March 29, 2016, by Tony Hong

The ancient Chinese fortune cookie

By David O’Brien,

Assistant Professor School of Contemporary Chinese Studies.

Last week I saw young Russian guys on campus wearing fake red beards and leprechaun hats, Chinese girls with shamrock t-shirts and Irish flags flying from a kiosk on the High Street.

It was of course St Patrick’s Day, national day of my homeland and as they say, a day when everyone is Irish. I must admit I do get a kick out of this as an Irish person abroad but I also never really know how to understand it.

You see for most people of my age and older this is very different to how we remember the St Patrick’s Day of our youth.

In my childhood this was a predominantly religious festival, commemorating the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. St Patrick, we are told, was a slave captured in Britain or maybe France in the fifth century who took pity on his captors’ pagan ways and eventually devoted his life to their conversion.

In the 1980s when I was a kid in Ireland we celebrated this with a rather long Mass and far more excitingly a special dispensation from the 40-day Lenten fast which many Catholics observe in the run-up to Easter. Which in my case meant being able to eat sweets until I felt sick…oh the joy!

And unlike the festival it has since become, there was really very little drinking, the pubs being closed for much of the day as it was a Church holiday.

Today drinking seems to be the central attraction rather than contemplation on the parables of Patrick – such as the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit being three but also one just like the little shamrock with its three leaves.

In Ireland too it has become a festival of booze and merriment with large colourful parades in most towns.

This however is really an invented tradition created in the past twenty years by the marketing folks at the Irish Tourist Board and copied directly from the famous parades in New York and Boston.

It has in many ways become a festival of homecoming for people who claim a connection either real or imagined, with the little green island on the edge of Europe.

China of course is also a place of invented tradition where many age-old customs are in fact on closer inspection manufactured for tourists. One thinks of the numerous ‘ethnic villages’ where ethnic people can be seen in ‘their natural environment’, ‘performing their traditional songs and dances’.

Another example of an invented tradition now being brought to China from oversees is the case of Shanghai’s first western-style Chinese restaurant which opened in recent months. All the familiar favourites are on the menu, sweet and sour pork, General Tso’s chicken and fortune cookies – indeed it is even called Fortune Cookie.

According to a report on America’s National Public Radio Chinese citizens now make up about 40 percent of Fortune Cookie’s patronage, but the majority of customers are American expatriates.

“It’s kind of embarrassing that you’re in China eating American-Chinese food, but it was just spot on,” Emery-Moore, an American art teacher at Shanghai American School told NPR. “I feel calm. I feel relaxed. I feel like I’m at home.

I’m still not sure if seeing people wearing leprechaun hats in a university in China makes me feel at home but it does make me smile.

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