Yee Sang, the Fortune Cookie and the “Invention of Tradition”


By Phua Kai Lit

March 15, 2002


The other day, my wife and I had dinner in a Chinese restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur suburbs. At the end of the dinner, we were given a fortune cookie enclosed in a red plastic wrapper. The waitress said a few words about the fortune cookie since she assumed that we were not familiar with fortune cookies. (Since we have dined in Chinese restaurants in the United States, we were familiar with the fortune cookie – a crunchy piece of biscuit containing a slip of paper with a pseudo-Confucian saying or a lucky phrase printed on it). “Wow!” I thought, “so this invention of the Chinese in the United States has finally arrived onto Malaysian shores! How interesting.”


Traditionally, Chinese people had this practice of writing auspicious or lucky sayings onto strips of red paper (red being a favoured colour among the Chinese) and pasting them next to the main door of their houses especially during the Chinese New Year season. This tradition probably survives in China but it is hardly seen anymore in Malaysia today because professional calligraphers are nowhere to be found and it is probably too gauche to put up pieces of paper with printed sayings on them instead.


My guess is that somehow in the United States, someone remembered this tradition and also noticed that certain xenophobic white people liked to make fun of the Chinese immigrants by coming up with derisive “Confucius say blah blah blah” sayings and decided to twist this around and capitalize on it by serving fortune cookies that contain “lucky” sayings to customers at the end of dinners in Chinese restaurants. This person was a very “smart cookie” indeed!


As a matter of interest and for the sake of comparison, the American fortune cookie is given to you unwrapped and the saying is printed on a white slip of paper with a “smiley” or two printed on it. Our Malaysian fortune cookie, manufactured in Seri Kembangan in Selangor, comes to you in a red plastic wrapper. One can tell that it is a Malaysianised fortune cookie because the wrapper has a halal emblem printed on it and we are also informed that we can get it in chocolate, orange and pandan flavours! (What next, durian-flavoured and curry-flavoured fortune cookies?). I am waiting with great interest to see whether other Chinese restaurants in Malaysia will adopt this practice of distributing fortune cookies at the end of dinners and how long it will take for this practice to be adopted throughout the country. A new “tradition’ would then have been invented!


As for the tradition of eating yee sang during Chinese New Year, this is a recently invented “tradition” of the Chinese in Malaysia (and Singapore). Yee sang – a dish of raw fish slices mixed with crunchies and other ingredients plus sauces of various kinds – is not part of New Year cuisine among the Chinese of Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong etc. Part of the attraction or fun of eating yee sang comes from audience participation or participant observation, i.e., all those present at the dinner table, whether young or old or men or women, are supplied with chopsticks and are actively encouraged to indulge in boisterous mixing of the ingredients simultaneously. Thus, a feeling of family togetherness/bonding/affirmation of ties/social solidarity is created at the same time. I suppose one could also say that the kids enjoy this because it allows them the rare chance of playing with their food without being reprimanded for it by adults!    


In my opinion, yee sang dishes at Chinese restaurants in Malaysia and Singapore are grossly overpriced during the New Year season (traditionally the period of celebration for the New Year is 15 days). Nevertheless, diners are willing to pay for it because of its association with good luck, prosperity and business success (sale of expensive yee sang dishes certainly brings prosperity and business success to restaurant owners!). A classic case of successful marketing indeed. Upscale yee sang containing slices of expensive fish or abalone can burn a big hole in one’s pocket. From what I have read in the Singaporean mass media, the ordering of grossly overpriced yee sang dishes also allows one to indulge in “kiasuism”, i.e., one can display one’s wealth to poorer relatives, friends and business acquaintances by ordering expensive dishes of yee sang or other foods in restaurants and never mind the taste. A local version of the potlatch, I suppose. As for the masses, they can still eat yee sang during Chinese New Year by buying do-it-yourself kits and by using cheap fish for the fish slices.


The eating of yee sang during Chinese New Year is a good example of the

“invention of tradition” in Chinese culture in Malaysia and Singapore. If it spreads to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or to citizens of other countries who are of Chinese ancestry, it would be an example of cultural diffusion. As for the appearance of the fortune cookie in this particular Chinese restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur suburbs, this is certainly an example of cultural diffusion – the local manufacturer of the fortune cookie available in ordinary, chocolate, orange and pandan flavours probably got his or her first exposure to the fortune cookie in a Chinese restaurant in the United States (or Canada. Do they serve fortune cookies in Canada?). However, it remains to be seen whether this practice will spread to other Chinese restaurants in the country.