Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lucky Cats (Maneki-Neko)

18 April 2018

I'm going to begin with what sounds like the start of some joke.  Except it really happened.

I went to Starbucks for lunch, on my way to the batik shop.  (This was prior to the incident in Philadelphia.  Our staff in Malaysia would never call the police on people waiting in the shop for another friend, regardless of ethnic origin.  Okay, off my soap box.)

I went to Starbucks for lunch.  Got my sandwich and coffee, and sat at a table with a young man.  He was listening to music videos on his computer, and I asked if I was hearing Frank Sinatra.  He looked a little sheepish as he said yes.  I replied that it was a familiar song.  We went back to minding our own business.

Then a Buddhist monk comes in, and asks if he can share our table.  Of course, we invited him to sit down.

So yes, a retired art teacher, a young man listening to Frank Sinatra, and a Buddhist monk all walk into a Starbucks.

But no, it doesn't have a punchline.  It just made for an amusing little vignette.

On to today's topic - the Lucky Cat, better known as Maneki-Neko.

All over eastern Asia, we've seen the Maneki-Neko, the Lucky Cat.  You've probably seen them too, wherever you live - those cute ceramic or plastic cats with one or two arms waving at you.  Some of us (me) wave back, since it only seems polite.  The cats are waving you, the customer, in to the shop or restaurant or salon.  Or the cats are waving money and good fortune in, as well.  It all depends on the arm used.

The name "maneki-neko" is Japanese and means "beckoning cat."  There are several legends or folk tales about the maneki-neko - that an impoverished man (shopkeeper, or inn keeper, or something) found a stray cat and took it in, giving it shelter and food.  To thank the man, the cat began to sit outside and wave its paw to entice people into the shop/inn/whatever the place was.  People came, the man became rich, and people started copying the beckoning cat to bring customers and fortune to their homes or place of business.  

The other popular tale is that a man was sheltering under a tree during a thunderstorm.  A cat under a different tree beckoned the man to come over under its tree.  The man did so, and then followed the cat into the nearby temple.  As they entered, the first tree was struck by lightning.  To thank the cat for saving his life, the man became a benefactor of the temple and brought it fame and fortune.  After his death, a statue of the cat was made in his honor.

At any rate, the beckoning cat statue became well known throughout Japan, and eventually China.  Despite the fact that Japan and China have had a rather bellicose relationship, who doesn't want good fortunate and prosperity?  So the beckoning cat, or lucky cat, was adopted into Chinese culture, and has followed Chinese merchants as they've migrated around the world.

We've seen various version of the lucky cat around eastern Asia, and in various sizes.  I really like the giant lucky cats we saw in Hong Kong - taller than me!!!  And always very round and chubby!!!  

Then there was the even taller Diamond-Eye Cat in Bangkok, covered in hand-made ceramic flowers.  Diamond-eye cats are a traditional Thai cat, usually white but with one blue and one green eye.  The statue cat had her right paw raised - the paw that beckons customers in to the shop or, in this case, a mall.  She was absolutely gorgeous.  (Yes, I take photos of notable lucky cats.)  (Note: The left hand is raised when the maneki-neko is beckoning in good fortune and prosperity.  And yes, some cats have BOTH paws raised, ushering in customers and prosperity at the same time.)

The items the cat is holding can be significant - often the cat is holding a yellow or golden oval with writing.  This is a "koban," a symbolic or stylized coin.  The kanji, or characters used in Japanese writing, reads "sen man ryo."  This means "1,000 times 10,000 ryo."  A ryo is the name of the gold coin used in Japan during the Edo period (1600 to mid 1800s Common Era).  One thousand times ten thousand would be ten million - a fortune in gold!!!  No wonder this is such a lucky cat!

A fish in the cat's hand doesn't mean food - that also denotes prosperity.  Multiple cats in one statue bring health and prosperity to the family.  A cat with a tiny cat in its mouth also means prosperity to the family - NOT a cat eating a baby cat, which is what I asked the shop owner.  (Just a little too cannibalistic for me!)

The traditional color for the maneki-neko was a white cat with orange and black spots.  Yes, a calico cat!  So 99.9% of the maneki-nekos were female!  Okay, I don't know if the original sculptors knew that about calicos, but I like to think they did.  Of course, traditions change, and so did the colors of the cats.  The original white denotes purity and happiness.  Some modern cats are gold (wealth and prosperity), some are red (protection from evil and illness), some are black (promoting safety, warding off evil and stalkers).   Even more recently, green cats supposedly enhance education and studies, while pink cats bring love, romance, and relationships.

Much of this information comes from the Maneki-Neko Lucky Cat blog.  Yes, an entire blog devoted to these adorable cat statues and the whole culture behind them.  More information here:

So, why am I writing about Japanese and Chinese lucky cats when we're hanging out in Kuala Lumpur?  Good question!

We see lucky cats all over Malaysia.  Malaysia is one of the melting pot countries in SE Asia.  There are the Malay people, the original inhabitants and they comprise just over 50% of the current population.  There are also the Chinese Malaysians, people of Chinese descent who have been in Malaysia for centuries, and who make up about 22% of the population.  About 12% of the population are other indigenous groups of people who are non-Malay - the Malaysian word for these people of various native groupings is Bumiputra, which means "son of the land."  And the last large group of Malaysians are Indian Malaysians, people whose ethnic origin goes back to the Indian subcontinent, people whose ancestors were brought here by the British.  (There are also nationals of other countries who now make Malaysia their home.)

Anyway, I wanted to make some batiks that reflected Malaysia.  And I love cats.  So I decided the lucky cat would be a great design to batik.

I drew a nice chubby maneki-neko, waving its right paw.  I gave it nice wide open eyes, and holding the koban.  And because it's currently spring in the northern hemisphere, I thought it would be nice to have some cherry blossoms behind my lucky cat.

I brought my drawings down to my buddy at the batik shop, and had a little consultation.  I showed him the cat drawing, and the cherry blossoms, and explained that I would like them concentrated in the background but sort of filtering out as they go across the fabric, like the flowers are falling off the tree.

Then I asked for two more, with sort of a diamond-shape frame background, but said I'd like him to make whatever design he thought would look good.  So the second two are more collaborative than the first design.

Of course, my buddy at the shop is absolutely a brilliant artist, with a wonderful sense of design.  He whipped out the first sketch, and asked me what I thought.  And of course it was PERFECT!  Then he did the other two cats for me, and they are absolutely wonderful!  LOVE them!

Yup, I now have my gifts for friends and family!

But wait, there's more!  I was painting some other designs, and one of the women in the shop asked if it would be okay if they took a photo of my cat design.  I said of course, not a problem.  Then I asked the owner, the young man, if he wanted to keep the design to make copies to sell.  He smiled shyly and said yes.  I said that was fine with me - and that it would make me feel famous to know my design was being sold here.  (I didn't tell him that I had wanted to do something nice for him, because he's really gone out of his way to be helpful and do a couple of special requests for me.  So I truly was happy to give him my design and let him make money selling this cat.  It seems to be in the spirit of the maneki-neko, right?)

1 comment:

  1. I feel that your Maneki-Nekos have a third eye, the eye of wisdom in Hindu faith, probably not that though, probably just a calico spot! I noticed in a photograph of his desk that my father sent me that he had a statue of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles for his ebay store that he had for some years. I had just purchased a small wooden lucky cat, and I decided my father needed one for his desk to keep his Ganesha company, so I purchased an identical one and mailed it to him. it's a bond with my father! The Chinese gave tea to Japan, but the Japanese gave the Lucky Cat to China--thank you for sharing that information! Thank you so much, very enjoyable read.