HOW "YUSHENG" (RAW FISH) MADE US RICHER
Feature photo by WAN SAN YIP
So when we stood around the table, yelling in unison and wildly tossing that fish salad with chopsticks, we were trying to generate greater wealth.
Growing up, I’d spend Lunar New Year with my maternal grandparents in Jakarta, where my family would gather at a Chinese restaurant of my grandfather’s choosing. It was always the same one, though, and every year I’d rush to the large fish tanks that were always at the eatery’s entrance, practically pressing my nose against the glass, much to my mom’s chagrin. With my bright red qipao reflected against the blank eye of a grouper aimlessly swimming back and forth, I’d stare in wonder and a sadness I couldn’t quite place. Like many children, the conversations held among the adults at the table barely held my interest and I’d often zip from my chair to visit the fish, return, eat a little, then go again. No one seemed to mind my habit that much, but throughout the years they all made sure I knew that there was a ritual I couldn’t miss: the tossing of the Yusheng.
“Lo hei, lo hei!” My grandfather’s gruff voice would rumble like thunder over the chattering of our family members. He’d always be smiling, eyes thinned out as if shying away from his puffy cheeks, wrinkling with age, but, in this moment, always glowing.
It sounds...bizarre to some, perhaps, but many families hold onto this tradition with a strong grip, including mine.
Yusheng is a Cantonese-style raw fish salad that is also sometimes called the Prosperity Toss. It’s a delicious mix of ingredients, each with its own meaning and unique way of representing a Chinese family’s hope for abundance, health and riches in the coming year. While its origins are sometimes disputed, the ritual of tossing it at the dinner table for Lunar New Year has been a decades-old, significant tradition for those in Southeast Asia who celebrate the occasion, particularly in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The name “yusheng” literally translates to “raw fish,” the idea of which (especially the enthusiastic tossing of which) may not immediately bring to mind images of wealth. However, yusheng (鱼生) can be interpreted as a homophone for yusheng (余升), which means an increase in abundance. In other words, prosperity -- so when we’re standing around the table, yelling in unison and wildly tossing that fish salad with chopsticks, we’re trying to generate greater wealth. It sounds...bizarre to some, perhaps, but many families hold onto this tradition with a strong grip, including mine.
My grandmother, hair intricately permed and wrist engulfed in gaudy bracelets, noticed my hesitation. She grabbed my arm and I flinched. Her hands were always cold. “Like this, like this,” she encouraged in Chinese, forcing me to make bigger movements. Her stern voice reminded me of how she would always make sure I had rice on my plate first before she got any for herself. She smelled of freshly pressed clothes and the wood within our house that my grandfather had built for her. “You must eat the carrots, they’re good for eyesight,” she said every year.
In a typical Yusheng, you’d find slices of raw fish (usually wolf herring or salmon), shredded carrots, white radish and green radish, ginger, onion, crushed peanuts, sesame seeds and an assortment of sauces and condiments. The fish represents abundance, the carrots good luck, the green radish eternal youth, the white radish promotion at work. Next, peanut crumbs would be peppered all over the salad to symbolize a house filled with gold and silver. Sesame seeds represent flourishing business, and the Yusheng sauce, typically derived from plum sauce, would be poured on, indicating wishes for life of sweetness. Last came my favorite element of the dish since I was a child: fried flour crackers that look like golden pillows. They formed a delightful crunchy layer over the vibrant array of ingredients, symbolizing hopefulness towards an entire floor covered in gold and riches. Once the Yusheng was assembled, all the diners were expected to stand up and toss everything together and into the air with chopsticks. Things get messy, oh yes, and that’s just part of it: it’s believed that the higher you toss, the greater your increase in fortune. “Lo hei, lo hei!” (Scoop it up, scoop it up) we shout. In the middle of the tossing I never failed to sneak a few of those heavenly crackers into my mouth.
Most common, modern-day platters of Yusheng are presented to the table looking like beautiful, fanned-out rainbows; brilliant color wheels that, for me, have always consisted of shades both comforting and confusing. I remember that when I was young, I felt a sort of disconnect from some aspects of my cultural identity. My parents, brother and I would only go over to Jakarta, where my grandparents live, twice a year at most. Lunar New Year was one of those times, and it was only then that I engaged in what I suppose I’ll call my Chinese side. As a child and well into my teenage years, I almost exclusively consumed Western media. I saw the big blue eyes and light hair, the carefree ways people carried themselves, how they stood on rooftops and ran down the beach, showing off sculpted bodies and laughing with joyous abandon. I wanted nothing more than to talk like them, look like them. They just seemed like they were always having fun, and most importantly, they looked cool doing so.
One of the activities that was a guarantee whenever I made the trip to my grandparents’ home was sitting on the sofa in front of my grandfather’s TV, which played Chinese news and programmes all day. My grandfather would make comments to me about what was on the screen, reminding me with every remark that I had to know things about China and never forget my Chinese. I’d nod, sinking ever so slightly into the plush cushions, wishing I could be watching High School Musical or something. Dinnertime would come and my mom would usher me to sit in between my grandparents, urging me to talk to them and practise my Chinese. “Aiyooooo,” my grandmother would lament when she saw how I attacked fried chicken and ignored the lotus root soup. “You shouldn’t eat like that, it’s not good for you, you know? You know it’s not healthy right? Don’t you want to be pretty?” After eating, I’d quickly run upstairs to my room.
For a long time, having Yusheng with my family during Lunar New Year felt almost embarrassing to me. I think it was the fact that we were all yelling, going through the weird motions of tossing a salad and drawing attention to ourselves in a public place. Sure, other tables might have been doing it too, but whenever the time came to stand up and begin the process, my cheeks would burn with a sentiment of, oh god, do we really have to do this? Why must we shout wishes for prosperity while flinging shredded vegetables into the air? In my mind, nothing about this was cool. Some years, one of my grandparents would make us go around the table and say a wish for good fortune in Chinese. Everyone at the table would look at me expectedly when it was my turn, and in that moment, chopsticks in hand, bits of radish and salmon strewn about in front of me, wearing a flashy traditional costume, I would simply feel confused. Like a grouper swimming back and forth in a tank. Unsure of how she got here and whether she belonged.
This coming Lunar New Year will mark my third whole year of not seeing my grandparents at all. Attending college and the unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic have made it impossible for me to visit them. On my last trip there, I watched a Chinese comedy skit with my grandfather on his TV. We laughed at it together from the sofa. I also got a haircut during this visit. When my grandmother saw it she beamed, and called me pretty. “You look like me when I was young,” she told me. I looked at my 80-year-old mother’s mother and found myself hoping that I could even come close to being that beautiful.
I’m thankful that people grow and mature as the years go by, and that new experiences take hold of them. My personal struggles with my identity took on new forms when I travelled 10,000 miles to go to college in the United States. There are still times when I feel like I’m obviously, glaringly different from the other fish in the tank, but it’s been so much easier to remind myself that I’m just made of different colors -- orange, green, white, golden and silver, to be exact. Speaking of the Yusheng, it might seem that its magic powers have not worked on my family yet. Unfortunately, in recent times, we’ve dealt with several setbacks and difficulties that certainly fall short of the promises made by the salad. I’m so sure we’d been tossing high enough.
Perhaps the wealth has come in another way. A couple of weeks ago my family had a big zoom call to celebrate the end of 2020. My grandfather, now nearing 90, eagerly asked to be on camera so he could show everyone how well he could walk after a bad fall he had last year. He stood up from his chair and demonstrated his progress to applause and encouragement from the family. “I wish you the best health, YeYe, so I can see you soon,” I told him in Chinese. Even through the screen, I could see his eyes thin out and his cheeks glow.