Monday, January 30, 2012

A life as hard but as sweet as sugarcane

TODAY is one of the most important days of the 15-day Chinese New Year celebration for the Hokkien community. The eighth day of the first lunar month is celebrated just as grandly as the eve of the first day. Some people call it the Hokkien New Year.

At the stroke of midnight, the ceremony begins - today it is marked by blasts of firecrackers although this had never been a mandatory feature.

The Hokkien give thanks to the Jade Emperor or "Thnee Kong" for the blessings of the past year and ask for a smooth year.

It is said that if the children were to stay up and offer prayers to the Jade Emperor, the parents would be blessed with a long and healthy life. This belief, I think, is deeply rooted in the practice of filial piety.

The sugarcane is high on the list of items sought by the Hokkien on this day.

A pair of freshly harvested plants, complete with stalk, roots and leaves, can fetch many times its regular price, and this is the time the sugarcane planters make a killing. If you are wondering where the term "sweet harvest" came from, wonder no more.

According to popular folklore, a cruel king once ruled the Hokkien in ancient China. The tyrant ordered an ethnic cleansing, but the Hokkien got wind of it and sought refuge in the sugarcane fields, from which they emerged on the eighth day, unharmed by the departed army.

I was, however, told a different tale by my elders when I asked about the significance of the sugarcane when I was a kid.

Their story is more realistic, I think.

Sugarcane plants symbolise life and the resilient spirit in every one of us, they told me.

You will detect some truth in this if you observe the sugarcane plant closely. The plant may look slender but its roots are strong. The stem is tough but flexible enough to bend with and not be easily broken by the wind.

If you have ever chewed on the sugarcane, you will recall that you had to strip the bark with your teeth before you could take a bite of the crunchy stem. You also had to work your way through one tough node after another in order to savour the sweet juices.

All of these reflect the cycles of life and the hardship and ease, my elders said.

One will appreciate life's sweet rewards if we have tasted the hardship.

Of course, you can argue that these days, you do not have to work up a sweat to satisfy a sugarcane juice craving. Mechanical crushers and juicers have taken the load off your jaws.

But you don't need me to tell you that things gained without any work are likely to be lost just as effortlessly.

"Easy come, easy go" can be a hard lesson to learn - and all too often, learnt too late.

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