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Shopping for good financial fortune


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    USC Professor Eugene Cooper orders dim sum at the Empress Pavilion restaurant in LA's chinatown


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    Dim sum, or "yum cha" is popular fare amongst the Cantonese Chinese.


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    New Year cards and lai see or hong bao envelopes.


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    Store decoration celebrating the New Year and the year of the dragon


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    Lucky coins.


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    A wishing well in Chinatown


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Tess Vigeland: Happy Lunar New Year, everyone! I'll let my colleague, Kai Ryssdal, say it the proper way since he speaks the language...

Kai Ryssdal: Xin Nián Kuài Lè! Happy New Year!

Hey, thanks, you too! Chinese celebrations are well-known for their color, their parades and firecrackers. And then there's all the money that is thrown around -- in some cases, literally. So earlier this week, to get a sense of the role of money in Chinese traditions, we visited LA's Chinatown with Eugene Cooper. He's a professor of anthropology at USC, specializing in the study of Chinese civilization.

Our first stop was a delicious lunch of dim sum, followed by a walk through some of Chinatown's colorful storefronts. Professor Cooper thanks for meeting us down here in Chinatown.

Eugene Cooper: Well, it's my absolute pleasure.

Vigeland: Tell us what we're looking at here.

Cooper: Well, this is an array of red envelopes and Happy New Year's cards. And the wishes generally include a wish to prosper in the new year, to faht ai, to expand one's wealth. And then just immediately in front of those, we also have an array of red envelopes. As the junior generation goes around to visit the senior generation, members of that senior generation provide the youngsters with these red envelopes and they can include everything from small change to rather significant amounts of money, depending on how old the child is and what he or she aspires to and what the relative involved is interested in communicating to the parents.

Vigeland: What does the amount say about that communication? I mean, if you can get $10 what does that mean versus $50?

Cooper: There is a certain sense in which extravagance is appropriate. Giving a very small child a very large amount of money obviously entrusts the child's parents with the responsibility of making sure that the money is spent appropriately. And if you wanted, say, as a relative to give the child enough to open up an account to begin to start thinking about paying college tuition, this might be an occasion for which to do that, and include a check.

Vigeland: This is the year of the dragon. Does the dragon bring with it any particular money connotation?

Cooper: Not that I'm especially aware of, except for the fact that the dragon is, of course, the deity associated with water. Water being crucial to an agrarian civilization and an agrarian state. So...

Vigeland: So the dragon is a rainmaker.

Cooper: The dragon is a rainmaker, so therefore the bringer of any form of prosperity in an agrarian civilization.

Vigeland: Well, shall we visit another store and see what they've got for us?

Cooper: Sounds like a great idea. Let's walk on down Broadway.

Vigeland: All right. Well here we are. We've got a circular display with what I think is a fairly classic coin.

Cooper: These are a bunch of different charms. These are generally meant, I think, to be hung on a mirror of a car, to bring good luck. Now here, we have this little display of ingots that are in the shape of silver ingots, which are sort of the middle range of the Chinese monetary media. But the ingot itself is a symbol of prosperity and a symbol of good fortune. And you hang one of these on the window of your car and presumably the ingots will flow in at the same time.

Vigeland: All right, let's move along.

Cooper: OK.

A few hundred feet away, as red paper lanterns swayed above our heads, we stood near a fountain that had cups laid out for donations? Each labeled with something you wish for: Love, peace, prosperity.

Sound of waterfall

Vigeland: All right, so here we are in another part of Los Angeles Chinatown and we've found some classic paper money. Tell me what this is used for.

Cooper: Hell bank notes.

Vigeland: Hell bank notes!

Cooper: Ming Tong, netherworld circulation bank.

Vigeland: So this is money that is burned.

Cooper: Yes. This first bank note on the top...

Vigeland: $1,000... $10,000!

Cooper: $10,000 per note, and then we have maybe 35 or 40 notes inside here?

Vigeland: That's a lot of money to burn.

Cooper: That's a considerable amount of money that you can buy for a buck and a half! The ritual begins with the lighting of candles, followed by the lighting of incense, followed by the presentation of food, followed by the burning of money and climaxed with the lighting of firecrackers.

Vigeland: And what occasion does this mark?

Cooper: Many occassions. Occassions when you might be making offerings to your ancestors on the Chinese memorial service day, at Dong Shur festival, on the winter solstice. The money itself is often burned spontaneously in the street. Money is also burnt at the grave sites.

Vigeland: Why burn money? What is the purpose burning the money?

Cooper: Well, you're giving it to your relatives to use in the next life. Now, once you've passed into the next life, well, then you need to keep up your life like you would in any sort of circumstance, which is one of the reasons why, in addition to this money, people nowadays burn a variety of consumer goods and stuff for use by their departed ancestors in the next world.

Vigeland: Like what?

Cooper: Paper Mercedes Benzes, paper imitations of Gucci bags. Nowadays, people purchase paper imitation airline tickets.

Vigeland: So that the deceased relative can use it.

Cooper: Well, in heaven, there is inflation and the goods that you might normally have sent up to heaven to take care of your departed ancestor in the past, now don't really amount to very much. So, you've gotta keep up with the times and send your departed relative the objects that are highly desired in the contemporary world.

Vigeland: Inflation in heaven.

Cooper: Inflation in heaven, that's right.

Vigeland: All right, Professor Gene Cooper. Thank you so much for joining us in Chinatown.

Cooper: It has been a pleasure.

Vigeland: And happy new year to you.

Cooper: And a happy new year to you too.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.
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