Archive for August 16th, 2010

In the late summer, on the seventh night of the seventh moon, in the Chinese lunar calendar, try to gaze up high into the night sky. You could see two very bright stars called Altair (Cowherd Star 牵牛星) and Vega (Weaver Girl Star 织女星), separated by the Milky Way. Near Altair were two smaller stars.

On one such night, Grandma took me outside to the shop’s corridor and pointed out these stars to me. It was in the late 1960s and I was still a little girl then. We were staying in a pre war building at 188 Hugh Low Street @ Nam Foong Coffee Shop. She began to tell me this story.

“Once upon a time, there was a young cowherd called Niulang 牛郎. He was an orphan and stayed with his brother and sister-in-law. They treated him badly and chased him out of their house.

Niulang has an old ox. It was actually a heavenly soldier in its previous life. It has broken a law and was punished by being sent down to earth as an ox. One day, the ox told him to go to the lake nearby.  Reaching there, he saw seven fairies bathing in the clear and cool lake. They were the daughters of the Jade Emperor and Queen of Heaven. Obviously they were having a good time playing and splashing in the water. Niulang came out from behind some bushes and playfully hid their silk robes.

Later, the youngest and most beautiful fairy called Zhinü 织女 came out from the water to retrieve her robe. Seeing each other for the first time, they were attracted and fell deeply in love. While the rest of her sisters flew back to Heaven, she decided to stay behind to marry the mortal cowherd and bore him two lovely children. They lived very happily together until one day her mother found out.

The Queen of Heaven was not very pleased. A fairy was not supposed to marry a mortal. Finally, she sent her soldiers down to bring back her daughter. Zhinü was dragged tearfully back to Heaven.

The cowherd was very sad to find his beloved wife had gone. His faithful ox told him to kill it and use its horn as a vehicle to ride up to Heaven to search for his wife. Broken hearted, he did as was told. Together with his children in two baskets dangling from a pole on his shoulder, the cowherd went off to Heaven to find the fairy.

Seeing the cowherd and the children, the Queen of Heaven was very angry. She took out her magic hair pin and drew a wide river in the sky to separate the two lovers forever. This was the Milky Way. The western star Altair was the cowherd while the eastern star Vega was the fairy.

Zhinü sits forever on one side of the Milky Way, sadly weaving on her loom and pining for her beloved husband.  Niulang watches her from afar with their two children.

Finally, the Queen of Heaven allowed them to meet once a year on the seventh night of the seventh moon. All the magpies in the world took pity on them and would form a bridge called the bridge of magpies 鵲橋“, in the constellation so that the lovers can be united for one night.

On this night, the two stars will actually unite on the same side of the Milky Way. You can hardly see any magpies around because they were away busy at the bridge. On this night too, it will rain and they were the tear drops of the star-crossed lovers,” Grandma concluded, patting my head.

As a little girl, I was fascinated by this tale grandma told me as she and Mom were preparing for the celebration. I would love to fix my gaze and try very hard to locate the stars.

For thousands of years, Chinese households everywhere would celebrate this romantic festival. This was especially so for households with lots of daughters. There were four girls in my family and this was a good reason for Grandma and Mom to celebrate this festival too. It was observed by females only.

The purpose of observing this festival was to beg for needlecraft skills from the fairy Zhinü who was a very good celestial weaver. Beside this, the female folks also beg for beauty as the fairy was very beautiful.  But the most important purpose was to beg for happy marriages for all the daughters in the household. Therefore, this festival was sometimes known as “The Festival to beg for skill, beauty and happiness.”

On the day of this festival, my grandma would go to the shops along Cockman Street which sells paper offerings and joss sticks to buy an item which was very integral to this festival. It was called the “Chat Cheh Poon” or “The Round Tray of the Seven Sisters.” You could see the shopkeepers hanging these items vertically outside the shops. They were very colorful.

They were actually very large paper trays. They came in round shape and looked like woks, only in white color. On them, you could see seven sets of jewelries and cosmetic items, all very bright and colorful. They were neatly placed and glued onto the large paper tray.

That night, Grandma and Mom would set up an altar at our shop’s main entrance. They would make an offering of fruits, flowers, tea, cakes and an array of cosmetics. Normally of box of facial powder, a few lipsticks and a bottle of cologne water were laid out. She would also place a pair of scissors, a box of needles, rolls of threads and a few pieces of cloth to signify needlework.

When it rains, Grandma and Mom would put a few plastic pails outside to collect some rain water. These “tear drops of the fairy and cowherd” will be stored in glass bottles and surprisingly, they are very clean and clear. You will not see any residues inside. Later, Grandma and Mom would use it to make “bedak sejuk” and they guaranteed us these would make our skin fair and smooth! You got to believe them because we did have smooth skin!

At the end of the festival, the paper tray was burn as an offering to the seven fairies.

This year’s festival will fall on Monday, August 16th 2010. Sad to say, not many household observe this festival anymore. But I am happy to know that my family used to celebrate it back in the 60s and 70s. We celebrated it together with our tenants and neighbors who have many daughters too. Those were very happy and memorable moments for us all.

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