Chinese New Year is soon upon us and as early as a month before, commercials and films celebrating Chinese culture have made their way into our homes and lives through the TV, the computer and the mobile phone. We see how people are moved by these contents, and in just 60 to 90seconds, there are no dry eyes in the place.
The importance of chopsticks in the Chinese culture
When I was growing up, I was scolded for holding chopsticks incorrectly. I was told, “It’s traditional, do it right.”
You see, chopsticks play an important role in Chinese food culture.
To understand this and “do it right”, I had to look deeper myself. I have never truly learnt how to properly use a pair of chopsticks. I have always “improvised” as long as the food successfully goes into the mouth.
The wuxia or the kung fu novels would chronicle traditions from generations past –- the way we conduct ourselves at the table shows how we carry ourselves and our characters. So, how you hold your cup of tea, how you hold your bowl of rice, and how you use your chopsticks, indicate your prowess. This notion has been lost and along with it, the correct way of holding the chopsticks right.
So I took it upon myself to educate others on holding the chopsticks correctly.
During dinner with a group of filmmakers, Noontalk Media actor Grace Teo who sat next to me was displaying poor “chopstick-manship”, crossing them like a pair of scissors or using them to stab at her food. It conjured up the image of a caveman in my mind. Just when I corrected her, I realised that she wasn’t the only one not using the chopsticks properly.
I conducted a quick poll and I found out that I was the minority at the table.
Everyone brushed it off, not even considering the importance of using them properly.
This new year, I decided to make a short film to share my thoughts on holding a pair of chopsticks right. I also cast Grace to, in a way, force her to learn the proper way of using chopsticks.
The short film features actors who play themselves, and reflect the real issues they have: Grace, a Malaysian, has not returned home since the pandemic. It has been two years since she last saw her parents. With the uncertainty of the VTL between the borders of Singapore and Malaysia, Grace has opted to stay in Singapore. Her friends have become surrogate family members during her stay here.
When Johnny Ng, a Singaporean, pays her a visit, he often brings food for her and stays on to make sure she finishes it.; He has become a father figure to her. After observing how poorly she holds the chopsticks, he takes it upon himself to teach her the value of holding them right.
This is where I need to emphasise that the scene between them was entirely improvised. The only direction I gave was to have Grace hold the chopsticks wrongly and Johnny to show her how to hold them.
I realise that as the producer, I, too, learnt a deeper lesson that there is a philosophy behind the existence of the chopsticks.
The front tips of the chopsticks are round; the top ends are squares. This means that you hold the world in your hands – tien yuan di fang (heaven and earth).
You mainly hold the chopsticks with three fingers: one points to the sky, one towards earth, and one to yourself. This signifies Heaven, Earth and Man.
When you hold them, one remains still (staying silent), and the other moves (act). It represents Ying and Yang, and that is how the order of the world should be.
Chopsticks are 7.6 centimetres long. They represent the seven emotions and six pleasures of Man, differentiating Man and Beast.
I was humbled.
I learnt that by letting go of a tight grip on directing (act of staying silent), by allowing the actors to improvise (act of action). That day, everybody ended with a new perspective on life, taught by something so simple as two sticks.
As families reunite for this Chinese New Year, we must remember to share the love with those unable to return home. The pandemic had done a number on us, separating families and taking away jobs. But it is also a good reason for us to learn to look at the bright side.
Happy New Year. Happy New Year to all.
An established film producer and director, JD picked up screenwriting at a young age. His interest in the film industry led the Singaporean Thai to officially launch his career directing a 15-episode Singapore-Australia co-production web series, Click. After graduating in Creative Producing from Chapman University, JD wrote for the television crime series Kes 253. He then immersed himself in huge Hollywood genre projects, ranging from horror to action. He has worked with several industry leaders and armed himself with skills in Action Choreography, Visual Effects and Special Effects.