In Search for Home Culture: Muzak in Chiense New Year Celebration – Part 2
The Sogo Department Store
Although January 28, 2006 was a cloudy day with little rain, to most people, it was a public holiday of relaxing and enjoying. Locals all knew that tomorrow would be the first day of the Lunar New Year. In every Chinese’s cognitive mind and sensuous heart, New Year means a new opening. In order to get a well preparation for its coming, people from different genders, aged groups, education backgrounds and careers, regardless of their social status or religious classes, were busy participating into their different daily life activities, such as, buying, shopping and entertaining. As I was standing in the boisterous
Yee Woo Street
at CausewayBay around 2:00 pm in the afternoon, a sound of rock music attracted my attention. Just in front of the entrance of the Sogo Department Store, there was a wide screen playing a video of western rock and pop music as usual. Although there were many people gathering and waiting outside of or passing by the department store, only a few people watched the screen, or were aware of what the video was playing.
As I entered Sogo, I found every corner was crowded with people. Some of them were working, while others were selecting their favorite gifts. Noises of cashiers’ ding-ding sound, department store’s advertising announcement, people’s chatting, children’s screaming, youths’ whispering, and the background music, the muzak, were entangled among each other in a complex, multifarious sonic web. I then walked down to the lower floor to the superstore of Sogo, where a place offered various kinds of good for customers. I felt little stuffy and pressured, as it was so small the space but with so many people and goods. Wearing with a happy and contented smile, customers were queuing up for payment in front of the cashiers. As Hong Kong people are notorious for their impatience and annoyance due to the efficiency-aimed life style, this was quite strange to see such a scene in the store. The festive mood might be one of the magic cures for this notorious style of sickness of impatience. However, I believe that the muzak played also assists to enhance such relaxing and enjoying environment, influencing the behaviors, practices and feelings of the local customers.
The rock and pop music heard from the video screen outside Sogo showed an intensive, or even ironic contrast with the muzak played inside. I observed that the muzak played during the period of Spring Festival were merely Chinese traditional instrumental music. There was no exception here. When I was looking at the queue of the customers in front of the cashiers, the piece played was a Cantonese traditional instrumental music, Spring Festival Overture, reminding me of the coming of the New Year. My memories were stirred up, thinking of my friends and relatives, whom I would like to visit in the coming days. “Did I prepare enough presents for them?” I began to ask myself the question in my mind. To Chinese people, visiting their relatives and friends and giving new presents to each other in the first day of the New Year is an important socio-cultural practice. It not only means to show love care and kindness to others, but also to show a sincere respect to the Chinese traditional culture. It is only Chinese, whether they locate in which part of the world, that perform such practice to celebrate the New Year in this particular time.
Just like the typical style of Hong Kong life that is absent of enough patience, in normal case, I would prefer not to queue up for payment, but to buy these three sets of chocolate, which were newly selected from the stand from the other stores. To me, waiting is a waste of time, and time often means “money.” However, at this particular moment, I did not mind to wait for the payment. My sense has already well prepared for such environment and was told by experience that every store was also crowded with customers, which was similar to the situation of today’s Sogo, because this was the time of Chinese New Year. I thought Roy Mak, a middle-aged property broker near forty, possessed a similar kind of thinking and feeling as me.
In my memories, Roy was a short figure with little fat, eyeglasses wearing, talkative and friendly, behaving just as a sort of salesman that you could easily meet in the Central everyday. It was this “ordinary” appearance that attracted my attention. When I talked with him in front of the restroom near the cashier, he was waiting for her girl friend. In his hands there were a few sets of biscuit and chocolate.
Q: Have you finished buying the presents for the New Year?
Roy: I thought that I have already prepared all the presents for the New Year. But when my friend and I passed by the store (Sogo), I was reminded that I might have forgot a few customers.
Q: How do you remember? What makes you thinking of this matter?
Roy: I think those people crowded in the store reminds me a lot.
Q: How about the music in background, what do you think?
Roy: Oh, Yes, the Chinese music. I have heard this before but I don’t know much about music. But this kind of music is played everywhere now. It is Chinese New Year. I like this music because it creates the Chinese New Year atmosphere.
Q: How do you feel in this period of time?
Roy: I am happy and feel much relaxed. I enjoy the Chinese New Year holidays. Buying new things and shopping in this period of time make me feel more like a “Chinese.” We celebrate different kinds of festival in Hong Kong, such as Christmas. I like them too. But only these activities (buying and shopping) make me closer to our tradition. I really don’t mind to spend more in this period of time. I have been doing so.
After I have chatted to Roy, a loud crying voice was heard. There was a little boy claiming his mother for a new toy. Perhaps, mother will scold this kind of naughty normally. However, I heard the mother comforting to her boy that she would buy this “present” to him a while later. But the mother emphasized that she only did it this time because of the New Year. The tiny matter reminded me of some Chinese traditional practices. Apart from having all things new, Chinese do not like crying or any other unhappy things happened in the New Year. But on this occasion, be it the unexplainable power of the Chinese music in background, the New Year milieu was a crucial factor to influence people’s behavior to a certain extent. This might be why the mother did not want to scold her child, even when he showed greatly naughty.
The music played in the background now was called Rosy Clouds Chasing the Moon when I went upstairs to the other departments. It is a well-known Cantonese instrumental piece, which is often played in the Mid-Autumn Festival. The title and contents of this piece seems to have no direct connection, or otherwise, to the Spring Festival. It is selected only because it contains Chinese traditional melodies, playing with ethnic instruments. In my opinion, the muzak used for the so-called Chinese New Year Celebration is a shorthand-like selection. I knew that Vivian Cheung has absolutely agreed with me.
When I met Vivian, a fashioned young girl below thirty, she was drinking a bottle of cola near the escalator. She looked nice and pleasant, half-leaning against the wall and looking at the surroundings. It is quite interesting that when many people were carrying bags of present, she got none in her hand, except that cola.
Q: How are you?
Vivian: I am fine, thank you. I am taking a rest. I have been shopping for more than an hour here.
Q: Do you always enjoy shopping?
Vivian: Absolutely! I love shopping. It is one of my habits every week.
Q: Is there any difference between today and previous shopping?
Vivian: Of course! Tomorrow will be the New Year. I enjoy the festive mood here. You see people are celebrating the festival. They are busy for preparing the New Year, buying goods and presents for themselves and for their friends and relatives.
Q: How can you feel the so-called “festive mood” you have just mentioned?
Vivian: Can you hear the music? When you are in the shopping malls or even in the street, you can hear this kind of Chinese music playing. I played Gu Zheng in my secondary school, but I stopped after I came to work after graduation. Chinese New Year, of course, needs Chinese music for celebration.
Q: But this is Rosy Clouds Chasing the Moon!
Vivian: Who cares! It is Chinese music (she emphasized the second time).
Q: As a Hong Kong local, do you enjoy or celebrate other kinds of festival?
Vivian: I enjoy all festivals. For example, I like Christmas. But I also like traditional festival, such as the New Year. I celebrate all festivals no matter they are Western or Chinese.
Q: Owing to many different forms of festival existed in our daily life, do you think the traditional one will soon disappear?
Vivian: I don’t think so. You see we are keeping our New Year practice under this festive mood. I do not always prefer traditions, but Chinese New Year is an exception. The atmosphere makes me feel a “Chinese” more.
After talking with Vivian, the muzak was changed to another piece, A Night Gathering, which is not a Cantonese music, but a symphonic repertoire that is always heard in CCTV 4 at all kinds of celebratory programs. The shorthand form of muzak now seems to be accepted by many local Chinese as a musical representation of “Chineseness.” Whenever there are traditional cultural occasions, regardless of its natures, the traditional instrumental music is the necessary repertoire. As I was much fascinated by the functions of this shorthand version of music, I also bought one piece of CD, which, according to the salesgirl, contained the music that was playing at the current time in the store. The CD is labeled as “Chinese Celebration Music,” not only indicating its multi-purpose nature, but also acting as a representation which contains traditional values of our ancestral cultures.
I have spent more than one hour’s time in Sogo. Through immersing myself in the festival atmosphere and participating the activities of shopping and buying, just as Roy has commented, I seem to be more attached to our Chinese traditional culture, and to behave more like a “Chinese.” Indeed, there is not always a chance for an ordinary Hong Kong people to act like a Chinese. Not only do we have too many multicultural choices in our everyday life, but also we are brought up from the so-called colonial political environment that no traditional cultures have been emphasized. However, our ancestral culture will never disappear. It can be preserved, albeit displaying in guises, through the continuation of a particular social activity.
At present, increasing numbers of local Hong Kong are realizing the importance of Spring Festival to their culture, and enjoy doing things in the traditional ways. Viewed from this traditional aspect, great importance is attached to the New Year festive activity with its many cultural connotations. It is essential for both the spiritual and material demands of the people, as it is traditionally a time when the best foods and best new clothes are worn. While many locals do their New Year house cleaning or “preparing new things,” others go out together with family, shopping and buying presents for the New Year visits, as well as for their family. This celebratory activity offers a chance for them to maintain relationships with family members and friends, to show their love for their family, to establish more harmonious interpersonal relationships, to relax and to leave behind the stresses of modern life for the moment. And, the shorthand form of the background Chinese music played in department stores can function as a process that affects one’s sensuous feeling from tense to relax, from serious to happy, opening up a wider aesthetical dimension for one to conform to the Chinese New Year tradition.
In short, the shorthand-like muzak for Chinese New Year celebration not only affects the customers’ consuming behavior and sensation, but also creates a metaphor of the Chinese identity for the locals under this particular moment of a relaxed and happy festive atmosphere. Although all the time there are more and more new fashionable things to do, and may be they do replace traditional customs, I believe that our home identity and traditional culture can be found through this shopping and buying activity year-by-year in the Chinese New Year period, which is enhanced by this particular muzak played in the shopping malls and department stores.
David Leung (theorydavid)
 CCTV4 is the Government TV channel of the Mainland China.