We filled our hongbao with poetry, not cash


This year marked our very first Chinese New Year as a married couple - and our first time navigating the tricky road that comes with filling hongbao.

My husband, who is Burmese and hadn't really celebrated the festival before we started dating, was a little unnerved when I broached the subject: "You mean there's a market rate for hongbao? Who decides these things?"

I shrugged. We calculated how much we would be set back if we gave hongbao to all of our friends, cousins, nieces and nephews. Let's just say it was a rather substantial sum.

We decided that we would definitely honour tradition by giving hongbao to family and extended family, but hesitated when it came to friends. Giving hongbao filled with token sums of money to friends who were all working professionals felt a little patronising and cheap.

But what else could we give them for our first "open house"?

It's a bit of an occupational hazard that my brain starts working overtime only two days before a deadline.

"HONEY!" I yelled from the shower, two nights before reunion dinner, "I HAVE AN IDEA!"

I dug into our stash of crisp, empty hongbao which we had slowly been accumulating in a drawer and took out a pen and a sheaf of paper - I would fill them with poems, written by hand, and get our friends to pick a hongbao at random as a sort of blend between a door gift and lucky draw.

In the mix of over 30 poems, we had Singapore writers such as Alfian Sa'at, Cyril Wong and Loh Guan Liang, a Russian classic by Osip Mandelstam, and a verse or two from Burmese writers Thukhamein Hlaing and Thitsar Ni, some of whose poetry has only recently received good English translations.

My husband loves good literature, but is a more recent poetry convert. He suggested one of the few poems he was familiar with - Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner (1798). I said, well, perhaps not, I'd still be copying it out by the time all 15 days of Chinese New Year had ended.

I have often found refuge in poetry; it has buoyed me through times when words are, all at once, too much and not enough. My friends and I have often exchanged poems over e-mail, sending verses through cyberspace when we felt it was needed. There are many poems that I revisit, to remind myself of The Patience Of Ordinary Things (by Pat Schneider) or What We Want (by Linda Pastan).

We put all the poetry packets in a bag and let people rummage through it and pick one at random when they left the house. It was a noisy, joyous, celebratory time in our cramped little apartment, full of old friends and newer ones ringing in the new year. Nervously, I waited for responses to the poetry project.

A friend of mine who had just gotten married in January was talking to me about how he was slowly settling into married life and learning how to smooth over those little things that chafe when you move in with someone for the first time.

He received the late playwright and Nobel laureate Harold Pinter's short poem It Is Here, dedicated to his long-time love Antonia Fraser - a reminder of a near- magical first meeting, "the breath we took when we first met". His wife got an excerpt of a poem by Seamus Heaney, titled The Skylight, where the poet starts out preferring a cosy space while the person he is addressing revels in skylights, and then ends with the poet also embracing open skies.

"Amazing leh, I can't believe it was a random pick," he texted me later, "This is better than ang pow!"

Another of my close friends, who got married this week, received the same poem she had e-mailed me four years ago and had completely forgotten about: I Confess, by Alison Luterman, about a younger woman longing to seek wisdom from an elegant older woman she sees in a grocery store.

Yet another friend, pondering a move to another country, received the poem Cartography For Beginners by Emily Hasler, where the world of maps and real world collides.

In short - they all loved it.

Of course, the tradition of exchanging poetry goes back much further than our little experiment. Those who wrote the first rhyming couplets, the chunlian, at Chinese New Year, must have seen something in the beauty of these lyrical phrases, pasting them over their doorways to welcome guests into their homes, with an extra helping of good cheer.


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