How My Family in Singapore Ensures Its Prosperity by Making a Communal Fish Salad
“Actually, we should write a letter to the local newspaper to interview us. On a Sunday, when we’re doing it,” said my uncle longingly, while chopping up some pickled leek.
To his right was a large rectangular table where some ten small round plastic containers of pickled ginger and the like are stacked on top of each other. Somewhere at the back of the kitchen lay a 20-inch flat bamboo basket of shredded white and green radishes. And opposite him stood Indri, the helper of his household for the past 6 years, diligently shredding carrots with a mandoline to prepare for the big event of the night.
It was the day of our annual lo hei.
Lo hei, or tossing for prosperity, is a traditional practice adopted in Singapore to welcome the Chinese New Year. This communal practice involves tossing and mixing a raw fish salad dish called yu sheng, which is eaten during Chinese New Year. Yu sheng literally means ‘raw fish’ but symbolizes a rise in abundance, because the Chinese word for ‘fish’ sounds like the Chinese word for ‘abundance’ and the word ‘sheng’ which means ‘raw’ sounds like the Chinese word for ‘rise’. Although largely practiced by the ethnic Chinese community in Singapore, lo hei is almost unheard of in many other Chinese-populated countries, perhaps except in Malaysia. Much has been discussed about the origins of this dish but except for the fact that it has its roots in Southern China, little is certain. Whatever it is, the modern version of yu sheng that we have in Singapore now is a colorful and complex rendition of the original.
“Massage it a little,” my uncle muttered, while pressing down on the frozen wolf herring he snapped up earlier in the morning at a wet market in Chinatown.
“The people behind me weren’t happy,” he said, and then he continued with a slight smirk that did not escape my eyes, “Because I bought the last available wolf herring.”
Traditionally, lo hei is done on ren ri —- the day human beings were created in Chinese mythology, on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year —- but as Singapore only gets two days off for Chinese New Year, we typically have it on any day of the first fifteen days of the Chinese New Year. In recent years, many Chinese families in Singapore purchase yu sheng pre-made at supermarkets, or head to Chinese restaurants to lo hei<e/m>, but for our family, it is a yearly cultural activity rather than a quick dining tradition.
“Slow and steady,” said my uncle, as he saw his son —- my cousin —- fluster at how it was gradually getting harder to slice the frozen wolf herring evenly with the Chinese cleaver.
There was something strangely satisfying about the slow and rhythmic chopping sounds, as my uncle and my cousin sliced the frozen wolf herrings. On the other side of the kitchen table were my other cousin and cousin-in-law steadily arranging the raw fish slices neatly on another flat bamboo basket. The thin slices of raw fish were defrosting quickly, so it was getting increasingly difficult to spread them out evenly on the bamboo basket to air dry them.
Yu sheng might sound like a simple dish of raw fish salad, but it actually has a long list of ingredients which includes, but is not limited to, the following: raw fish, shredded green radish, shredded carrots, shredded white radish, shredded cucumbers, Chinese parsley, crackers (also more affectionately known as the ‘golden pillow’ crackers), deep fried rice vermicelli, grounded peanuts, pomelo bits, and various condiments and seasonings such as pepper, soy sauce, five spice powder, and plum sauce. Apart from enriching the taste of the raw fish salad, each ingredient has its own symbolic meaning. For example, green radish and Chinese parsley represent everlasting youth, while shredded carrots and red pickled ginger are supposed to bring good luck as red is an auspicious color in the Chinese culture.
“Can I cut?” My 7-year-old niece asked, wanting to help to cut the dough fritters that were to be deep fried.
“Tell him he’s fired,” my uncle said jokingly as my eldest cousin failed to turn up on time to help deep fry the dough fritters and rice vermicelli, which will add a crunchy and crispy texture to the yu sheng.
By seven in the evening, everyone had made their way to my grandfather’s place, where the clan still has our family dinner fortnightly even though he is no longer around.
“How many? 4? 5?” Another of my eight cousins asked, wondering how many portions the nicely laid out raw fish slices should be divided into, which will determine how many times we lo hei. Although most families lo hei only once before dinner, we do it four to five times, ensuring that interested family members will have a chance to contribute in seasoning the raw fish and shredded ingredients just before the lo hei begins.
The tradition of lo hei involves more than just tossing all the ingredients and condiments onto a large plate; just as there is symbolic meaning behind every ingredient, the order of adding in the ingredients of yu sheng matters as well.
“Come! Come! Come! First round!” Someone shouted, when all the ingredients had been piled up on a large plate, and a commemorative photograph had been taken.
Everyone naturally gathered around the round dining table with chopsticks in hands and ready to lo hei, while my mother, having worked at Chinese restaurants, came forward to lead the recitation of 4-word auspicious wishes related to the specific ingredient being added to the yu sheng.
“… pin dei wong gam!” said my mother in Cantonese, wishing for the streets to be paved with gold, as the crackers were finally added to the yu sheng.
“Fatt ah!” To prosperity! Everyone shouted unitedly, signaling the start of a riotous display of colorful vegetables being tossed about, and a cacophony of cheers and cries for a prosperous year.
“My turn, my turn!” someone cried, as there were insufficient chopsticks to go around.
It is said that the higher you lo (the higher you toss), the more prosperous your year would be, hence lo hei is always a messy event where much of the yu sheng ends up on the dining table as everyone tosses overzealously before silently digging into a delicious plate of contrasting flavours and textures that ironically complement each other at the same time.
When my grandfather left his hometown for Singapore alone and started his own family here in the 1940s, he probably would never have expected the family (and the family tradition) to grow this big. All superstitions and symbolism aside, lo hei may or may not be the reason for bringing prosperity to the family, but the collective effort put into this tradition annually may very well be the reason for our close-knit family.