Forget Pike Place, there’s a better reason to toss fish this Lunar New Year

Getting ready to toss yee sang aka yu sheng. (Photo from Flickr by C.K. Koay)
Getting ready to toss yee sang aka yu sheng. (Photo from Flickr by C.K. Koay)

We’re gathered around a table fragrant with the smell of plum sauce, pickled ginger, pomelo, peanuts, and the pungent odor of raw fish, all arranged in neat piles.

Chopsticks in hand, everyone stands at the ready. On cue, we clutch slippery pieces of raw radish and fatty salmon, then toss the ingredients high into the air – hopefully with a tabletop landing – while reciting a few words in Chinese: Gong Xi Fa Cai (“Congratulations for your wealth”), Wan Shi Ru Yi (“May all your wishes be fulfilled”), and Nian Nian You Yu (“Abundance through the year”).

The higher the toss, the custom goes, the more likelihood our Lunar New Year wishes will come true.

While the well wishes will sound familiar to any Chinese speaker, the fishy mess on the table known as yee sang in Cantonese or yu sheng in Mandarin might raise a few eyebrows among Seattle’s Chinese community. That’s because a plate of yee sang (literally “raw fish”) mixed together during the “prosperity toss,” as the high-flying act is known, is commonplace at Chinese homes across Southeast Asia during tonight’s Lunar New Year — but it’s not customary in mainland China or Taiwan, where most of the local Chinese community has its roots.

We relocated to Seattle as a couple, with me originally hailing from Singapore and Malaysia and Greg from Jewish communities on the East Coast. After years as a student in Baltimore, I was excited to live in a city with a more visible Asian presence.

But last Lunar New Year, yee sang – sold premade in any Singaporean grocery – was nowhere to be found here, even at venerable Asian grocer Uwajimaya. It was an eye opener for me. I wasn’t aware that the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia had traditions so different from mainland China, until I met colleagues who had never heard of yee sang.

The prosperity toss is my strongest memory of home, especially the way my parents’ well wishes evolved over time — from growing up strong and healthy, to doing well in school, to getting good jobs, to finding loving spouses and starting families, to wealth, good health and happiness.

Being an ocean away from my family makes Lunar New Year a bittersweet occasion. This year, we tried to stave off homesickness by whipping up our own batch of yee sang to share with friends. With Lunar New Year falling on a Saturday night, we combined the tradition with Havdalah, the Jewish ritual marking the end of Shabbat, the weekly day of rest. Conveniently, yee sang is naturally kosher when made with salmon, one of the most popular fish options for the dish, and like any Pacific Northwest resident, something we stock regularly.

Prepping for homemade Yee Sang. (Photo by Greg Scruggs)
Prepping for homemade Yee Sang. (Photo by Greg Scruggs)

The overlap this year revealed some shared customs that we’ve been incorporating into our life together here. For Lunar New Year and Shabbat alike, for example, we clean the house ahead of time.

That unconscious effort became more explicit to us last month after we attended a talk at Temple de Hirsch Sinai by the authors of JewAsian, a qualitative academic study of Jewish-Asian couples in the U.S. by one such couple, Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt, who both teach at Whitman College in Walla Walla. The authors argue that Jewish and Asian cultural values about food, family, and education are strikingly similar, which means these two very different backgrounds often mesh well together.

For example, the Lunar New Year tradition of receiving red packets with money inside is similar to the cash reward given at the Jewish holiday of Passover for finding a hidden piece of matzah (the flatbread typical of the holiday) during the ritual meal. And during Hanukkah, whose first night happened to fall on Christmas Eve, we made latkes paired with homemade Chinese food, a nod to the Jewish custom of noshing on noodles during Christmas Day.

With the local Jewish population having jumped 70% since 2001 in a Pacific Rim city with a historically strong Asian presence, Seattle may just be the epicenter of the hybrid JewAsian future. Looking around the room at Temple de Hirsch Sinai, we were far from the only couple with that profile. Certainly a shared love of salmon helps make the case that here is home, for Jews and Asians alike.

An ocean and a continent away from our families, we have inevitably assumed the responsibility of preserving our own cultural traditions, but also inventing new ways to honor old customs.

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