Wonkavision and the Tiger’s “Tail-Tooth”
I’m watching the computer screen in front of me as I enjoy a glass of red wine and a bowl of hot pot. It’s my first time to have hot pot in our company’s office, and I have to say I feel a bit elitist sitting at what is usually our standing communal table with the other company managers while those employees who are part of the social welfare committee scurry back and forth, serving us alcohol and food. They give us the choice positions at the table, the best slices of meat, while they pick up pieces here in there for themselves. The company’s Honorary Chairman is on the screen, but I also know he’s only about ten meters away in our multi-function room dubbed the “Teammate Room.” A carpeted room with bleacher seating, the room has a much warmer and more active feel than the rest of the office with its cubicles and furniture dating back to the 1980s.
Next to the Honorary Chairman stands a scantily-clad tv hostess, her smile sparkling with the smile that says she’s used to this type of performance. She holds a phone up to both her and the Frank’s (Honorary Chairman) ears as the phone rings. There’s a delay on the screen as the number is dialed and goes through to the receiver.
Two days prior.
I am sitting in the very same Teammate Room, empty except for a table with a pile of red envelopes beside another envelope filled with all the names of each and every employee at the company. In front of the table is a tripod on top of which sits a small video camera facing the two envelopes, as if the camera is there to record a criminal inquisition.
My task is to sit at the table and individually place each employee’s name within separate red envelopes. Before placing a name in an envelope, however, I need to lift up the slip of paper and show the camera, clearly indicating evidence that each and every employee’s name has a place inside an individual envelope. This process takes 40 minutes altogether, with no fanfare.
Each and every employee has an equal chance. It’s all on camera. One at a time they go.
Lift up employee’s name, face the camera, insert name in red envelope on camera.
Everyone has an equal chance.
It takes a moment for me to connect the vibrating phone in my pocket (always on vibrate mode) with the ringing phone on the computer screen. It’s my phone that is receiving the call! I reach into my pocket and fumble with the phone, pulling it out. The manager of the sales team sits next to me and slurps a needle-point mushroom in between his lips and glances over towards me. I put down my chopsticks with tofu on the tip, setting the soggy bite aside so that I can enjoy it post-call.
“Hello?” I say.
“Do you know who this is?” Frank asks.
“Of course I know, I’m watching you on TV right now.” I say.
“Do you know why I’m calling you?” he asks.
“Did I win something?” I respond, trying to feign surprise and modesty.
The TV hostess chimes in with a sparkle. It’s her job to keep the rhythm going — no unecessary dead air. This is why we hired her. “Jeffrey, come on in to the Teammate Room. We’re waiting for you.”
I get off my raised chair and skip over to the door of the Teammmate Room where I take my shoes off at the door(no entry while wearing shoes— it’s the only place in the company where we have this rule). From the dark, sterile, gloom of the office, my eyes are flooded with camera light of the makeshift television studio as I enter. I’m still holding my phone in my left hand, and now it seems I’ve entered the television itself.
It’s quite surreal, and I’m stunned for a moment as I stare at the camera. Both the hostess and Frank are right there in front of my eyes, talking to me on the phone…but here I am in front of their eyes. I make a side glance and see us on another computer screen, miniature versions of ourselves, all those body parts squished into bite-sized versions of themselves. I approach my two benefactors and look at the camera in front of us. Frank raises his eyebrows, Santa Claus asking a child what he wants for next Christmas. But…Christmas doesn’t really exist here.
Phone in left hand.
I’m on the pho…no….I’m on the tv.
Wait…I’m on BOTH!
Red envelope in Frank’s hand. Red envelope PASSING from Frank’s hand to MY hand! Smile creeping across Frank’s face. Wispy white hair shows his age. Make-up caked on hostess, sequin dress making me squint, making the room squint.
Don’t make your smile too obvious. There were more than 150 people who could get this but didn’t. I don’t deserve it anymore than they do.
“You lucky bastard,” Frank says. “It’s because you have a newborn. We always say in Taiwan that newborns bring new luck.” He holds out the red envelope for me to take. This is the hand of the man who started the company, who built it up from scratch…and he’s giving me 10,000 NTD just for showing up and eating some hot pot. How did I get this money? How did I get here?
I just answered the phone. That’s all I did.
This is the 尾牙。
What is 尾牙 (Wei Ya)?
Pronounced “Way Yah,” this is a Chinese term that I had never heard of before coming to Taiwan. The previous company where I worked was based out of Beijing, with offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taipei where I spent my “office hours” from home as solo captain, periodically making explorative outings to research potential travel locations and commandeer loose confederation of freelancers and guides for experiential education programs. Founded with more of an international mindset and composed of a melting pot of Eastern and Western cultures, January 1st was almost equally as important as the Chinese Lunar Holiday for our company culture. Additionally, with a country and culture as expansive and varied as China, festivals differ according to location. Although 尾牙 does in fact originate from mainland China, it’s more of a common term and event in Fujian and Taiwan. In Beijing I had received red envelopes with money, but it wasn’t as much a bit to-do in the company as what I experienced in Taiwan.
From a non-native Chinese speaker’s interpretation of Chinese characters, it appears that “Weiya” translates to “tail’s tooth,” at first glance(it combines the Chinese character for tail: 尾 and tooth: 牙）。However, as with the origin of many Chinese characters and festivals, upon further examination, there’s much more to these character’s than a simple literal translation. This centuries-old celebration has its roots in close connection with the Earth god or the god of wealth (in Chinese 土地公 and 福德正神）。
Chinese characters are a funny thing with terms and words being steeped in history, tradition, and cultural practices, and it’s only when we dig deeper that we begin to feel the weight, wealth, and wonder of stories waiting to be discovered. When I asked friends and colleagues why 尾牙has its particular name, almost everyone had to look up the answer themselves, or they shrugged their shoulders and told me to “Google” it.
Ya (traditional and simplified Chinese: 牙), originally means the agent who is trading in the market. In ancient times, the Chinese used the character ‘hu’ (互) to describe the action of trading. In the Tang dynasty, ‘hu’ (互) and ‘ya’(牙) became similar in writing, so people started to use ‘Ya’(牙) to describe the action of trading instead of ‘hu’(互) ever since then。Weiya is the last of the bimonthly Ya festivals honoring the earth god。（source)
Originally, a combination of superstitions and local customs spurred business owners to provide gifts, prepare rituals, and give thanks to the Earth God, as they had shops that needed protecting. If shops are sheltered from disaster by the Earth God, then good fortune isn’t far off. What used to be more of a communal celebration has become an integral part of modern Taiwanese company culture. Taiwanese companies will host a banquet for all the employees, there will be lucky draws filled with envelopes of cold, hard, cash, as well as performances, speeches, gratitude, and lots of drinking.
While some of the traditions and beliefs may have passed with the times, new time-honored practices have become integral to the festivities. For example, in the past, if you ate at a company banquet, and the chicken’s head was facing in your direction, this was an ominous omen that signaled your impending being fired. Needless to say, the 尾牙 was not only a time of celebration, but it could also be a time of anxiety for the unlucky few. On the other hand, it would now be very inauspicious to hold a 尾牙 without a lucky draw. In fact, if you ask most of the employees in my company — the true meaning of the 尾牙 is about that hot hot prize money.
The lucky draws are, of course, something that every employee in the company looks forward to — unless you happen to be one of the big time managers, or you work in HR. Should managers of a certain level get their names drawn out of the hat, or whatever device they are using to randomly pick the lucky winners — it may be trouble for said manager. Not only will the manager have to to reject their cash prizes, but they may also be pressured by the rest of the employees to double the earnings for the 2nd drawing. I saw this take place on multiple occasions during my first “wei ya” in 2021 when the CEO’s name, as well as the company Chairman’s name were drawn from the lucky draw envelopes. When I asked my colleagues if the doubling of the prize money had to come our of the manager’s bonuses, they weren’t exactly sure.
“This is up for the managers and the company to deal with.”
I had to accept that answer, as I felt it would have been overstepping bounds to ask my manager (also the company Chairman) directly how he dealt with this “penalty.” There are some grey areas when it comes to money, and there’s a fine cultural line of what you can and cannot say with regards to specific numbers or details. Exactly what information needs to remain confidential, and what information needs to be shared with the general public? After 18 years in Asia I’m still not entirely comfortable with money-talk. Despite my own insecurities in this area, a couple of employees were very lucky on the day when the managers’ names were pulled from the lottery. Of course, the managers themselves had to plaster on a big smile as well and “take one for the team.”
Behind the Camera
This year is different. It’s 2022, and I have the experience of 尾牙，along with the memories in my head. The phone in my pocket is warm, resting.
Rather than starting out of sight/out of mind, I’m firmly rooted next to the camera man. It’s the “opening ceremony” of the 尾牙 for 2022, and there’s a tinge of excitement in the air as the cameras roll. Music plays in the background with a kind of droning drumbeat and rhythmic repetition of lyrics. Electricity is in the air.
I feel a burst of wind as the lone performer on stage waves his flag, his mask is skewed in a grotesque expression, possibly full of meaning that the other observers are clued into. What does the color green symbolize? Does this dance itself mean something auspicious to the viewers of the occasion? How many suits and masks does the performer go through? The questions rotate through my mind.
The performer pulls small, red Chinese knots from somewhere in the folds of his clothing (the folds of his flesh?). He tosses one to a colleague. Another. Then one to me. I catch it, while filming the dance that is also being filmed on Wonkavision Version 2022.
Has this knot blessed me with luck, or has it cursed me?
The music stops and the performer pulls off the last mask to reveal a smiling human face.
Another 尾牙 begins.
Everyone has an equal chance.