Chinese New Year in Hong Kong

Chinese New Year (CNY) also known as Lunar New Year as it is timed according to the lunar calendar, runs from Chinese New Year’s Eve until the 15th day of the new year and generally falls in late January or February. New Year’s Day of the year of the snake fell on February 10th 2013, year of the horse commenced on January 31st 2014 and the year of the sheep/goat/ram (it’s actually the year of the yeung,  which translates to ‘horned ruminant mammal’ so take your pick) will commence on February 19th 2015. As the lunar and calendar year differ, those with birthdays in January or February may have a different Chinese zodiac sign than they think. Nato thought he was an honest and intelligent rooster, but we recently discovered he is in fact a quick-witted and charming monkey! 

We participated in the CNY tradition of giving and receiving red packets, took in the decorations and attended the CNY parade and fireworks. Whilst these were crowded, at other times during CNY we found Hong Kong to be somewhat deserted. Side streets that normally throng with street vendors and customers were eerily empty. The air quality in Hong Kong also markedly improved as Chinese factories closed for the CNY period. 

The CNY legend is of the fight with the mythical beast called the Nian (for the record, I am not delighted that my name is an anagram of a fierce mythical beast). The Nian terrorized the village at CNY eating crops, livestock and villagers, especially children. The villagers tried putting our food to satisfy the Nian’s hunger. They noticed that the Nian was frightened away by a child wearing red, and deduced that it was the colour red that caused it to flee.  They then kept it away by hanging red lanterns and red scrolls on windows and doors and setting off firecrackers. Red and gold are the colours of CNY. Red is considered to ward off evil and as the Chinese word for red sounds like the Chinese word for prosperity red is also considered good luck. Gold represents wealth and happiness. 

Red Packets or Lai See are traditionally given at CNY by married people to unmarried juniors, or generally to anyone who regularly provides you with service through the year. I gave lai see to our cleaner, security guards and hairdresser, Nato gave lai see to his secretary and we received lai see from our bosses. It is considered polite to not open the lai see in front of the person who gave it to you. Red packets are available from supermarkets and newsagents, but care must be taken to purchase the CNY packets and not similar red packets used for weddings. Using a wedding packet at CNY would be tantamount to giving a ‘congratulations on your wedding’ card rather than a Christmas card. The red packet must contain an even amount in new notes, never coins. Queuing at the bank for new notes is part of the CNY experience, though the use of ‘nearly new’ notes is encouraged for environmental reasons.

Hong Kong was decked out in decorations for CNY, including plum trees in blossom, flowers, potted tangerine bushes, firecrackers, lanterns and scrolls, often featuring snakes.

The plum tree in blossom is a symbol of winter, but also that spring is imminent, and represents perseverance and hope. This is similar to the tradition of having an evergreen Christmas tree in winter and some Chinese families make an event of shopping for their plum tree, as western families might take the family shopping for the Christmas tree. The plum tree may be hung with lai see, similar to the presents under the Christmas tree. Seasonal flowers are also used to decorate the home during CNY.

Oranges and tangerines are used as decorations and gifts. The Chinese word for orange sounds like wealth, the word for tangerine like luck and the bright orange colour is considered reminiscent of gold so the fruits represent prosperity and happiness. Small potted shrubs dotted with (inedible) miniature tangerines are used as decorations and oranges and tangerines are also given as gifts during CNY. Even the local supermarket sells its tangerines individually wrapped in clear cellophane printed with festive CNY greetings. 

Decorations include scrolls with good luck phrases and paper diamonds containing a Chinese character. I noticed my local bakery had hung their character upside down. I only recognize a couple of Chinese characters, but Fu (good fortune/happiness) is one of them as it looks to me like a woman sitting at a computer desk. Thankfully I was not sure enough to say anything as I later discovered that this was intentional. The Chinese word for upside down sounds like the word for arrive, so the upside down sign encouraged good fortune and happiness to arrive at the bakery.

Red and gold firecrackers are hung as decorations. Traditionally firecrackers were bamboo stems filled with gunpowder lit as part of CNY celebrations to scare off evil spirits but lighting firecrackers is now generally banned. Bulbous red lanterns are also used as decorations as the 15th and final day of CNY is the Yuen Sui festival or lantern festival, during which paper lanterns are carried to temples at night.

A lion visited Nato’s work to perform the traditional custom of ‘cai ching’ (plucking the greens). The lion dances in, eats and then spits out green vegetables called choi in Chinese (e.g. pak choi, bok choi) which sounds like the Chinese word for fortune. The lion dance is believed to bring good luck and fortune to the business. It also provided entertainment as the lion bowed to Nato and gave his boss a kiss on the cheek.

The lion dance is accompanied by drums, cymbals and gongs. This noise and the formidable face of the lion are believed to chase away evil spirits. Similar is the dragon dance, the long dragon (the longer the luckier) is held aloft on poles and appears to weave above the crowd. The Dragon is often led by a dancer holding ball on a pole so it appears to be ‘chasing the pearl’ or pursing wisdom.

Both lion and dragon dances formed part of the CNY parade, along with a wide variety of performers, marching bands, bagpipers, accordionists, ballerinas, African drummers, roller skaters, yo-yoers and stilt walkers.

Though firecrackers are banned, citizens are more than compensated with a magnificent CNY fireworks show on Victoria Harbour. We clambered aboard a Chinese junk to see the fireworks for the water this year and they were spectacular. No one does fireworks like the Chinese, but they’ve had a lot of practice since inventing fireworks in the 7th century.

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