“Chinese New Year is coming soon. It’s spring cleaning time. Why don’t you start by sorting out all the stuff that you bought last year? They’re starting to clutter your study,” my wife comments when she sees me taking a breather from work.
She’s right as usual. There are piles upon piles of books, magazines and old newspapers in the room and those do not even include the numerous boxes of vintage photographs I’d bought from flea markets and private sellers on Facebook last year. The place is starting to look like a dump and with the Lunar New Year fast approaching, clutter is definitely not auspicious.
Starting with the larger books, I slowly work my way down to the smaller stuff. Just as I’m arranging a stack of vintage movie magazines, I come across a February 1964 issue with Lin Dai, the superstar actress of the Shaw Brothers Studios, gracing the front cover.
The sight of the traditionally written chun lian in the diva’s hands immediately reminds me of my childhood when putting up these Spring Festival couplets was considered one of the most common and important customs to practise during Chinese New Year.
Story of the couplets
Back then, based on the stories told by my elders, I learnt that spring couplets originated from inscriptions on wooden boards made from peach trees. According to a Zhou Dynasty legend, a golden rooster would perch on a huge peach tree near the entrance to the underworld at dawn and crow at dawn to recall wandering spirits to the realm of the dead. That entrance was said to be guarded by two benevolent demi-gods named Shen Tu and Yu Lei.
Every morning, the deities would check on the returning ghosts. Any spirit caught committing evil deeds the night before would be apprehended and subsequently fed to the tigers prowling the nearby woods. From that time onwards, the people began writing the names of the two deities on peach wood and hung them on either sides of their doors to ward off evil spirits.
Nearly a millennia later, during the Song Dynasty, people began focusing on the more positive side of life. Wooden peach boards were replaced with red paper and forward thinking wishes for a brighter future became substitutes for the deity names. This custom became popular in the 15th century when a Ming Dynasty Emperor learnt about this cultural practice and liked the idea very much. From that day onwards, all households were ordered to paste the couplets during the Chinese New Year.
Returning my gaze to the magazine cover, it becomes obvious that unlike the mass produced, machine-printed banners that are commonly available today, the couplet featured in Lin Dai’s hands was handwritten in the traditional manner, probably by a professional Chinese sign-writer.
In the past, Chinese sign-writers were a common fixture along five foot ways of major towns in Malaya like Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Ipoh and Penang.
Measuring between 5 cm and 10cm in width and varying considerably in length, these red-paper slips expressing good wishes and felicitations were highly sought after by customers especially during major festivals like Chinese New Year.
While customary lucky maxims such as cai (wealth), fu (luck or happiness) and ping an (peace and tranquillity) were a must, the sign-writers were also well versed in ideographs meant for specific places in the house.
‘Let it be safe to climb up and down’ was a popular ideograph for staircases while the ones favoured for home entrances included ‘May your entering and departure be peaceful’ and ‘Health for the old and young’. The Chinese place special importance on the rice storage receptacle as it represents food for the family. On it, they’d normally paste a simple yet meaningful saying, ‘Be full always’.
The use of these auspiciously-inscribed red papers wasn’t only confined to the Chinese New Year period. They also had their place at the opening of businesses and at marriages. In the former, phrases like ‘Consistent successful transactions’ and ‘May the coffers be filled with gold’ were commonly seen while popular nuptial ideographs included ‘Together forever’ and ‘Offspring for many generations’.
While having a choice of using either black ink or gold paint to pen their words, the sign-writers only used the colour red when it came to their preferred writing paper. This was mainly because the Chinese believe that the colour signifies prosperity and good luck.
Armed with these items and a variety of bamboo brushes of varying sizes, the sign-writer would set up his table along the busy lanes near the market or the five-foot-ways of old shop houses. Apart from a couple of chairs for him and his prospective customer, the sign-writer would also need an abacus to perform simple arithmetic.
Penning thoughts and feelings
The sign-writer was typically male whose age usually surpassed the five decade mark. There was practically no representation from the fairer sex in this profession as traditional Chinese families considered it indecorous and a waste of time to educate daughters. A normal working day would begin as early as 8 am and can stretch on until nightfall. Apart from being skilled in calligraphy, writers must also possess infinite patience while providing service to their customers.
As demand for festive ideographs fluctuated greatly depending on the time of the year, sign-writers made a living out of writing letters during the off season. Before the days when education was made compulsory, their services were sought after by those who were semi-literate as well as illiterate. The letters that they wrote were in calligraphic Chinese script and used by the Chinese migrants living in Malaya to communicate with their loved ones left behind in China.
Historians believe the number of professional sign-writers began to proliferate on Malayan streets sometime during the early 19th century as that was the time when Chinese immigrants began arriving in droves, attracted by the booming tin mining industry in Negri Sembilan, Perak and Selangor.
The overwhelming rate of illiteracy among these new arrivals or sin kheks prompted the literate few who arrived together with them to help pen the thoughts and feelings of their compatriots, especially the older folks, coolies or labourers, samsui women and the amah (majie or domestic helper).
At the same time, the sign-writers also read out letters sent by the migrants’ families in China. This established a form of communication for the immigrants in Malaya, enabling them to write and receive letters through these learned men.
Business for letter writers reached its peak after World War II when people flocked to them to establish communication with their families in China after years of isolation. The writers also made good money in the early 1960s when a prolonged recession in China prompted people to send messages of hope to their loved ones as well as cash, food and clothing during those difficult times. As such, the writers have to be knowledgeable in the latest currency exchange rates.
Apart from writing spring couplets and letters, sign-writers were also approached to compose invitation cards, land leases and even marriage certificates. During the early 20th century, marriage certificates were generally known as ‘three generation cards’, as couples intending to tie the knot were required to indicate the names of their families spanning three generations on the official document.
Other attributes necessary for writers included being able to maintain an aloof and disinterested demeanour as they could, at times, be privy to the deepest emotions and secrets of their trusting clients. The writers were expected to remain calm and composed even when a potential customer dictated his or her suicide note!
A vast majority of sign-writers led a simple life, usually making just enough for their families to get by. This was primarily due to their inability to charge a lot as most of their customers were not wealthy. A survey conducted in a major city in Malaya back in the 1930s revealed that more than three quarters of the writers were not doing well. In those days, the nominal rate for a letter was 20 cents. By the 1960s, it ranged between fifty cents and a dollar, depending on the length of the letter.
End of an era
Today, there are no more sign-writers left on the streets of modern Malaysia. Times have changed. With the advent of cutting-edge technology, demand for these talented composers has dwindled to practically naught. Many of the customers who still prefer things done the traditional way have either passed away or are too old to prepare festive decorations on their own. The younger generation today prefer the hassle-free act of buying factory-produced plastic couplets in the air conditioned comfort of hypermarkets.
Meanwhile, the professional letter-writing profession has also faded into the annals of history. The current generation enjoys a high literacy rate and, unlike their forefathers, they see themselves firstly as Malaysians and consider the bond with their ancestral homeland to be secondary or even non-existent. In fact, many Malaysian Chinese today view China just like any other country in this world, a place to visit as tourists, especially during the holidays.
Realising that it’s nearly dinner time, I swiftly put the rest of my purchases away. At the same time, I pacify myself with the thought that the coming Chinese New Year-extended holiday break will give me ample time to browse through them at leisure.
Sunday Vibes wishes readers celebrating Chinese New Year, Gong Xi Fa Cai. May the New Year bring you lots of good health, abundant happiness and everlasting prosperity.