At some point in your life you may have come across the Chinese characters that mean “double happiness.” To make this symbol, the character for “happy” is basically repeated, so you have “happy happy” next to one another, creating an extra joyful effect. It might look traditional like this. Or more modern or simplified like this.
And while this explanation appears quite simple, there’s a heap of tradition behind the concept of “double happiness.”
Traditionally, “double happiness” is found at Chinese weddings on the invitations, hanging on the walls, imprinted on the napkins. After all weddings are happy occasions. In the past, calligraphers would paint the characters, each one made artistically in red or black ink. Now, to save time, they are printed or stamped.
But how, you might ask, does all of this relate to a children’s book with the same name? Believe it or not, my idea for Double Happiness began as a “rainy day” story. I imagined the two main characters, a brother and sister, being typical kids who are bored out of their minds on a rainy day. Their father is trying to fix a leak in their ceiling, so he instructs Gracie and Jake to find two boxes and fill them with treasures they discover around their home. This is his desperate attempt to keep them busy. Being Asian-American father, he calls them “double happiness” boxes.
Turns out, that idea wasn’t too appealing to editors. The story “needed more movement.” So I thought, why not a real move? Gracie and Jake could be moving from the west coast to the east coast. Why not? To deal with this hugely traumatic event, Gracie and Jake’s wise grandmother (Nai Nai) hand them each a box with the instructions to collect four treasures each along the way. Jake imagines he is like a dragon, searching for the best treasure. And in many ways, Gracie is like the phoenix, who handles this change in her life with grace. Ahh. See, it was all coming together now.
Wait, you say! Where did this phoenix and dragon come from? Wasn’t it hard enough to learn about “double happiness?” Well, like the yin and yang of life, (when opposites complement one another), the phoenix and the dragon blend together nicely in Chinese tradition. The dragon represents power and strength. He was the symbol used by the emperors of old. The phoenix represents grace and wisdom. She was used by the empresses of old. Together they create a whole, and so they often appear next to the “double happiness” character at weddings.
Perhaps Kirkus Review said it best: “Double happiness, traditionally a wish for newlyweds in Chinese culture, expands to key moments here: for sister and brother, for two memory boxes, and step by step, for a former home to a new one.” Well now, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Sometimes we have to put a bit of effort into finding happiness, just as Gracie and Jake do, but it’s worth the journey. Sometimes we end up being doubly happy along the way.