Chinese X Jewish cultures
RESPECTING RITUALS The Man family are one the five big clans in the New Territories. My family aren’t religious or superstitious, but they observe lots of Chinese rituals, such as visiting my ancestors’ graveyard during the Ching Ming and Chung Yeung festivals, lighting firecrackers and making poon choi – a traditional dish for special occasions, with different types of meat, fish and vegetables layered in a bowl and served with a thickened soy sauce, which has its origins in rural Hong Kong. My grandmother was a farmer in Pok Wai, the clan’s ancestral village, and I would help her prepare the poon choi by digging up taro from the fields and washing and cutting all the ingredients. We are a close family and I learned to respect Chinese traditions and family values.
LEAP OF FAITH I met my husband at work in Hong Kong in 1995. He’s from Israel. I didn’t know anything about Judaism at that point. He’s not religious but before we got married he suggested I convert because he wanted to continue the Jewish traditions with our children. He was the nervous one – he knew it would be tough and was apprehensive about me changing my traditions and belief system. But I was young and confident about myself, and I was determined to go through with it. I had to study for more than three years. It was hard work. I was under a lot of pressure because you have to pass various tests. It was only afterwards, when I had time to reflect on what I’d learned, that I really started to appreciate how interesting Judaism is. I felt my new religion helped me to develop as a person. Although my family isn’t Christian, I attended a Catholic school, which taught us very strict moral values. It was restrictive and narrow-minded, and it made me judgmental. Learning about Judaism made me more accepting of the things I can’t change. I learned a lot from the Bible stories – they reflect what goes on in the real world.
A LOT ON MY PLATE My family were open-minded about my marriage to a foreigner, although my mother was worried about the Jewish rule that you can’t eat pork – this was an alien concept to her and seemed like a big cultural difference. During the conversion process, I tried challah, the braided bread that Jews eat on the Sabbath. The taste was really familiar and I realised I’d eaten it before. When I was a child we used to buy the exact same bread, as a treat, from the Cherikoff Bakery (on Nathan Road, in Tsim Sha Tsui). It had a distinctive, sweet taste and it was my grandfather’s favourite. It was only when I converted that I learned it was Jewish bread.
FAMILY MATTERS I have two sons, aged 13 and 11, who have attended Carmel (Hong Kong’s Jewish school) since they were two years old. They are fluent in English and Hebrew, which is the language they use when they speak with their father. My husband came from a wealthier background than I did and we struggled to balance his hedonistic tendencies with my more down-to-earth attitude. We ended up getting divorced in 2013. By that point, I really liked being Jewish so I decided to stick with it.
SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT About 10 years ago, I started noticing that there were lots of similarities between Jewish and Chinese culture. Chinese people have deep-rooted Confucian beliefs, which are quite similar to the Jewish philosophy. There’s a set of rules and orders you live by. You respect your parents and family values are important. Also both cultures are patriarchal. Women aren’t considered less important but there are defined gender roles and the emphasis is often on the men. I’ve also found interesting similarities between the Taoist and Chinese philosophies and Jewish beliefs.
Chinese people don’t know which gweilos are Jewish and which ones aren’t. The older generation sometimes use the term “being Jewish” to describe someone as being calculative. It’s not an insult – it means that someone is cautious and strategic, and doesn’t like to take risks with money. Hong Kong people are very peaceful and there is hardly any anti-Semitism here. The Jewish community doesn’t bother them because they’re not noisy or troublesome; they’ve integrated well. The Chinese know that some Jewish businessman have been extremely successful and they respect that.
STROKES OF INSPIRATION I wanted to find a way to express the parallels between Chinese and Jewish culture I’d discovered. Last year, I started studying for a master’s degree in visual art at Baptist University and that’s when I realised I could represent the crossover artistically. I created this large work (pictured, behind Man) that contains the passage my son read from the Torah (the Old Testament) for his bar mitzvah (the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony, which takes place when the child is aged 13). I rendered the Hebrew text in the style of Chinese calligraphy, using a Chinese brush and ink. There are 1,432 characters. The Hebrew alphabet is quite simple in terms of the strokes used to create the letters, so it wasn’t hard to make them look like Chinese characters. The red thumb prints were made by friends and family, and they are like blessings. The wooden pieces I constructed it from are educational toys, a bit like dominoes – I wanted to express my passion for education. I’ve also created a long scroll using Hebrew text in the style of Chinese calligraphy.
My ambition is to build a career as an artist and pursue this cross-cultural idea inspired by my double identity – the fact that I’m both Chinese and Jewish. I want to explore the similarities and differences between the two cultures, and blur the boundary. My plan is to create more artworks using Chinese media including ink, paint, rice paper, tatami, woks and chopsticks, to explore Jewish cultural themes such as Bible stories and festivals.
Carol Man Wing-yan’s graduation show will run at Baptist University from Friday to July 31. To see more of her artwork, visit http://www.carolxman.com.