Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lucky Cats (Maneki-Neko)

18 April 2018

I'm going to begin with what sounds like the start of some joke.  Except it really happened.

I went to Starbucks for lunch, on my way to the batik shop.  (This was prior to the incident in Philadelphia.  Our staff in Malaysia would never call the police on people waiting in the shop for another friend, regardless of ethnic origin.  Okay, off my soap box.)

I went to Starbucks for lunch.  Got my sandwich and coffee, and sat at a table with a young man.  He was listening to music videos on his computer, and I asked if I was hearing Frank Sinatra.  He looked a little sheepish as he said yes.  I replied that it was a familiar song.  We went back to minding our own business.

Then a Buddhist monk comes in, and asks if he can share our table.  Of course, we invited him to sit down.

So yes, a retired art teacher, a young man listening to Frank Sinatra, and a Buddhist monk all walk into a Starbucks.

But no, it doesn't have a punchline.  It just made for an amusing little vignette.

On to today's topic - the Lucky Cat, better known as Maneki-Neko.

All over eastern Asia, we've seen the Maneki-Neko, the Lucky Cat.  You've probably seen them too, wherever you live - those cute ceramic or plastic cats with one or two arms waving at you.  Some of us (me) wave back, since it only seems polite.  The cats are waving you, the customer, in to the shop or restaurant or salon.  Or the cats are waving money and good fortune in, as well.  It all depends on the arm used.

The name "maneki-neko" is Japanese and means "beckoning cat."  There are several legends or folk tales about the maneki-neko - that an impoverished man (shopkeeper, or inn keeper, or something) found a stray cat and took it in, giving it shelter and food.  To thank the man, the cat began to sit outside and wave its paw to entice people into the shop/inn/whatever the place was.  People came, the man became rich, and people started copying the beckoning cat to bring customers and fortune to their homes or place of business.  

The other popular tale is that a man was sheltering under a tree during a thunderstorm.  A cat under a different tree beckoned the man to come over under its tree.  The man did so, and then followed the cat into the nearby temple.  As they entered, the first tree was struck by lightning.  To thank the cat for saving his life, the man became a benefactor of the temple and brought it fame and fortune.  After his death, a statue of the cat was made in his honor.

At any rate, the beckoning cat statue became well known throughout Japan, and eventually China.  Despite the fact that Japan and China have had a rather bellicose relationship, who doesn't want good fortunate and prosperity?  So the beckoning cat, or lucky cat, was adopted into Chinese culture, and has followed Chinese merchants as they've migrated around the world.

We've seen various version of the lucky cat around eastern Asia, and in various sizes.  I really like the giant lucky cats we saw in Hong Kong - taller than me!!!  And always very round and chubby!!!  

Then there was the even taller Diamond-Eye Cat in Bangkok, covered in hand-made ceramic flowers.  Diamond-eye cats are a traditional Thai cat, usually white but with one blue and one green eye.  The statue cat had her right paw raised - the paw that beckons customers in to the shop or, in this case, a mall.  She was absolutely gorgeous.  (Yes, I take photos of notable lucky cats.)  (Note: The left hand is raised when the maneki-neko is beckoning in good fortune and prosperity.  And yes, some cats have BOTH paws raised, ushering in customers and prosperity at the same time.)

The items the cat is holding can be significant - often the cat is holding a yellow or golden oval with writing.  This is a "koban," a symbolic or stylized coin.  The kanji, or characters used in Japanese writing, reads "sen man ryo."  This means "1,000 times 10,000 ryo."  A ryo is the name of the gold coin used in Japan during the Edo period (1600 to mid 1800s Common Era).  One thousand times ten thousand would be ten million - a fortune in gold!!!  No wonder this is such a lucky cat!

A fish in the cat's hand doesn't mean food - that also denotes prosperity.  Multiple cats in one statue bring health and prosperity to the family.  A cat with a tiny cat in its mouth also means prosperity to the family - NOT a cat eating a baby cat, which is what I asked the shop owner.  (Just a little too cannibalistic for me!)

The traditional color for the maneki-neko was a white cat with orange and black spots.  Yes, a calico cat!  So 99.9% of the maneki-nekos were female!  Okay, I don't know if the original sculptors knew that about calicos, but I like to think they did.  Of course, traditions change, and so did the colors of the cats.  The original white denotes purity and happiness.  Some modern cats are gold (wealth and prosperity), some are red (protection from evil and illness), some are black (promoting safety, warding off evil and stalkers).   Even more recently, green cats supposedly enhance education and studies, while pink cats bring love, romance, and relationships.

Much of this information comes from the Maneki-Neko Lucky Cat blog.  Yes, an entire blog devoted to these adorable cat statues and the whole culture behind them.  More information here:

So, why am I writing about Japanese and Chinese lucky cats when we're hanging out in Kuala Lumpur?  Good question!

We see lucky cats all over Malaysia.  Malaysia is one of the melting pot countries in SE Asia.  There are the Malay people, the original inhabitants and they comprise just over 50% of the current population.  There are also the Chinese Malaysians, people of Chinese descent who have been in Malaysia for centuries, and who make up about 22% of the population.  About 12% of the population are other indigenous groups of people who are non-Malay - the Malaysian word for these people of various native groupings is Bumiputra, which means "son of the land."  And the last large group of Malaysians are Indian Malaysians, people whose ethnic origin goes back to the Indian subcontinent, people whose ancestors were brought here by the British.  (There are also nationals of other countries who now make Malaysia their home.)

Anyway, I wanted to make some batiks that reflected Malaysia.  And I love cats.  So I decided the lucky cat would be a great design to batik.

I drew a nice chubby maneki-neko, waving its right paw.  I gave it nice wide open eyes, and holding the koban.  And because it's currently spring in the northern hemisphere, I thought it would be nice to have some cherry blossoms behind my lucky cat.

I brought my drawings down to my buddy at the batik shop, and had a little consultation.  I showed him the cat drawing, and the cherry blossoms, and explained that I would like them concentrated in the background but sort of filtering out as they go across the fabric, like the flowers are falling off the tree.

Then I asked for two more, with sort of a diamond-shape frame background, but said I'd like him to make whatever design he thought would look good.  So the second two are more collaborative than the first design.

Of course, my buddy at the shop is absolutely a brilliant artist, with a wonderful sense of design.  He whipped out the first sketch, and asked me what I thought.  And of course it was PERFECT!  Then he did the other two cats for me, and they are absolutely wonderful!  LOVE them!

Yup, I now have my gifts for friends and family!

But wait, there's more!  I was painting some other designs, and one of the women in the shop asked if it would be okay if they took a photo of my cat design.  I said of course, not a problem.  Then I asked the owner, the young man, if he wanted to keep the design to make copies to sell.  He smiled shyly and said yes.  I said that was fine with me - and that it would make me feel famous to know my design was being sold here.  (I didn't tell him that I had wanted to do something nice for him, because he's really gone out of his way to be helpful and do a couple of special requests for me.  So I truly was happy to give him my design and let him make money selling this cat.  It seems to be in the spirit of the maneki-neko, right?)

Monday, April 9, 2018

Lazy Days in Malaysia

9 April 2018
There isn't much exciting to report.  Our days have a vague schedule - three days a week we go to the hospital for physical therapy.  Richard works with the therapist, and I do some of my knee physio or walk.  (Once I used the stationary bike - it has a wheel connected to the pedals, but the wheel is clear plastic and full of water.  So when you turn the pedals, the water provides resistance but also bubbles.  The froth and foam of the bubbles increases with the speed at which you turn the pedals - so it's fun to really race on the bike and watch the water wheel turn all white and foamy.)

And, as you can see, I'm still painting batiks when I can.  Plus I found out that the elevated train that goes to the museum leaves from near our hotel, so that's an easy day trip for me.  We both have our favorite little places for meals, and have time to chat with the staff and find out what is going on in Malaysia.

We attended another concert at the Petronas Towers/KLCC concert hall.  The Malaysia Philharmonic Orchestra often features guest conductors and soloists, so the performance we attended was conducted by an Australian maestro, and the guest soloist was a famous Malaysian pianist.  The pieces played were Beethoven's Overture to Coriolan, Op. 62, and the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19; and Mozart's Overture to Don Giovanni, and his Symphony No. 38 in D major.  The two Mozart pieces debuted in Prague, so the title for the evening was "Mozart in Prague."  It was a lovely evening, and we enjoyed the music from our usual seats in the first level balcony.  

I'm not sure if I mentioned it before, but the center of the balcony section is closed of for permanent use by the King of Malaysia, or possibly the President.  We've never seen any of the royalty or politicians attending a performance, but the walls are solid so we wouldn't see them anyway.  I'm guessing, however, that we'd see a variety of bodyguards or the Malaysian Secret Service equivalent, and we haven't seen them either.  (There is often an elderly man at Richard's physical therapy clinic, who is accompanied by something like four or six bodyguards.  We don't know if he's a current or former politico, or part of the royalty, or merely an extremely wealthy person.  But it's interesting to see the bodyguards checking out everyone either doing their PT or just hanging around.)

The big news in Malaysia at the moment is the upcoming election.  It's a little confusing from a US viewpoint - there isn't a set election date, such as the first Tuesday in November.  Rather, the elected politicians have a certain term in office, and then Parliament is adjourned at the end of that term so that everyone can run their political campaign and run for office.  We really don't know who is running the country while the campaigning is going on.  It's sort of like having the US President, Vice President, and both houses of Congress adjourn all at once and then have a month to campaign prior to the election.  As I said, it's a little confusing for us.

I think the election is set for the end of April, but we're not too clear on that.

But there are political speeches on the radio and television (as one taxi driver called it, "the politics game").  Lots of flags around for the blue party.  And, we'll see what happens.  Most of the people we talk to are not happy with the current party in power, but no one knows what the result of the election might be.

As always, we're not sure where we're headed next.  We'll wait and see what sounds good at the beginning of May, when our visa expires.

And that's the excitement in Malaysia!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Lions and Tigers and Elephants, Oh My!

15 March 2018

We're still in Kuala Lumpur, enjoying Malaysia but not really getting out and around the country much.  Richard is faithfully going to physical therapy and is doing much better.  And I go with him to be supportive and helpful and all that.

Between appointments, though, we've managed to see some of the city.  Not much, and not as much walking as we're used to.  But we don't just sit in the hotel.

And of course I spend a good portion of my free time at the batik shop in the Central Market.

So I thought I'd share a couple of the batiks I've made.  Now, I need to explain the process here.  The young man who owns the shop draws the images on the white fabric, using melted wax in a sort of tubular stylus that has a well for the wax.  He stretches the fabric on a frame, divides the fabric into the sizes that will be cut out, and draws each image in liquid wax.  The wax dries, the fabric is cut into rectangles of various sizes, and either he and his staff paint in the dyes and sell the batiks, or the fabric is stretched on smaller frames and set up for tourists and locals to paint their own batiks.

So it really is a very easy process.  The wax outlines prevent colors from bleeding into each other.  In some ways, the pictures we paint are somewhat like a coloring book, and we paint the dye inside the lines.

On the other hand, the dyes act like watercolor paint, which is notoriously difficult and uncooperative.  If someone knows how to use watercolor, it's easy to get gradients and fades and color blends.  (You can see that I used some watercolor techniques on the clouds behind the traditional Malaysian kites.)  For the person who is not experienced in transparent paints, it can be frustrating.  Plus these dyes aren't permanent, so the batiks are for wall display only - not for any kind of usage or washing.

One afternoon, I was merrily mixing colors and painting four batiks at once.  (Paint all the yellows on all four batiks; then paint all the orange areas; etc.  That way I don't have to wash the brush as often.)  Anyway, a group of college students came in and exuberantly painted a series of animals for their dorm rooms, chatting away and eventually talking to me.  Two were from Malaysia, but one was from the Seychelles and the fourth from Mauritius, so we talked a bit about their lovely islands.

After they left, it was quiet for a bit.  Then several young men came in with video cameras, and they talked with the owners and staff.  They came over to me explained that this was a class project about the arts and culture of Malaysia, and would it be okay to film me as I painted my Malaysian kite designs?  I laughed, and said okay - thinking how funny it is to have an American traveller painting batiks for Malaysian arts and culture!

I'm apparently on some family's photos, as well.  Our hotel includes breakfast, and I was down there eating the other morning.  There was a family with a baby who just stared at me.  So I smiled and waved at him a few times.  One of the parents noticed, and picked up the baby's hand to wave back at me.  Baby thought this was funny, and pretty soon he's laughing and smiling and sort of waving back at me, and I'm waving at him.  They finished their brekkie, I was still enjoying my tea, so the mother came over and sat next to me, holding the baby, while the father asked if they could take their photo with me.  Well what could I say?  Yes, and the baby was so excited by the whole thing that he continued to wave his little arms around, only he was pretty much just smacking me!!!  It was really funny, and I can't imagine how the photos turned out with me laughing, getting smacked by the baby who's smiling at me, and the mom is trying to smile for the camera!!!

My favorite batik, though, is my lion dancers.  I drew the actual lion dancers, then brought my drawing down to the batik shop.  The owner and artist either recognized me or the drawing (I'd say he remembered the drawing, it's an artist thing), and asked him to draw it again for me.  That my previous batik was stolen out of the mail.  So he drew my lion dancers, and added a border of the traditional Malaysian kites.  LOVE it, and this will be my special souvenir from our time in Malaysia.

Oh, the one with the buildings shows the KL Tower and the Petronas Towers - they aren't this close together, but really are emblematic of the KL skyline.

The two goldfish or koi swimming among the lily pads is a typical Chinese symbol for good luck, especially at the New Year time.  I was painting this batik, and an older Chinese man took my photo.  His son eventually came by, and he spoke some English - he explained that they were from Guanzhou (formerly Canton), and that his father spoke no English.  And that the koi were for good luck in the coming year.  He said it was good that I was painting them red and gold-ish orange, that those were lucky colors. 

And that really is the sum total of our excitement since the last post.  The Chinese New Year is over, things are getting back to normal, and we're keeping ourselves amused between PT sessions where Richard works hard at getting better.

And we hope we can move on by next month.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Dancing With The Lions

26 February 2018

We've encountered lion dancing all around Kuala Lumpur this month!  And lion dancing is one of my favorite cultural events in Malaysia!!!

Very brief history - lion dancing began in China, and eventually developed into two distinct kinds of dancing and costumes, divided into the north and south styles.  The southern style of lion dancing was eventually brought to SE Asia via the various invasions, migrations, and immigrations from China.  

Apparently Malaysia is well known for lion dancing, especially since the ten-time international world champions in lion dancing came from this country.  Students from across SE Asia come to Malaysia to learn this skill.  Lion dancing truly caught hold in Malaysia, and became an important part of the culture, especially for celebrating the new year.  (I'll include more information at the end.)

This year, we discovered that there are two forms of lion dancing here: the lion dance walk around, when the lions and musicians dance on a level surface, such as at a mall; and the acrobatic lion dancing, or dancing on stilts. 

Richard and I saw the international lion dancing competition when we were up north on the island of Penang in 2014.  If you want to see lion dancing on stilts, here's the link:
 So, for this new year celebration, I've seen the lion dancing walk around at the Central Market twice.  The first time, I went deliberately to see this, and ended up standing on the stairs to get a decent view.  But the second time, I was happily painting batiks when I heard the music.  I asked the ladies working in the shop if there was lion dancing that day, and they said yes - and not to bother walking into the market to see them, the dancers would come down to our end of the market.  So I waited, and was able to have a nearly front row view when the lion dancers started at our end.  It was WONDERFUL!!!  The "lion" ate an offering of fruit and left the orange peels behind.  He also tried some lettuce but spit it out all over the floor.  (It was pretty funny!)

Yesterday, Sunday, we woke up to lion dancing music - it's pretty distinctive, the pounding drum with periodic cymbal clashes and a gong every so often.  We quickly dressed and went down to the patio outside the dining room, but couldn't much, just some people in red and yellow down at the corner of the street.  So I went down to the street level, and walked quickly to the corner on our side - and sure enough, there were two lions, one red and one black, dancing away as a crowd began to gather around them!  I watched for a bit, then went back up for brekkie.  When we got back to our room, we could see the lions dancing on the top floor of a building across the street, where someone seemed to be having a big party for the new year celebrations.

Then today!  We went out to the hospital for Richard's physical therapy session, and then went for lunch downstairs.  All of a sudden, there was that familiar drum and cymbal music, and I went running out to the lobby in time to see two lions getting into a service elevator with all of the musicians!  I'm not sure where they went, but I went back to my soup.  Maybe 15 minutes later, the music started up again, so I raced back out and the lions were dancing their way down the hall toward the lobby, with little kids waving at them or hiding their faces, depending on the bravery of the child.  Lion dancers at the hospital!  How amazing is that!!!

Rather than me telling you all about lion dancing, here's some information from the Langkawi Gazette.  (Langkawi is a gorgeous island off northwestern Malaysia.)

"The origins of the lion dance are linked closely to the origins of the Chinese New Year celebrations. It is said that in ancient times, a mythological creature known as Nian terrorised China and devoured its people on the eve of the new year. The only animal that managed to wound this beast was the lion. Thus, in an attempt to frighten the beast, the villagers decided to mimic the lion with lions made of cloth.

"In accordance with this legend, the dance is believed to usher good fortune, as well as ward off evil spirits. The lion dance calls for perfect co-ordination, elegance and nerves of steel.

"Two dancers are usually needed to give life to a "lion" - one to control the movements of the head, eyes and mouth; the other to act as the body. The first dancer that controls the head determines the movements, while the second must work in tandem with him.

"This isn't a simple task as the lion's head, which is brilliantly adorned with feathers, fur and glitter, weighs from 9kg to 15kg, a considerably heavy burden to hold aloft while moving vigorously. The head is usually constructed of papier mache and bamboo, complete with eyes that blink and a mouth that snaps. Therefore, the first dancer must have perfect co-ordination inspite of the burden.

"The dancers are usually enticed with gifts, usually ang pow (money in red packets) attached to a vegetable, which are tied to a pole. The pole is then placed at a door or a window. The dancers would then try to get these gifts, making it look as though the lion devours them. Often, the lion dancers are accompanied by two other masked dancers who act as jokers, provoking the lion; the dance is commonly performed to the beat of the tagu (Chinese drum) and the clanging of cymbals.

"In Malaysia, troupes of lion dancers travelling from one place to another in trucks are a common sight during the 15-day period of Chinese New Year. They are usually hired to perform at individual homes and business premises such as hotels and shopping complexes during this auspicious period.

"However, it is not unusual to see it outside of the new year season for it is also in demand among the Chinese community for ceremonies such as the launch of new business premises or for the welcoming of dignitaries. Lately, the dance has become a form of sport where dancers from all over the world compete to determine the best."

Last note, and then lots of photos - there's a wonderful movie about the two men who rose to become the world champion lion dancers, representing Malaysia.  It's called "The Great Lion" and if you get a chance, see it!  Really a wonderful movie, and from the viewpoint of the team members.  

Enjoy the excitement of the lions!