A family practice
Even age-old customs change over time. Family reunion dinners and giving lai see are the few that Chinese households here still uphold to celebrate the Lunar New Year. But local traditions are better preserved among New Territories communities, and the walled village of Fanling Wai practices some of the most unusual and elaborate celebrations, including a scramble for auspicious rooster feathers.
Fanling Wai marks the festival with two days of communal celebrations called the Tai Ping Hung Chiu, starting on the 15th day of Lunar New Year, which falls on Monday this year. People gather outside the village wall to pray for peace and good luck for the village, which was settled about 700 years ago by the Pangs, one of the five largest clans in the New Territories.
While some rituals have been simplified over the years, 'we try our best to preserve the traditions', says village chief George Pang Chun-sing, 53, who co-ordinates the festivities with the help of village elders.
'The Lunar New Year atmosphere in Hong Kong is fading away. Half the indigenous villagers have migrated overseas, so if we don't preserve these customs and maintain a strong New Year spirit, they won't return to the village and it will be hard to unite everyone.'
Villagers reckon Fanling Wai has held Tai Ping Hung Chiu rites for several hundred years, although no one is sure exactly when they began. The customs have a cultural value that Hong Kong, as a cosmopolitan city, should treasure and preserve, says Pang, an engineer. 'Although we don't have documents or records of how festivities were done, a group of elders have helped organise the celebrations every year.'
Tai Ping Hung Chiu brings the community together, with more than 100 villagers helping in the organisation, Pang says. In the past few years, Fanling Wai has spent up to HK$300,000 on the festive rites.
A shrine is set up next to their fung shui pond ahead of the event for rituals to be conducted by Taoist priests and a temporary stage is erected for Canto-pop singers to entertain the younger set - it's a joyful time for the people as well as the deities, says George Pang.
Eight married men from the village are chosen as heads of worship. Donning traditional long robes known as changshan, they are responsible for 'inviting' three deities - Pak Tai, Man Cheung and Kwaan Ti - from nearby Sam Sheung Temple. The eight men carry statues of the temple deities to the village in a sedan chair covered with red tapestry, usually on the first auspicious day in the first week of the Lunar New Year.
A pair of red lanterns are hung up in the shrine, and oil lamps are lit according to the number of boys born to Pang families in the previous year. The rite is to recognise the boys' identities in the clan, after which their names entered into the Pangs' family records.
Village elder Pang Ying-choi, 69, says there used to be only four heads of worship when he was a young man, but the number doubled in 1984 as the village grew. Fanling Wai comprises about 1,000 families - only half are Pang descendants.
The festival kicks off on the morning of the 15th day with a scramble for feathers. A rooster is taken to the top of a guard tower at the village entrance, where its feathers are plucked and thrown down to people waiting below. Whoever manages to snatch a feather is said to have good luck in the coming year.
Another highlight of the morning is a cleansing ritual during which a Taoist priest and a representative 'New Year Boy' or San Nin Tsai - a role typically undertaken by an unmarried youth - visit each Pang household, collecting rubbish in a paper boat. As the priest cleanses the home and the young man offers good wishes for the year, family members throw symbolic charcoal and feathers, into the boat, which is burned at the end of the procession.
At night, the priest holds prayers seeking blessing for the community, with the heads of worship performing a 'hemp chant' at midnight (Fanling Wai used to be a hemp-growing area).
Before the three deities are returned to Sam Sheung Temple the next morning, the priest performs a 'kicking the sand basket' ceremony, during which a water-filled pig stomach is slashed open with a long axe to symbolise cleansing.
Cheung Sui-wai, an assistant history professor at the Chinese University who has studied traditional festivities in New Territories villages, says rites in walled villages were initially practised to express territorial bonding, reinforce land ownership and later to reflect bloodlines after a clan was formed.
'Chinese folklore and traditions are difficult to comprehend because they have evolved from different practices and have changed over the years. One tradition replaces another; there are so many different layers underneath,' says Cheung.
In the past, for instance, Fanling Wai villagers would slaughter a live pig in front of the shrine. These days, Cheung says, they merely place a pig carcass at the altar.
The custom is similar to some practices of indigenous Taiwanese, but it's hard to trace the origins of these ceremonies and figure out the meaning behind the rituals, he says.
Fanling Wai's major festivities keep retiree Pang Ching-chuen, who settled in Britain 40 years ago, coming back to the village. Many customs have disappeared, he says. For instance, the village used to play a game of catch during the festival, which required the heads of worship to grab young people and bring them back to the shrine.
'Although these customs are not very historical, once they disappear from the community, they are gone forever,' he says. That's why the 67-year-old has set up a website (www.pangsfamily.com) to document and introduce the history and traditional festivals of Fanling Wai to clan members around the world. Originally from Jiangxi, the Pangs migrated to Guangdong during the Song dynasty before settling in Fanling Wai.
George Pang says it is important to preserve village customs not only because they form part of the clan identity but because they also bring members together. In recent years, some of younger villagers have begun to take a more active role in organising traditional festivities, among them Pang Ying-kai.
The 38-year-old, who returned to the village a few years ago to run a grocery store, is proud of how Fanling Wai has been able to safeguard its traditions.
'It's exceptional that those customs are still so well preserved. This is how our next generation can learn about our roots.'
Other young villagers are keen to get involved, he says, but many are busy with study and work, and don't have time to help out during festivities.
'I manage my own business, so I can spend more time helping and serving the village,' he says.
'Besides, there are very few chances for us to get together and these festivals are occasions to socialise, keeping everyone in contact.'