“Amazing Grace” on the Musical Saw and
How I Celebrated the New Year
in Taiwan and China
One of the goals of this pilgrimage was the opportunity to celebrate the Lunar New Year in Taiwan and the Chinese New Year in China (year 4317 by the traditional Chinese calendar). Having had students from Asia, I understood that New Year celebrations were really unlike anything that we have in the United States. An essential ritual for many is the thorough cleaning of the home in preparation for the New Year. Making arrangements for travel to be with family, if at all possible, is also a must. The preparation of hongbao – red envelopes with cash gifts especially for, but not limited to, children is crucial. These symbolize wishes for good luck and health. In my experience these were distributed on New Year’s Eve in Taiwan and New Year’s Day in China. Then there is lots of food! Some foods are traditional and required during the season. Closely related to the New Year is the Lantern Festival – a festival that concludes the New Year’s celebration with a literal big bang!
Perhaps the most significant part of the experience as an outsider is the duration of the New Year festivities. This year they began on February 7, New Year’s Eve, and concluded with the Lantern Festival on February 22. We were in Taiwan for the first part of the celebration and then traveled to China for the second part on February 15. In doing so, we were included in the festivities of three families. On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day we celebrated with the Talavan family just outside of Tainan, Taiwan, the family of Master of Sacred Music alumnus, Edgar Macapili ’02 and his wife Uma. Then we traveled to Taitung on the eastern coast of southern Taiwan where the Huang family took us in. Huang Ching Yu (Wawa) is a current student at Perkins School of Theology where she is working on a Master of Theology degree in liturgical studies. I had met Wawa in 2012, having been introduced by Dr. I-to Loh, and encouraged her to continue her study at Perkins. I also met some of her family in Taitung at that time. Though she was in Dallas, she orchestrated each day’s activities and anticipated our needs with her virtual presence. Then we completed the New Year’s celebration in China with the Zhou family. I met Zhou Yong Ci (Cici) in Singapore in 2011 while offering workshops through the Methodist School of Music and Trinity Theological College. She completed her Master of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees in liturgical studies there and has returned to China to teach at East China Theological Seminary in Shanghai.
New Year’s Celebration and the Church
What did we experience from this extended festival? For these Christian families, the New Year’s celebrations are closely connected to the church. We went to the Ien-Hang Presbyterian Church in Tainan where Edgar Macapili directed the choir this New Year’s morning. The sanctuary was full. A procession of the fruits of the harvest as well as bamboo shoots took place at the beginning of the service – a suggestion I think of the abundance of God’s blessings. For the offering, everyone came forward with red hongbao envelopes and laid them on the communion table – a symbolic way of combining this cultural tradition with the church’s worship. Perhaps the most impressive part of the service was at least a thirty-minute ritual when the pastor introduced every family unit by name without notes! Since many people came back home infrequently, maybe only during the New Year, this was a significant ritual. Not only was each person introduced by name, but also he said a bit about each family injecting a bit of humor and warmth throughout. Being someone who has difficulties with names, I was astounded!
Family and Hospitality
Another revelation was a deeper sense of appreciation of family and hospitality in Asian cultures. I will provide some examples from each of our three primary host families during the New Year’s festivities. They only represent the tip of the iceberg when illustrating their gracious warmth and inclusive spirit. Beginning with the Talavan family, on New Year’s Day, February 8, following church we drove throughout the mountain area where many members of their extended family live, stopping, bringing greetings and gifts as well as sharing food. They were all blood relatives of one kind or another. One uncle was a mushroom farmer and so we had a wonderful hotpot full of meat and various kinds of fresh mushrooms. It did not seem an intrusion for us as guests to participate and we joined the feasting as if we were part of the clan. By the way, hongbao was extended to us as guests as well (maybe it was because we were old) as well!
After taking a scene train trip from Tainan to Taitung, our New Year’s celebration continued with the Huang family. Our welcome here was perhaps even more surprising because our personal
connection to the family, Wawa Huang, was in Dallas. But because I was her teacher, we were included in three wonderful days of feasting and sightseeing with many of Wawa’s twenty cousins and aunts and uncles, as well as her mother Mei Hui and her brother Shingo. We were graciously housed in her cousin Buffy’s B&B. Our time began with a large dinner on February 11, after which I provided an impromptu hymn sing, and concluded on Sunday morning, February 14, at the Taitung Presbyterian Church where I was honored to preach in the morning service where, due to the New Year, there was a full house! Because word had gotten around about the Huang family hymn sing, about 40 people remained after the service and I led a second impromptu hymn sing (see picture above on the masthead). My translator for the hymn sing was “Uncle” Henry, who now lives in Austin, Texas. Wawa refers to Henry as her “uncle” but he is actually a close friend of the Huang family through the church. He came home to Taitung for the New Year’s festivities. We traveled from Taitung to Taipei by train up the east coast, a spectacular ride. As we left Taiwan from Taipei on February 15, we were hosted with housing and a great Italian meal by another uncle who pastors a large Presbyterian congregation in Taiwan’s largest city. They were especially helpful by driving us to the airport during Monday morning rush hour and assisting us with check-in. Special thanks to another cousin Huang Mu Chen (Sally) who took a package of gifts at the last minute and mailed them to Dallas when we were in danger of having overweight luggage!
Then we flew from Taipei to Fuzhou in Fujian Province (grey area in the map below), a flight of just over an hour. Commercial flights between Taiwan and Mainland China are fairly new – only within the last five years. Before this, one had to go to Hong Kong as a transfer point.
We picked right up with our New Year celebration in China with friends of our host Zhou Yong Ci (Cici), a seminary professor and well known choral conductor in this region. After a few days of informal singing sessions and choir rehearsals in Fuzhou and Luoyang, we arrived in Pingnan where friends and family members of Zhou family treated us royally. (Find Fuzhou on the coast and move north where you will find Luoyuan (or Luoyang) and then further north Pingnan.)
Sight-seeing in the beautiful mountainous Fujian countryside, delicious meals, participating in an impromptu studio recording session singing some songs I could do by memory, visiting traditional villages, and the opportunity to work with the youth choir (see picture in the masthead) and lead them during the Sunday service on February 21 at the Pingnan Gospel (Three-Self) Church added greatly to the fellowship. [The temperature was about 45 degrees and the church had no heating!] Once again, Cici’s brothers, sisters-in-law, nephew, and parents, included us in their celebration that concluded with the Lantern Festival and eating of the traditional sweet rice balls in the old family home in Shuang-xi (too small for the map).
What is the point of all of this? For me, it was a level of hospitality and an understanding of family that is less prevalent in the United States. I realized that my sense of hosting is often more about doing something for a guest and less about being with a guest. In each of these three families, they took a significant amount of time to do activities with us including meals, sightseeing, singing together, or various other forms of hospitality. This was done during what we might call more exclusively “family time” in the United States – a time reserved exclusively for our closest family members. The term “family” is broad and inclusive, obviously including blood relatives, but also interaction with friends. Perhaps this was one reason that it seemed natural to include us in the festivities even though we were not blood relatives. With each family, the bond as Christians strengthened this relationship as well. The length of the celebration, this year about fifteen days, also allows for significant and deeper interactions. I realized that we were given a place of honor in part because we had a connection with a specific family member and that this connection was as a professor. While hospitality is a part of the culture generally, we may have experienced more lavish hospitality because I have had the privilege of working as a professor with a member of each family and being a professor in these cultural contexts carries an added significance. Regardless of the reason, this was a New Year to remember.
Fireworks and a Musical Saw
I can’t say enough about the use fireworks throughout this season. You really never know when they will go off – by that I mean 6 o’clock in the morning (or earlier) or midnight (or later) or anytime of the day. You may be in VERY close proximity to a sudden explosive barrage or at a distance. The fireworks may be a long string of firecrackers or a three-minute prepackaged aerial display. Use of fireworks during the fifteen days of the New Year’s festivities makes the 4th of July displays in the United States seem like lighting candles on your birthday cake. The culmination came during the Lantern Festival in Shuang-xi – a combination of Mardi Gras and the 4th of July, complete with floats, dragons, bands, and lots of fireworks.
For a little fun and as a glimpse in to the variety of music-making I experience, I include the video below is of Cheng-hiong Talavan playing the musical saw. Our relationship goes back to 1996 when I was introduced to him and the Talavan family by his daughter Uma Talavan and her husband Edgar Macapili. We don’t speak each other’s languages, but we have shared music making together on several occasions and have developed a bond. I believe that he told me he learned to play the musical saw from a missionary several decades ago. (Commentary on the implications of the musical saw in missions must be reserved for a later edition.) In this recording Cheng-hiong plays one of his two musical saws (he has alto and tenor saws! – my labels) with his son-in-law Edgar Macapili in an impromptu performance of “Amazing Grace.” To put the saw in context, Cheng-hiong plays a variety of traditional Chinese and Sirayan instruments, leads congregational singing skillfully in his Presbyterian Church, and sings beautifully. In the case of the musical saw, I believe I have found a retirement instrument that complements the accordion.
Masthead Photos (From upper left clockwise): 1) Picture of those who stayed after church for an impromptu hymn sing on February 14 in the Presbyterian Church in Taitung, Taiwan following my sermon. 2) The Lantern Festival Parade on February 22, Shuang-xi, Fujian, China. 3) The youth choir I rehearsed at the Gospel Church on February 21 in Pingnan, Fujian, China. 4) Church musician and retired school music teacher Zhou Liji, father of my host Zhou Yong ci, after playing the 月琴, yuèqín (moon-guitar) in the Lantern Festival Parade.