The image of a lotus flower on his chest and mushroom in his hand are symbols of fertility and longevity, as well as tell-tale signs of the authentic god of luck and prosperity. There are as many variations of Cai Shen, as there are of his Western gift-bearing counterpart, Santa Claus.
There are other gods more particular to Lingnan culture, such as general Guan Yunchang, the god of loyalty and credit, and Guanyin the Chinese goddess of mercy that get mixed up in the shuffle of deities during this time of the year. It can be seen how these deities would be bone fide allies in financial matters. Given Guangdongss status as the commerce jewel in the crown of China, it becomes abundantly clear why these gods hold special prominence in Lingnan culture, as much of the region has enloyed prosperous growth. Therefore, it would be wise to give them all a bit of tribute once in a while, to keep the books balanced and everything in the black.
The most popular place to find the god of loyalty and credit is in restaurants. On New Year's Eve of the Spring Festival, I dined with friends at a nearby Canton restaurant to celebrate the occasion. As we sat down at the dinner table, I saw something resembling a Buddhist altarpiece against the restaurant wall. My friend said it was an altarpiece to the General Guan Yunchang, the god of loyalty and credit. During the meal, I espied the altar a number of times. The general boldly displayed his powerful sword and helmet, assuring diners that the restaurant appreciates their patronage and credit cards are accepted. Lined across the baseboard of his altar were candles, incense, brass serving plates of fruit and small cups of tea. These were neatly arranged tributes. I was told that this was done every day, and that this particular god is the favorite of local restaurants. The good General looked happy, as his tributary vessels were over-flowing with oranges, apples and other offerings. Let it be said that locals honor the gods well. Perhaps this custom offers insight to the secret of their success; you have to pay your dues to the local gods. In light of Lingnan culture's reverence for opulence and wealth, it is no surprise that the nationally known incantation for the spring festival “Gong xi fa cai” (wish you a fortune) is often attributed to the Cantonese.
The Canton fervor for fireworks during the Spring Festival is also emblematic of their fervor for fortune and Cai Shen. It is said Cai Shen goes to heaven on the eve of the new year. There he will consort with the gods and goddess for four days, discussing the family's fortunes. On the fifth day he returns to earth to wish everyone luck and good fortune. The custom of lighting fireworks off, particularly on the fifth night, it to bid Cai Shen back to earth with a hearty welcome. All the splendor, bang and boon of bottle-rockets, Roman candles, fire-crackers and other fireworks make for a grand pyrotechnic display to dazzle the wealthy god in hopes of winning his blessing of luck in mattrs of money.
If you missed shooting fireworks to honor Cai Shen during the Spring Festival, you still have another chance. His birthday cake is promptly baked on the fifth day of the first lunar month. Be sure to mark your calendars and pull out your fishing pole. In the Lingnan region, as is the custom, worshippers briefly hold live fish before the altar then cast them back into water to live and multiply. There is a bit of wordplay here, as the Chinese word for fish (yu) is a homophone for the Chinese word for “extra” or “abundance”.
Those who really want Cai Shen to show them favor should cut to the chase and create their own personal altar to the venerable god of fortune. While you're at it, add a little room for General Guan and Guanyin on your altar wall. You can choose from pictures or statuary to display your enthusiasm for the God of Wealth and his Lingnan friends. To stay in good graces with Cai Shen and the others is easy, just give them offerings of fruit and incense and their hearts are content. Best of all, you've just made business connections that no one in South China can live without. Wish you a fortune!