In this fascinating article our gastropological historian goes into the origins of yee sang. From its early genesis to how it evolved into the dish we know today, even its political implications. One thing's for sure... yee sang is undoubtedly Malaysian!
Us Malaysians were the first to LO HEI!
“Do you know yee sang, the dish with raw fish?” I asked breathlessly as I went around China in my last visit. When the person I asked didn’t speak English, I switch to Chinese, which makes it worse. Although I’m part Chinese, my Mandarin is almost non-existent, as my street dialect is Cantonese and even then my tones are tortured.
“So, do you know yee sang?” The best answer I get is a puzzled, “You mean like sushi?”
Well, that trip established it: the dish of raw fish and mixed chopped veggies and sauces that we Malaysians and Singaporeans take for granted during Chinese New Year was NOT common in China. Not even on the 7th day of CNY as it traditionally was served in Malaysia.
So where does the yee sang we know today come from?
I began asking… My Chinese grandmother in Singapore had dismissed it, as she is one of the few northerners among Sino-descendents in Southeast Asia; (“We northerners are nobles, different from southerners”). Okay but that in fact said something; at least I knew yee sang was definitely NOT of northern Chinese origin. So I headed south.
Southern China’s Guangdong province was the one place where a few people knew of yee sang. Good, especially in Hong Kong with its more worldly restaurants. But surprise, surprise; many of those who knew it said it’s a modern import from Malaysia-Singapore! Back to square one.
Sure, maybe the modern version of yee sang as we know it really IS from Southeast Asia. But maybe there were roots, some earlier version of it hidden in a corner of China somewhere? I made some last tries and trials in the name of food. Finally a Mr. Cheng said that some communities of coastal southern China do have a raw fish type of dish. Where exactly?
The southeastern Chinese cities of Chaozhou and Shantou are located in the northeastern part of the province of Guangdong (Canton in English). Yet the people in this locality are NOT ethno-linguistically Cantonese. A localised pronunciation of Chaozhou is in fact Teochew, and that’s where some clues start to appear on where a raw fish dish originated.
Before that, let’s go further back in Chinese history and mythology. It is said that the goddess Nuwa (or Nuwo) created man from clay and mud on the 7th day in the first month of the year.
Thus on the 7th day of Chinese New Year people would celebrate Renri or the People’s birthday with a dish of raw meat called kuài (?). I suppose raw meat was symbolic of the early naked humankind. Eventually raw fish became preferred, possibly because fish is an abundant creature of the waters from where mythology equates with life, as well as practically for the coastal Chinese such as in Chanzhou area and Guangdong as a whole the region was rich in seafood. What better way for them to celebrate than with their abundant raw fish symbolizing this birth of life.
Chaozhou city combined with Shantou a bigger sister port downriver make the Chaoshan region. Shantou city is also prominent in 19th century Chinese history. It was then called Swatow, one of the ‘treaty ports’ that the colonial West used to exploit China, and was ceded to British concession in 1858. That was the Age of Turmoil in Chinese history. Meanwhile just a year earlier Kuala Lumpur had been opened by Raja Abdullah; and with its rich tin mines it began an immigration pull factor in which one of the results later became… yee sang in Malaysia. How?
Throughout the early mid-19th to the early 20th centuries China was facing its Age of Turmoil, especially in coastal China with the meddling of Western powers, the Opium Wars, rebellions and conflicts. Many migrated in significant numbers to the relatively peaceful and abundant lands of the Nanyang or the Southern Ocean, where Southeast Asia was located. One of the main ports of trans-shipment and departure to the Nanyang was Guangdong province’s port of Jiangmen, which gives another clue to Malaysia-Singapore’s yee sang origins.
The Teochews spread to Siam, the Malay Peninsula’s Penang and Johor states and Singapore next door as well as parts of Indonesia such as in Pontianak and Ketapang. Johor Bahru was even nicknamed “Little Swatow” because so many Teochews congregated there. The other group with raw fish dish cultural memories, the Cantonese, settled largely in the Malay Peninsula’s west coast and a few in Singapore. With that we begin to see a commonality and pattern of why yee sang came up in Malaysia-Singapore and not, say, in Thailand or Indonesia as well.
By after World War II, some Teochew and Cantonese families in Malaya (especially on the west coast down to some Johor Teochews; Singapore geographically included) began reviving the ancestral cultural memories of a raw fish dish that was eaten together at the meal table over Chinese New Year, especially on the 7th day in honour of the goddess Nuwa and the human birthday Renri.
Let’s take a look at the yee sang name, which helps give further clues as to how it came about. The dish was mainly raw fish. Vegetables were somewhat limited then using only carrot and turnip mixed with some oil, vinegar and a sweetener such as even sugar.
That was how the name yee sang or the official version yú sh?ng (??) meaning “fish basic-life” or figuratively “raw fish” came into being in the first place. The word “fish” (?) is commonly associated with its homonym "abundance" ?). Thus yú sh?ng (??) is correlated as a homophone sound for yu sheng (??) meaning “abundance increasing".
By comparison it could not be, say, from the Hakka because in their dialect it would be “ng sang” (ng for fish) and what’s more “ng” is considered a bad omen. Definitely not an auspicious dish to start the Chinese New Year! So we must go back to the Teochews and Cantonese.
To a certain extent the raw fish and raw vegetables as ingredients were also dictated by practical considerations in the early days. By the end of the first week of Chinese New Year, the huge amount of food prepared before the celebrations would be only leftovers. Households were too tired to cook more sophisticated dishes.