Thursday, August 6

Wang Xiao Er’s New Year


STEPPING into 2016, what is foremost on your mind?

Get a second job?

“Tidak cukup!” (not enough), our Chief Minister repeated it as he vented his frustration over the measly federal allocations to Sarawak in winding up the Budget 2016 at the recent state assembly sitting.

The outgoing China’s Consul-general Liu Quan used the same “Tidak cukup!” when he referred to the lack of direct international flights to Kuching (to bring in tourists to the state) at a farewell dinner.

But “Tidak cukup!” is hanging on everyone’s lips, across the state, and possibly the whole country (hence, prompting that less-than-intelligent minister to urge all Malaysians to consider seeking a second job).

Indeed, “Tidak cukup!” More and more of the masses are finding their incomes short and insufficient to cope with the inflationary pressure which drives up the costs of living.

Rubber taping at the wee hours, lawyer by day and selling fried rice at a hawker stall at night, anyone?

“Tidak cukup!” Unless we have RM2.6 billion in our bank accounts, of course.

“Every year is a test. Work hard and overcome the challenges,” my late grandfather would repeat his timeless advice over a wok of steaming fish with salted vegetables and beancurds placed on the dining table, a special cuisine our family enjoyed every new year day when he was around, not the Lunar New Year but the Gregorian new year.

My typically Teochew grandfather had worked for the colonial officials as a part time translator in his younger days, hence he reveled the first day of each calendar year. The special cuisine, however, has its significant Chinese mores.

Indeed, my late grandfather would repeat the tale of Wang Xiao Er’s New Year over that special meal. Then, we were living with relatives all close by. There were always cousins who joined us and listened to the story for the first time. But the rest of us would not get bored of the many tales of this somehow legendary Wang Xiao Er (in Chinese, he would be the second child of a Wang family).

The tale was set in the time of the Qing dynasty under the reign of Emperor Qianlong, 250 years or so ago.

Qianlong was the longest serving emperor in Chinese history. He was born in 1711 and became the sixth emperor of the Qing dynasty when he was 25 years old, ruling the country until his demise in 1799.

It was during his time that the United Kingdom sent the First Earl George Macartney as the first envoy of Britain to China in 1792.

Emperor Qianlong’s 64 years dictatorial rule was controversial, depending on the readers’ perspective and interests, but everyone would agree he was a caring emperor, travelling the length and breadth of the huge empire six times during his reign – ‘turun padang’ – in plain clothing to find out how were his subjects and be with them.

We must remember travelling was by horses and carts in those times. Even if you were an emperor, there was no airplane, private or commercial, to fly to Hawaii for a round of golf with the US president before returning home within one week.

During one of Emperor Qianlong’s “walk-about” in his kingdom, he came to Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in eastern China. Then, he had decided to climb up the Wushan mountain which overlooks a part of the magnificent and picturesque West Lake (now a World Cultural Heritage Site).

When he was up in the mountain, it suddenly rained heavily. The emperor who was in his plain clothing, was alone, all wet and shivering.  Fortunately, he came to a small house and was able to take shelter from the torrential rain.

The good Wang Xiao Er or Wang Run Xing (his real name) was the owner of the little house. Being sympathetic towards this “tourist” who was shivering in his wet clothing, Wang Xiao Er invited him into the house and allow him to dry himself and get warm near the fireplace.

Emperor Qianlong then told his generous hosts he was hungry and asked if there was food.

It was a dilemma for Wang Xiao Er and his wife. They were poor and there was nothing in the house to feast this unsolicited guest.

In their kitchen, there was only the leftover of a fish (the fish head was intact), some preserved veggie and a block of tofu (beancurd). In his best endeavor, Wang Xiao Er stewed the fish head with the preserved vegetables and tofu in a claypot and served the steaming food with a bowl of rice left over from their last meal.

To the cold and hungry Emperor Qianlong, that was the most delicious food he has had in his life.

Returning to his palace, Emperor Qianlong told his Chef de cuisine of this special dish of stewed fish head with preserved veggie and tofu. However they had tried, the outcome was way off what the emperor had tasted in Wang Xiao Er’s house.

On his next “walk-about” trip, the emperor brought his Chef de cuisine and the first stop in Hangzhou was Wang Xiao Er’s house. It was near Lunar New Year but the house was now looking very shabby and the emperor found Wang Xiao Er looking depressed.

“Wang Xiao Er, how have you been?” the emperor, in his plain cloth, asked.

“Not good. Things are getting worse by the year,” said the woeful host who had just lost his low-paying job.

“But you cooked the best stewed fish head with preserved veggie and tofu in this empire!”

The emperor did not suggest Wang Xiao Er should go and find another job, or get a second job so that he will prosper. Neither did he deny the economic adversities nor say “kangkong is still worth a ringgit a kilogramme.”

The emperor immediately instructed his entourage to take out some money as gift for Wang Xiao Er to open an eatery in Hangzhou. Suggesting the shop should be named “Huang Fan Er” (“Emperor’s little meal”), he wrote the words himself, signed it and stamped the paper with his royal seal.

Wang Xiao Er was in shock. He did not expect that “tourist” he had helped to dry his clothing and feed him with his leftover dishes was actually the emperor.

I have not been to Hangzhou but I have heard that the names of “Huang Fan Er” and “Wang Run Xing” are freely used and displayed in restaurants, food courts and eateries as names of shops and dishes served.

“Every year is a challenge, and the next year will be even more challenging. We must persevere. Be kind and always be ready to help others in need. We will be rewarded,” my late grandfather would always so advised.

That was why the wok of steaming fish with salted vegetables and bean curd for us on Gregorian New Year Day.

Things have gotten more completed 250 years later. Democracies could live under the dictates of authoritarians. Countries could be ruined by corruption, nepotism and cronyism or they may be bankrupted by wastages and monstrous national debts. The subjects have the added and arduous but necessary responsibilities to participate in the political process to save their countries.

We cannot afford to sit back and rue over the difficult years, and let us not get disillusioned by those half-witted politicians who suggest that we should go and find a second job.

We must persevere, Sarawak must persevere. It is such a beautiful fair nation state. Let us work together to give our future generations a better future in this Fair Land Sarawak.