My aunt was born in Hong Kong. She has two children, one is twenty and the other is twenty-two. Both her parents, my grandparents are still alive but live in Hong Kong. The interview took place in my aunt's business, which is a travel agency that she owns and operates. After the travel agency shut down for the day, we sat down over cookies and tea for this ethnography interview. I informed my aunt of the purpose of the interview, and she offered to sign an informed consent agreement that I prepared for her. This informed consent process is important for ethical and legal purposes when conducting any research. The information I collect from my aunt will be used for the purposes of this class only, and she must be informed if her name or any personal information is used in other contexts.
The interview focused on her perception of folklore in Hong Kong culture, and how modern Chinese people incorporate ancient folklore practices and traditions in their daily lives. In spite of the dominance of technology, science, and reason in modern Hong Kong culture, there are still elements of folklore that are unmistakable. It is this intersection between the modern and the traditional that makes many cultures interesting from an anthropological and cultural perspective. It is also important to know how folklore is perceived: do people actually believe the folklore as fact, or is it more a matter of staying tied to their culture and ancestry. Also, the interview will clarify how folklore is used, and what kinds of folklore are most important. Also, it is important to find out exactly what aspects of folklore are incorporated into daily life, and what might have become outdated with my aunt's generation. Therefore, I began by asking about her childhood memories. This would clarify the changes that have taken place since my grandparents' generation in Hong Kong to my aunt's and parents' generation, ultimately to our younger generation.
"What do you remember from your childhood, in terms of how folklore was used or presented?" I asked this question first. My aunt responded with a smile, saying that many aspects of daily life were stepped in folklore and tradition and it is hard to separate folklore from other aspects of culture. For example, she remembered that my grandmother had a lot of superstitions. Some of these superstitions were shared by all members of the society, such as an aversion to number four (4) and the symbolism of certain colors. I noted that these were some enduring aspects of Chinese folklore that even young people are familiar with today. My grandmother's specific folklore superstitions came passed down from her grandparents, and were specific to the family. In other words, my aunt's best friends' parents did not have superstitions such as "it was bad luck to leave your shoes upside-down inside the house." Also, my aunt said that her grandmother thought it was good luck to eat a sweet after every meal "but I think that was just her excuse to eat more dessert." The fact that my aunt recalls superstitious beliefs unique to the family shows that there are ways individuals create their own responses to the overall cultural worldview. Folklore was very important to my grandparents, to the point where they would guide many of their decisions based on their folk beliefs.
Folk medicine, for example, was more popular in my grandparents' day than it was for my aunt, even though traditional Chinese medicine has become part of the mainstream. There are folk remedies used by my grandparents that are inspired by ancient Chinese beliefs about health and the way the body works. Many of these folk remedies have been replicated generation after generation throughout the culture, which is why they are still used today. In fact, my aunt did not believe that a lot of the traditional Chinese medicine practices were based on folklore at all. They are considered as factual as Western medical traditions. My aunt even said that she believed that the Chinese herbal remedies were more proven effective than the Western pharmacy remedies because the Chinese ones have been used for much longer, and have been tested on more people.
Folklore is integral to cultural identity. Chinese culture is diverse, and folklore is one way that individuals like my aunt differentiates herself from other Chinese people. Of course, language and customs are also ways that subcultures differentiate themselves from other groups within one umbrella society. However, folklore plays a greater role than we realize. Even issues like gender identity can be traced to folklore and the belief systems that come from the folklore. For example, gender identity in Chinese society may come from specific stories in Chinese folklore like the story of Mulan. Mulan was a woman who dressed like a man in order to serve in the military and defend her people. The story of Mulan inspires both men and women to follow what is ethical and just, rather than to always believe that we are restricted by our gender.
During the interview with my aunt, I asked her to tell me what evidence of folklore she perceived in her daily life with regards to identity. She had a hard time answering the question directly; so instead I asked her to tell me about how holidays are celebrated, and what customs she attributes to folklore stories. The first thing that my aunt mentioned was the way that folklore was used during the Chinese New Year celebrations in Hong Kong. Many of the same traditions used at home in Hong Kong were brought over to the United States and Canada, where there are immigrant communities practicing the same types of folklore celebrations. "The parades are very important for chasing away the bad spirits, in order to welcome a new year full of change, promise, health, and prosperity," said my aunt. In particular, the loud noises at the New Years celebrations chase away bad spirits. Food is also integral to the celebrations. "We eat special foods, which are white in color, as well as foods that symbolize longevity such as noodles. Fish and other seafood are used to bring prosperity." The same can be said for the festivities at other holidays throughout the New Year. In modern families, the children's birthdays are also celebrated. This represents the fusion of the ancient Chinese folklore traditions with the traditions of Western society. For example, many young Chinese kids growing up in the United States and Canada expect to have a birthday cake and candles, which is not a Chinese tradition.
One of the most notable folklore traditions that has been incorporated into modern life is the lion dance, which is done at the start of new businesses. Basically, the lion dance is used to frighten away the bad spirits that could cause bad luck to befall a new business. The bad spirits are chased away by the lion symbol and also by the loud noises. When it is used to bless the new business, the lion dance also ushers in peace and prosperity for the family. My aunt did not know exactly what the origin of the lion dance was, and also the dragon dance used at larger celebrations. Her ignorance of the facts surrounding the origins of the folklore shows that mainly scholars will understand the exact origins of these traditions, but the people who actually practice them make them a part of their lives. Chinese people, for example, internalize the customs and traditions to the point where they do not really think about questions of "why are we doing this?" Young people might occasionally question the reason, but carry out the traditions anyway out of respect for the parents.
Folklore also binds together people of the same culture, which is an integral part of identity formation. There are other examples of the ways that my aunt proudly displays signs of connection with her Chinese folklore heritage. For example, I pointed out the Feng Shui "bagua" that hangs in her office. The bagua is a red octagon shape, which contains special symbols. When we spoke about the bagua and feng shui, it was clear my aunt did not see a connection necessarily between this and specific folklore. The folklore stories that we hear as children, such as fairy tales, are different from the practices that are considered integral to daily life. Feng shui is rooted in Chinese and Taoist folklore, but to explain the connection would require scholarly research. People who practice feng shui can tell you things like where to put mirrors to scare away the bad spirits, or to foster prosperity by burning incense in certain places. However, stories and tales from Chinese folklore are considered separate.
For example, my aunt told me a story I had not heard before. It was about the master of a household who treated his servants very poorly. The servants left, and then a fox appeared to the master of the…