While unpacking boxes in our new home a few days ago, I came across two folded up pieces of cloth. They were traditional Chinese baby slings – a square piece of cloth with a long cotton strip attached to each corner. One, made of pale pink cotton that was slightly yellowed by age, was the sling my mother used to carry me as a baby and was given to her by her mother. The other was a deeper pink with small flowers, the cotton crisp and new to the touch. This was given to me by my own mother after my daughter was born, more to fulfil tradition than as an essential item for new parents in the modern age (we carried my daughter around in a Baby Bjorn and later an Ergo Carrier).
I can’t remember when my mum gave me my old baby sling but I do know I’ve been carrying it around with me for at least the last 20 years, as I’ve moved between cities and countries. In the beginning, it was a kind of sentimental keepsake. Once I became a mother myself, it took on another meaning – it became a reminder of the connections between mothers and daughters across the generations, of what we carry with us from the past and of what we wish for our children.
That wish is spelled out in four Chinese characters cross-stitched in red thread and arranged around a bigger character, the double happiness character 囍 hei, in the middle. Those four characters are 幸福兒童 hang fook yee tung, something many Chinese parents would say they would wish their child to be and which most people would probably translate as “happy child”.
But I find “happy” a very unsatisfactory translation for hang fook, one that misses multiple levels of meaning and cultural context. The terms do share some common features – they both denote positive emotions. But whereas happiness can be immediate, fleeting, euphoric and hedonistic, hang fook implies a more long-term state of well-being and contentment or fulfilment. It carries connotations of completeness, of family, of care and of having good relationships.
Being happy is closer to the Chinese terms開心 hoi sum and快樂 fai lok.
When I mentioned this to my husband, who is a fluent Mandarin speaker with advanced Cantonese proficiency, he said he thought hang fook had more to do with material things than happiness did, which I instinctively rejected. It was only later that I realized he must have confused 福 fook with 富 foo which means wealth because the two are pronounced the same in Mandarin but differently in Cantonese.
Any Hong Kong parent would wish for their child to be hang fook. They want their children to be happy and healthy and for their physical, emotional and mental health needs to be met. However, the desire for children to succeed and get ahead may make those objectives harder to achieve and we could all do with reminding that hang fook is a multi-dimensional and long-term concept.
The fact that a survey in 2017 found that nearly 10 per cent of Hong Kong primary school children showed serious signs of depression that required treatment is a damning reflection on the educational environment and social pressures the city’s children face. Even more heartbreaking, figures show an increase in children and young people dying by suicide in recent years. Instead of taking bold and necessary steps to change the environment, and particularly the academic stress that contributes to children’s suffering, the government’s response is to stick plasters onto a sick system. It talks about improving children’s resilience and provision of social workers and psychologists – which are both necessary but don’t resolve the underlying issues.
The pressure of homework and tests causes no end of strife between parents and children. Teaching to tests distorts the school curriculum and limits our imagination of what education is and can be. High living costs, long-working hours and the lack of family-friendly work practices and policies make it hard for parents to spend quality time with their children and provide adequate emotional support and care.
Parents with the means and even those without will often strive to make up for this with gifts and treats. This may result in temporary happiness but is not a true substitute for hang fook. If happiness is elusive, then hang fook is no easier to attain – it requires us to reconsider our priorities both as a society and as individuals.
Instead of from wishing everyone “happy holidays” this year, I hope that we may all find hang fook in 2019 and that all our children can be hang fook yee tung.