Nothing can truly match up to a Chinese New Year spent in Asia!
Chinese Lunar New Year, in the Gregorian calendar, begins at the new moon that falls between January 21st and February 20th.
As a Chinese Canadian who grew up in Toronto, Canada, it was a family tradition to turn on the TV and watch the festivities in Hong Kong during Chinese New Year’s. Chinese stations based in Toronto would have specials featuring live events happening in Hong Kong, which was something I looked forward to every year. I always longed to be there during that time of year, with the entire city celebrating the event (whereas in Canada, we still have to go to school/work, and try to go out for dinner with relatives afterwards).
A few short months into my move to Hong Kong after graduating from school, I experienced my first Chinese New Year in the city. Having watched the festivities on TV during my school years, I had thought that I was prepared for CNY in Hong Kong; however, it wasn’t until I experienced my first holiday in the city that I realized how many traditions I didn’t know about.
Lunar New Year fair (年宵) vs Flower Market (花市)
I was quite familiar with the concept of the Lunar New Year fair, where it is tradition to hang nin siu (行年宵, literally: walk the year night, around the New Year fair.) From my experience in Toronto, I expected a market selling Chinese New Year trinkets (red pockets, Chinese toys, New Year banners, etc.) However, I was quite amused and surprised by the diversity of items sold in the Lunar New Year fair in Hong Kong, where they appear to sell everything blown up (blown up toilet covers, blown up cigarettes, blown up condoms, etc.) or in cartoon format, with the animal of the Chinese horoscope year taking center stage.
I also discovered that the Lunar New Year fair, traditionally held in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay is different from the Flower Market, which sells only flowers and other potted plants to attract good luck and fortune in the new year, located in Fa Hui Park, Mong Kok, Kowloon.
Hong Kong, being a city that never sleeps, becomes practically a ghost town on one day of the year; namely, the first day of Chinese New Year’s. Transportation is still running, as it is customary to visit several relatives during that day. However, as it is also customary to buy presents for relatives when arriving at their homes, I very quickly learned that it is essential to plan this out before the first day of the festivities. Some major chain stores (such as Watsons and Mannings) in popular districts remain open on the first day for newbies like me, but the choices are limited to the regular chocolate or cookie boxes.
Chinese New Year Greetings
Having been raised in a Chinese family, I learned about the standard customary Chinese greetings that you have to say to people during New Year’s. (‘Gong Hay Fat Choi’ 恭喜發財 = Wishing you a prosperous New Year, ‘Long Ma Jing Sun’ 龍馬精神= Wishing you to be as healthy as a dragon and horse, etc) The greetings come in 4 words to make a phrase, and Hong Kong people have gotten very creative with coming up with new phrases, where phrases such as, “Wishing your stocks and apartment prices go up” are not uncommon. You are supposed to say these phrases to your elders before they give you your red packet (‘Lai See’ 利是), a monetary gift that is handed out to unmarried relatives during the holidays. People usually say numerous greetings before receiving their red packets, and having only the standard vocabulary of customary Chinese greetings under my belt made me look very uncreative and unprepared for the new year!
Literally everything during the new year has to do with ‘yee tao’ 意頭 (words that sound like prosperity); the food you eat, the greetings you say, the clothes you wear, etc. The food on the first day of the new year also has to be food that is synonymous with prosperity; for example, ‘fat choy’ 髮菜, or black moss vegetable, is always a dish served as it sounds like ‘wealth’ in Chinese. With Hong Kong being such a commercialized city, restaurants now prepare all these types of food layered in a big metal basin (called ‘poon choi’ 盤菜) for take-away to allow for communal style of consumption for families.
Red Pockets “Lai See”
Aside from relatives, married coworkers and bosses also hand out red pockets upon returning to work (usually around the 7th day of the New Year). It was to my delight that I discovered that there was a thing called, ‘Hoi Gung Lai See’ 開工利是 (Red Pockets received during the first day back to work in the New Year) from your bosses at work, which was usually a good amount for a nice meal.
I did, however, also discover that it is customary to give red packets to people that are unrelated to you as well – people like security guards at your apartment building, or servers at restaurants, will be wishing you “Happy New Year” more than several times to hint for red pockets.
Lunar New Year Cup
Just like the Thanksgiving (American) Football matches that occur in America, there is an annual football (soccer) tournament on the first and fourth day as part of the New Year celebrations. It is an international tournament, where countries such as Japan, Romania, and Denmark have played against Hong Kong in the past. However, to be honest, I’m still not quite sure how a football/soccer match has to do with ‘yee tao’, as the Chinese term for football/soccer matches have nothing to do with prosperity…
Chinese New Years still remains one of my favorite holidays, and I feel grateful that I managed to spend quite a few in Hong Kong. Even though there are a lot of Chinese communities abroad that celebrates the event, nothing can truly match up to a Chinese New Year spent in Asia!