Today marks the Chinese New Year (in the U.S., anyway, given time zones and so forth). And not just that: it’s the Year of the Dragon. The auspiciousness of this date comes up in one of my Malay Mysteries.
“Huh? But I thought these stories were about Malay people, they don’t use the Chinese calendar,” you say. True! But read on for the explanation…
In the fourth Malay Mysteries book, Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories, I play with time quite a bit: my stubborn refusal to name any dates in the actual stories continues, but the main storyline of the series takes place in 1910, during the last few decades of the Dutch colonial period. Sita’s Shadow is made up of three short stories, and the first of them is told by Marsiti, the medicine woman, one of the two main characters in the continuing story.
In her story, Marsiti tells of encountering a Dutch plantation owner who’s tormented by a ghost. This is her first chance to get to know a Dutch person, and she gets some insight into the experience of the colonizers from their perspective.
We find out in the third book in the series, Island of Glass and Ashes, that Marsiti’s a bit older than she looks. A few little visual cues in the story tell us that the events she describes in Sita’s Shadow took place several hundred years prior–the Dutch occupied Indonesia for close to 400 years, starting in 1602. Marsiti’s not just being vague about when her story occurred out of vanity: she doesn’t want to alarm her impromptu audience at a food stall as they enjoy breakfast together by revealing that she once used witchcraft to extend her life unnaturally.
It’s the second story in the book that involves the Year of the Dragon. One of the people gathered at the food stall where Marsiti and Hidayat have stopped off for breakfast is a traveling merchant. Marsiti’s tale of a foreign woman reminds him of a story involving another foreigner, one from a bit closer by: a Chinese exile. This woman and her father come to the Indonesian islands after something drives them away from their home to the north, and she eventually marries a native, a fisherman who lives on the southern side of Java.
The Chinese woman, despite her assimilation into her new culture, does keep some reminders of where she came from, one of them being the practice of keeping track of the passing years according to the Chinese zodiac calendar. On the night of the Chinese New Year, she presents her husband with a cloth she’s embroidered for him, in celebration of the Year of the Dragon: a beautiful piece worked in silk threads of green and yellow, from among the few possessions brought from her homeland.
This cloth, unfortunately, gets the man into a bit of trouble, but in a sense also gets him out of it–and also gives the merchant who’s telling the story a chance to relate a legend of the southern shore of Java that I heard when I lived in Indonesia. I’ll let you find the details by reading the story. (Here’s a short video with some details about the story, if you’re curious in the meantime.)
(I will mention here, since the story itself gives no dates, that the merchant’s story takes place in 1868 by our calendar, in the Year of the Earth Dragon, which turns out to have some significance in the story, and yes, most authors I know worry obsessively about details like this that they never explicitly reveal in the actual narrative.)
The last story in the book concerns a haunted shadow play, but that deserves its own treatment. So for now, happy Chinese New Year. The Year of the Dragon is said to bring sweeping change and mystical power. May it bring you peace, joy, fortune, and the achievement of your greatest dreams.