The energetic ritual of Lo Hei, which in Cantonese translates to 'tossing up', brings a special celebratory atmosphere to the Chinese New Year celebrations. Central to this group-like tossing is Yusheng, a dish that stands for wealth, prosperity, and unity. Originating from southern China, Yusheng has transformed over the years, moving across cultural lines and integrating itself as a beloved component of the Lunar New Year festivities in nations such as Singapore and Malaysia.
Delving into the historical lineage of Yusheng, its roots are firmly planted in the fertile beginnings of Chinese gastronomy, with raw fish being a prominent aspect dating as far back as the Zhou dynasty. By the latter part of the Qing dynasty, the dish was largely localized to Guangdong and Chaoshan regions until Cantonese and Teochew migrants brought it to the shores of Singapore and Malaysia in the 19th century.
The primitive version of Yusheng consisted of raw fish, cucumber, radish, and coriander, lightly sprinkled with vinegar, oil, and sugar. However, in the 1960s a more dynamic and intricate variation named Qi Cai Yusheng, or 'seven-colored Yusheng,' came into prominence. This change is ascribed to the inventiveness of four culinary masters who later were fondly referred to as 'four heavenly kings’. An alternate viewpoint credits this transformation to Loke Ching Fatt, a Chinese immigrant in Seremban, Malaysia. He introduced the Sup Kum Yee Sang, or 'tenth sense Yusheng,' in the 1940s, highlighting his distinct and multi-ingredient adaptation of the traditional dish.
Beyond Singapore and Malaysia, the practice of Lo Hei has been adopted widely during the Chinese New Year. This tradition isn't confined to the Chinese community, whether savouring it in Chinese eateries or creating it at home with pre-assembled ingredients. It caters to diverse dietary preferences with unique Yusheng versions, including vegetarian and halal variations.
'Yusheng' directly translates to 'raw fish,' but metaphorically, through homophones 'yu' (plenty) and 'sheng' (growth, living), this food carries profound significance, symbolizing success and longevity. Each ingredient added to the dish carries an auspicious connotation - from fish slices indicating abundance to shreds of pomelo symbolizing good fortune. Lo Hei isn't merely about food, it also involves saying phrases of good luck and a shared toss of ingredients, encouraging unity, harmony, and togetherness. The action of tossing, typically executed with chopsticks, is believed to impact the fortune that one will encounter in the upcoming year.
Reflecting on the journey of Lo Hei, the Lai Wah Restaurant, founded in 1963 by Wong Kok Lum and the 'four heavenly kings,' has been a testament to this tradition. The current proprietor, Wong Kah Onn, emphasizes how Lo Hei has grown into a culinary ritual, with patrons actively involved in the favourable tossing of ingredients. For him, it's not just a custom, but a link to his Chinese lineage.
Lo Hei holds a critical spot in Chinese New Year festivities in Singapore and beyond. Adapting to modern innovations, contemporary renditions of the traditional dish, drawing inspiration from Italian, Thai, Japanese, and Sichuan Yusheng, cater to various tastes. This ensures that this significant prosperity toss continues to be a precious ritual for the forthcoming generations.