody know how to say “kilt” in Chinese?
The Chicago Guzngzhou Association
Gong Hay Fat Choy!  Even with the recent droves of Mandarin speaking immigrants, Chicago’s Chinatown is still a predominantly Cantonese speaking community.
Taipei Economic and Cultural Association, along with their USA flare.
Cook County State’s Attorney?!?!?
They’re lovin’ it.
Remember when I said if I were a 5-year-old I would be having the time of my life?  Well, take that original excitement times a lucky 8!
make that two marching bands
Have a Happy Chinese New Year, from all of us in Chicago!



Merry Jewish Christmas!

Posted in Festivals and Celebrations, Food and Drink, Local Customs at 9:15 pm by Benjamin Ross

Once again Christmas is here, and for all you fellow Jews out there, that means Chinese food and a movie.  See, while America’s majority Christian population celebrates the Christmas season, Jews (as well as other non-Christian groups) are left with the most boring day of the year.  No work, no school, no shopping, no access to public facilities.  Even restaurants are closed!  That is, except for the Chinese ones!  This makes for another example of the historical cooperation between two of the most culinarily oriented cultures the world has ever seen…the Jewish-Chinese Christmas.

Chinese cumin beef
Chinese red cooked eggplant
All I want for Christmas is 孜然牛肉 and 红烧茄子

Going back to when I was just a little boychick, I have fond memories of celebrating Christmas with crab rangoon, sesame chicken, and good ol’ General Tso.  Yup, nothing tops American Chinese food on the day when most other Americans are home with their relatives, exchanging gifts, and enjoying the spirit of the season.  After Chinese food, the Jewish tradition is to visit a local movie theater, one of the few establishments other than Chinese restaurants which remain open on the 25th.  At the theater (and at the restaurant) it’s not uncommon to bump into other Jews from the community.  We ask each other where we ate Chinese food, complain about the weather, and wish each other a Merry Christmas.  It’s all in the spirit of the season.

So to those who do celebrate Christmas, may you have a joyous holiday season and a 圣诞节快乐, and to all those who don’t, enjoy your Chinese food and your movie.  You are part of a tradition which is sure to last for years to come.

And in the meantime, why not check out my own personal favorite Christmas-related website.  It’s called How To Order Chinese Food Dot Com.  Enjoy your holiday season…whatever that may be.  I’ll be in Chinatown, celebrating the season with some 孜然牛肉 and 红烧茄子 .



Obamapalooza at Grant Park: Pics and Thoughts

Posted in Festivals and Celebrations, Uncategorized at 2:22 pm by Benjamin Ross

Last evening was allegedly the largest public gathering in the history of the city of Chicago. Regardless of any political affiliations, this was an event I was not going to miss. Here are some pics and thoughts from Obamapalooza ’08.

Obama gear street vendors
In addition to campaigners, street vendors were out in full force all over downtown last night, selling everything from T-shirts to buttons, to Barack Obama victory towels. Special shoutout goes to whoever made the “Barack to the Future” T-shirts.
outside Obama Rally Michigan Avenue
I arrived outside Grant Park by around 6 pm, and crowds had already begun pouring in.
No more wars for empire
Events like this always seem to draw protesters out of the woodwork. Some in good taste…
Fuck McCain pig
…others not so much (but equally hilarious)
Chicago Skyline on election night
The skyline of Chicago was lit up nicely for the event, with several buildings displaying election themed messages via office lights.
outside grant park election night
Grant Park was divided into two separate areas, one for those with tickets, and one for those without. At 7:30 I finally scored a ticket (using the same method that got me into 14 Olympic events this summer) and made my way inside the park.
obama rally at grant park
This was my first view from inside the. The Chicago authorities had been preparing for armageddon, and crowd control was tight. Before entering the park, there were three different crowd gates, presumably to prevent a stampede. At each gate, a crowd of several hundred would have their tickets checked and then were allowed allowed to pass through. Before the next gate would open, the crowds were held back for about twenty minutes, so that the group in front of them could get through first. While crowd control measures were tight, security was not. Throughout the evening, blaring announcements had proclaimed that all attendees would need to pass through a metal detector. However, metal detectors were nowhere in sight.  Nobody frisked me either. In all reality, I probably could have been brought in a rifle, a 2-foot bong, and a pouch of grenades, and nobody would have known.
Barack Obama speaking at Grant Park
Throughout the evening, the jumbotron behind the stage played the live election coverage from CNN. Whenever the announcement came of a state which had gone for Obama, the crowd roared. When a state went for McCain, everybody booed in unison. The loudest boo (and accompanying laughter) went to Utah, which the announcers specifically mentioned, had no chance of going for Obama anyway.
Chicago Skyline Obama Rally
Once inside the venue, the crowd was further split off into barricaded sections. Those who got in earliest got to be in front past the barricades. I was in back, which meant the view wasn’t so good. But I did have the luxury of being able to breathe.
The largest cheers came during John McCain’s concession speech when everybody realized that what everybody already thought was going to happen, had in fact happened.
Barack Obama speaking at Grant Park
About a half hour after McCain’s speech, the man of the hour took the stage. However, in the interim was a string of speakers which I can describe only as odd and unexpected. First was a clergyman (Joe the preacher?) who gave a mini-sermon asking for God’s blessing to Barack Obama and the country. Following that was the always Orwellian pledge of allegiance led by a former military man whom neither myself nor anybody else in my vicinity could identify. Just before Barry O. came out was a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, sung slightly off key by a woman who inadvertently replaced the words “whose broad stripes” with “with broad stripes.” I had not previously equated a vote for Obama as a vote for Jesus, patriotism, and bad singing, so hopefully this was just an isolated incident and not indicative of times to come.
Michigan Avenue at Night
After the conclusion of Obama’s speech, (and fifteen minutes of Obamas and Bidens hugging and kissing on stage), the crowd began to file out. Jubilant crowds packed downtown and horns blared throughout the night. A Chicago man was on his way back to the White House.



The Year of (Eating) the Rat

Posted in Festivals and Celebrations, Food and Drink, Local Customs, Personal Anecdotes at 7:17 pm by Benjamin Ross

In 2007 we saw the coming of the year of the pig, the main source of protein for China’s mass population. In 2006 it was the year of the dog, and dog ownership in China skyrocketed like never before. 2005 brought us the year of the “cock,” and I don’t even want to go there. But what do we get from the latest beast, the rat, which the Chinese Spring Festival has dragged through the gate? What can be done with a small rodent which for most of human history has been regarded as nothing more than a pest?…The answer is the same as what you do with most animals in the Middle Kingdom…you eat ‘em!

Yes, you heard me correctly. I said you eat the rats. Although most of the world (as well as most of China) would never even consider eating these small furry rodents, the practice does go on in some areas. One of which is Western Fujian in the cities of Sanming and Longyan.

Chinese pork gall bladder jerky
When bought in a store, rat jerky usually comes packaged like this bag of pig gall-bladder jerky (another one of the “8 big jerkys.”)

To be fair, I should add that the word for “rat” in Chinese 老鼠 (lao3 shu3) in common speech is an umbrella term which includes both rats and mice. The “rats” most commonly used for human consumption in Fujian are what we would refer to as “field mice” rather than the sewer rats which are so common in most Chinese urban centers.

My ex-girlfriend was from Sanming and had told me that one of here favorite childhood memories was “eating rats.” Mice would be trapped in fields, killed, dried, and then made into “rat jerky” (老鼠干) which is considered one of the “8 big jerkys” (八大干) of Western Fujian. I had remained incredulous, so when we took a trip back to Sanming last spring, she promised me she would inquire if rat jerky was still around.

On our first day back we asked my ex’s grandma if there was some place in town where we could buy rat jerky. She told us that these days it is becoming less and less safe to eat the stuff. Because most of the field mice have been killed in recent years, scrupulous farmers have begun making jerky out of sewer rats, which are prone to disease. However, it turned out we were in luck, because earlier in the week, she told us, she had gone to a market in a neighboring town and picked up some fresh (non-jerkified) rat.

frozen mouse to eat
The mouse which came out of my ex-girlfriend’s grandmother’s refridgerator

Cultural sensitivities aside, I’m not sure I was prepared for what I was about to see, as the old woman pulled a completely intact frozen mouse out of the freezer. It was about 3 inches long, and placed on the table, it looked just like one of those mice I used to chase out of my apartment when I was in college.

That night for dinner, the mouse was chopped up into morsels, and cooked into a dish with hot peppers and garlic, and it tasted surprisingly wholesome…like beef, but with much smaller bones. Had I not known what it was I would have had no idea I was eating a rodent. Who woulda thunk? 祝你鼠年快乐Happy Rat Year!

Addendum: At the tail end of my trip to Sanming I was able to find several stores which sold rat jerky, and later on a Western Fujian specialty shop in Fuzhou which sold it as well. It comes in several flavors, most of them spicy, and is usually priced at least twice as expensive as the equivalent weight in beef jerky.



Spring Festival and Politics Mix in Chicago

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Festivals and Celebrations at 3:23 pm by Benjamin Ross

I just returned from the Chicago Chinatown Spring Festival Parade. Other than the sub-zero (that’s Farenheit sub-zero) temperatures, and the fact that everything was in Cantonese, the parade had the pretty much the same brewhaha one would expect from a New Years celebration in China. What was interesting, however, were the scores of Republic of China (Taiwan) flags, coupled with American flags, which were passed out to the entire audience…not sure how well this would have gone over back in the Mainland.

Chinese New Year Celebration Dragon Spring Festival
Koumintang Taiwan flag



Boom! Sweep the Tomb

Posted in Festivals and Celebrations, Local Customs at 10:00 am by Benjamin Ross

This past week was Chinese Qing Ming Jie which in English is referred to as “Tomb Sweeping Day.” The Chinese have always placed much emphasis on honoring their ancestors, and Qing Ming Jie is when people visit their ancestors tombs and tidy them up.

Melody’s great-grandfather’s tomb is barely recognizable before our “sweeping” begins.

These days in China, burying your dead is illegal. When you already have 1.3 billion people, and land is in high demand, devoting a small plot to land to each recently deceased member of the population is highly unpractical. Therefore, most bodies these days are cremated after the funeral.

Before these laws went into effect, dead people were buried in large, round, cement tombs. This still happens today, illegally, but not to the extent as it was in the past. According to Chinese tradition, to ensure a proper afterlife, the tomb must be placed in a proper location, and facing a proper direction. This typically requires a feng shui consultation, which usually produces a location on the side of a mountain, in an otherwise difficult to reach location.

This year for Qing Ming Jie, I went with Melody to her home village of Gaiyang.

Gaiyang is about an hour away from Mingxi (the nearest small town) which is about an hour away from Sanming (the nearest city), located in Western Fujian. Along with her dad, her aunt, her grandpa, and her dad’s cousin, we rented a jeep, and drove from Mingxi (where we were staying) to Gaiyang. After driving 15 minutes outside of Gaiyang on a dirt road, our jeep stopped where a small barely visible path had been worn in the brush. We jumped a small creek, and headed up the mountain. After walking up about 100 meters on a path which didn’t really exist we reached a clearing where a large dirt mound encircled a small brick wall beneath it. It was the tomb of Melody’s great-grandfather who had died when she was 8 years old.

Melody’s dad’s cousin begins the weed clearing.

The site of the tomb made me realize why there is a special day in China for tomb maintenance. In a country with no cemetery grounds keeping staff, and where most tombs are located in hard-to-find places, a tomb easily succumbs to the effects of the natural environment. When we first ascended, the tomb was barely noticeable. The clearing was covered with brush and the mound of the tomb was overgrown by grass and weeds. This was going to require a little more than just some casual tomb sweeping. It was to be a full-fledged tomb weed-whacking and brush clearing affair. Melody’s father’s cousin began clearing the brush with a backhoe as her aunt pulled the weeds from the mound. Melody and I joined in the weed-pulling until her grandpa told us that we were doing it wrong. Our weed-pulling had been causing mud to fall down the mound. This was a bad sign and could negatively affect the fortune of his deceased father.

Food and incense are placed in front of the tomb.

After half an hour of weed-whacking, the outline of the mound was once again visible, and the clearing in front of the tomb was cleared of brush. With the tomb now properly maintained, Melody’s grandpa began the memorial ceremony.

First, a plate of food was placed at the foot of the tomb. Then her grandpa lit a handful of incense sticks and passed them to all of the relatives. They each bowed several times while holding the incense and facing the tomb. Then each person placed all but one of their sticks into the ground in front of the tomb. The remaining sticks were placed in a line adjacent to the tomb. This was followed with the burning of fake money. It is believed that items burned for the deceased will be of use to them in the afterlife. Presumably, the burnt money would bring fortune in the afterlife. Like most Chinese traditions, festivals, or life-cycle events, the day was not complete without fireworks which are ignited in order to scare any evil spirits which may be lurking near the tomb.

Money is burned to bring good fortune to the deceased.

After an afternoon of grounds keeping we descended back down the mountain. It’s unlikely that anybody will go up the path or see the tomb until next year’s Qing Ming Jie, or possibly later. But at least for now, I know I have done my share of honoring my Chinese “ancestors.”




My Non-Denominational List of Top Ten Holidays and Festivals

Posted in Festivals and Celebrations, Local Customs at 4:20 am by Benjamin Ross

In less than 24 hours, Fuzhou will transform into a veritable war zone as an arsenal of firecrackers explodes on every street, hallway, and inch of space in town, signaling the final moments of the year of the dog (last year it was the end of the year of the cock) and welcoming in the year of the pig. This is the beginning of what was probably, before the international whoring of Christmas, humanity’s most widely observed celebration, the Chinese Spring Festival. The best analogy I can provide for Spring Festival is that it is like New Years, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July all wrapped into a 15 day-celebration. During Spring Festival it is tradition for Chinese people to return to their hometowns, eat a glutinous New Year’s feast with their families, light a lot of fireworks, and watch the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, China’s own version of the Super Bowl, except there is no football, and the commercials suck.

fireworks Chinese Spring Festival
Leftover Spring Festival carnage in a stairwell in Fujian.

Spring Festival for me also marks the traumatic finale of a massive season of Chinese, Western, American, Jewish, and Christian holidays, all of which generally necessitate some form of multi-cultural party or get-together when you are a foreigner living in China. The festivities began with Thanksgiving, then my birthday (Dec. 18), Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years, Valentine’s Day and now Spring Festival, not to mention my friends’ Clarence and Mandy’s engagement celebrations. All of this partying and celebrating got me thinking…Not all holidays are created equal. When I broke down all of the holidays and festivals which I encounter on a yearly basis, I come up with a fair collection of winners and duds. Here they are, My Non-Denominational List of Top Ten Holidays and Festivals.

10. Mid-Autumn Day

Mid-Autumn Day is the Chinese equivalent of a diluted Thanksgiving, except there are no Pilgrims, no Indians, and no blankets intentionally infected with small pox. But it’s the multi-flavored moon cakes which propel Mid-Autumn Day onto the list.

9. July 4th

Just as the Spring Festival is better observed in China’s countryside, there is nothing like July 4th and a place with a lot of country folk, such as…say…Missouri. Never mind that today our country’s values put world security in jeopardy, Independence Day is still all about the beer, the fireworks, and the ol’ stars and stripes.

8. Wacking Day

Okay, so maybe it was only invented on The Simpsons, but is there anything negative to say about a day where mob mentality rules and angry crowds prowl the streets with sticks beating the life out of the city’s snake population?

7. Yom Kippur

You might find it strange I have included such a solemn day on my list of Top Holidays and Festivals, but there are few concepts more cross-culturally applicable than dedicating one day a year to fasting, and repenting for all of the sins you committed throughout the year. This concept transcends religious beliefs, and it is the only Jewish holiday I regularly observe in China.

6. Your 21st birthday (applies for Americans only)

This isn’t technically a holiday or festival, but Americans love to abuse alcohol, and there is never a better reason to celebrate than the day where you can actually drink for the first time, legally? My 21st birthday was on a Monday night, and to this day I have yet to level that night’s levels of intoxication. Non-Americans simply don’t know the feeling.

5. New Year’s Eve (Western)

The Chinese New Year may be more multi-dimensional, but there is no bigger party than New Years Eve in the West.

4. Thanksgiving

Family, food, and football, nothing is more wholesome and American, and that’s why the final Thursday in November has always been on my list. A bantering John Madden with a turkey leg in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other doesn’t hurt either.

3. Spring Festival/Chinese New Year

You’ve heard the stereotypes, and they’re right on the money. Chinese food is great, and fireworks are plentiful in the land of chopsticks. What could be better than wrapping it all together under the backdrop of a family reunion? Spring Festival’s a keeper.

2. Halloween

When Chinese people ask me about my favorite “American” holidays Halloween is always the first to come to mind. Whether it’s going out trick-or-treating, having a drunken costume party, or just staying home with the Frankenstein and Osama bin Laden masks, handing out candy to children, Halloween is a pagan festival that people of all ages can enjoy.

1. Shabbat

It might sound cliché, but to me, the granddaddy of them all is the one that occurs 52 times a year. Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest, but not just rest in the physical sense. Shabbat is the day to clear the mind of all the pressures which otherwise cloud it 6 days a week. It’s a day to leave work and technology behind, and instead focus on what makes us human, our communities, our thoughts, and depending on your beliefs, the man upstairs.

Honorable Mention

St. Patrick’s Day. Is there any group of people other than the Irish which throws a better party in honor of their own nationalism and pride? If Jews did that, the whole day would consist of eating kougal and fixing up the younger generation on blind dates.

Not all holidays made the Top 10, and frankly some celebrations are simply overrated in my book, so now we have the Top 5 List of Most Overrated Holidays and Festivals.

5. Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus was a raider and a tyrant, who in the process of spreading syphilis and raping Indian women, managed to discover a land which had already been discovered 500 years before. Celebrating Columbus Day in America is like celebrating Dick Cheney Day in Baghdad.

4. Labor Day/National Day (China)

Several years ago the Chinese government decided to give the people two “golden weeks” per year in order to encourage traveling and spending. The result is that most of China’s tourism is occurs during these two weeks, making any worthwhile tourist attraction, pathetically unattractive during this time period. What’s worse, people have to go to work on the weekend before the holiday, so each “golden week” in reality nets only 3 days off.

3. Labor Day/Memorial Day (US)

Can anybody seriously tell me the last time you did something to honor either labor or fallen soldiers which didn’t involve jet skiing or golf. These “holidays” should both be renamed “National Get the Day off Work and Go Vacationing in the Ozarks/Hamptons/Mountains Day.”

2. Hanukkah

Christmas ain’t all that great, and Hanukkah is Christmas’s little bastard Jewish cousin. What was originally a holiday no more significant that President’s Day, has now, under the influence of Christmas, become one of the most over-hyped Jewish festivals on the calendar. I’ll take Pesach over Hanukkah any day.

1. Christmas

As a Jew, I’m a little biased, but I’ve never been a big fan of Christmas. What was originally the celebration of the birth of a man who healed the sick and died for the sins of his followers, has evolved into a frenzy of materialism and overspending. Americans now spend more money each year on Christmas than the entire GDP of Namibia. (sources available upon request)

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