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TAIPEI, Taiwan -- On his first day in business, De-san did quite well. When the market in town closed, he would be able to chalk up more than one yen in sales. So he bought some rice, which his family would consume during the Chinese New Year Festival. A few days later, he thought, he would be able to buy all the rice needed for the long holiday and he would then buy something more. “Our family hasn't had much luck this year,” he told himself, “and so we need to give the family a new look for next year. First, an icon of Avalokitesvara has to be bought to replace the old one on the family altar.* The men lian have to be replaced, too.** Votive papers, and fragrant candles that are indispensable have to be purchased as well.” After enjoying brisk business in the following few days, he thought he would have a thick layer of New Year cake steamed.*** So he bought sugar and glutinous rice and brought them back home. His wife could not resist warning him: “The money (spent on sugar and glutinous rice) could be saved to redeem that hairpin with a gold flower at the head. Isn't it more urgent?” “Yes,” De-san replied. “I haven't forgotten that. But it's only the twenty-fifth day (of the twelfth moon). I don't think I won't earn enough money to redeem it. Even if I can't, the seed money is still there to be redeemed (within a month). The pawnshop would charge you a month's interest anyway (regardless of whether we redeem it now or later within the month).” It was late in the evening a couple of days afterwards. De-san was about to go home after the market was closed. He thought of his two children. They would need new clothes for the New Year. It's the duty of a father to make his children glad if he cannot make them happy. So, De-san spent all of a few days' earning to buy a few yards of printed cloth and brought it back home.
Again, it's near high noon one day when a police patrolman on his beat appeared before De-san who was waiting for customers right behind his two baskets of vegetables on a street. The eyes of the cop were riveted on the vegetables in the baskets. De-san politely asked: “Sir, anything you need?”
“Your stock is fresher,” the cop said.
“Yes, yes, Dailin,” De-san said.**** “People in town do know more about how to enjoy. Those things that are not of top quality are not for your consumption.”
“How much are these cauliflowers?” the cop asked.
“Dailin,” De-san said, “what you need, you don't have to ask to know its price. I count myself lucky if you only prefer to ask for my ware.”
Then De-san picked a couple of nice-looking cauliflowers. He tied them up with a thin bunch of rice hay and politely presented them to the cop.
* Avalokitesvara is a bodhisattva, known in China as Guanyin (觀音) and popularly called in the West as the Goddess of Mercy
**Men-lian (門聯) means literally “door couplets.” The poetic couplets, pasted prior to Chinese New Year's Day on either side of the door, with another line above the lintel, are supposed to usher in a more prosperous year.
***New Year cake is made of glutinous rice and sugar. The rice is first soaked in water overnight and ground with water. It is then drained of water and the dough so made is mixed with sugar and steamed. It is eaten ritually during the long Chinese New Year Festival, which is considered to last until the fifteenth day of the first moon on the Chinese lunar calendar.
****Dailin (大人) in Hoklo literally means “great man.” It is a respectful salutation for one's seniors. A rough equivalent in English is Sahib.
The Lai He Fiction serialization sponsored by the Council for Hakka Affairs, is provided by the Central News Agency.