In my house, Lunar New Year means lo hei. We gather, every New Year’s Eve, around the caesarstone benchtop in my parents’ kitchen. Uncles and cousins stand poised, armed with the lacquered chopsticks my mother keeps for nights like these. My aunt, a fly-in from Singapore, snips open little plastic packets fresh out of her suitcase. She empties their contents onto a huge platter, a neat pile for each ingredient: pickled ginger, pine nuts, cucumber, turnips, daikon and carrot. Another aunt adds on the raw salmon she has been slicing, brandy-soaked and ice-cold. Oil and plum sauce are poured over the top.
With each addition, my aunts intone in Cantonese: sun lin fai lok (“happiness in the new year”) and kung hei fat choy (“may you prosper”). Then, we toss. Twelve pairs of chopsticks fling the mixture, competing with one another for the highest, and therefore most auspicious, toss. Lo hei, we say, “prosperity toss”. Then we eat.
For Malaysian-Chinese families like mine, lo hei is the essence of Lunar New Year. It’s spectacle, family, prosperity, food and continuity. This is our culture and its values—as authentic as it gets.
Except lo hei was invented in 1964. Four Singaporean chefs, looking to improve numbers at their new restaurant, developed a ‘seven-coloured raw fish salad’, a combination of different, auspicious ingredients. The dish was served at New Year and proved popular—so popular that diners developed a ritual to accompany it. By the 80s, lo hei had become tradition.
Last New Year, I broke this inconvenient truth to my family. My aunts surveyed the empty lo hei kit bought in a Singaporean supermarket. “That can’t be true,” one said. “We paid good money for this!”
Traditions, of course, are manufactured all the time. So long as they bear the trappings of constancy or inheritance, they’re easy to spread. For instance, it wasn’t until 1994 that all States and Territories marked 26 January as Australia Day. Yet for the bulk of white Australia, the date is so suffused with tradition that changing it is unthinkable.
Made up or not, tradition—particularly physical ritual—has always been a thick cultural glue. By participating, we internalise a pattern of culture: who we are, who our people are, how our culture does things. These narratives, through the vehicle of tradition, may appeal to the legitimising weight of the past. But they play out in the present, and so don’t actually require a deep historical reality; we just need to believe they do. We need to believe that traditions are authentic in their reflection of culture and as the bases of our identity.
That’s the theory. But there’s something troubling in current conceptions of authenticity. Take my aunt’s reaction to the big lo hei reveal. She could’ve lamented the fraud, or questioned the parts of her identity based on that fraud. But instead, she felt ripped off. She had bought something labelled authentic, and so it should have been.
That, increasingly, is what cultural authenticity has been reduced to: pure consumption.
It is now a driver of neoliberal culture industry, not a vehicle for actual cultural expression. The need for an air of authenticity underlies the single origin coffee movement, and the rise of micro-industries, and of backyard art. It’s the need you fulfill when you eat at a restaurant promising unheard of dishes and regional cuisine. Or when you buy organic. Or when you listen to indie bands. It’s a need that thrives on the local, small-scale, the niche and the pristine.
Adorno and Horkheimer, Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt school, argued that capitalism has developed a culture industry, which mass produces cultural products. Art, TV, music all follow a staid pattern, designed to satisfy consumers’ emotional needs at the cheapest possible level. Narratives are repetitive, forcing us into a narrow range of thought and preventing us from questioning the capitalist machine. We end up distracted by a sea of safe, easy to consume mass products. Think of the yearly churn of Marvel films—identical in basic plot and nothing but cheap, distracting entertainment.
But now, under neoliberalism, it’s not just cultural products that are uniform and anodyne, but our underlying cultural preferences as well. We participate in culture to acquire a sense of authenticity—and nothing else.
That’s pernicious. For Adorno and Horkheimer, people held genuine cultural preferences; they formed those preferences before the rise of the culture industry in the mid 20th century. Mass culture then exploited those preferences, offering numbing, emotionally cheap products in place of critical thought. But, with genuine underlying preferences, the potential for critical thought was at least there. Adorno thought that exposure to high art could actualise that potential, and challenge consumers to question capitalism.
But now, the culture industry is totalised. Everyone alive today has grown up with it, amplified by neoliberalism’s extension of market mechanics and consumer behaviour to all aspects of life. We do not derive any satisfaction from authenticity per se. Instead, we derive satisfaction from performing authenticity: we snap, or gram, or tweet; we spend disposable income and we let it be known. We perform and consume, in a kind of arms race of conspicuity—who can be seen to be most authentic, and so most active in consumption.
This model governs our own, traditional cultural practices as well. We used to practise tradition, made-up or ‘authentic’, to achieve a sense of unique cultural identity. Now, it’s all about consumption: lo hei, unpacked from its neat, store-bought kits, is a performance of conspicuous authenticity.
Last Lunar New Year, I was made photographer. My aunts each handed me their phone, and I snapped away while we tossed. Later, the photos went up on WhatsApp, for hundreds of contacts to see, admire, envy, and outdo. The critical content of our traditions is consumerism. And so our cultural identities, based in part on those traditions, is consumerism as well.
Which means that, next year, we must buy a kit again, and perform more authentically, and use fresher salmon, and toss the mixture higher.