Jackie Chan

Strike up the clan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am


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Lunar New Year traditions have remained strong throughout the many generations of Chan Chau-wing's clan. They have been observed since before his ancestors moved from Dongguan to Shui Hau on southern Lantau 300 years ago.

It's a busy time, as Chan lives with his four brothers and their families. 'The new year activities begin on the 28th day of the previous lunar month, which is designated as a cleaning day. Our clan members sweep everything clean,' Chan says.

That is also the day when women of the clan prepare for the New Year's Eve dinner, which is the most important meal of the year.

'It is a grand reunion, and the entire clan of 40 members gathers together. We make tasty dishes like braised pork with Chinese mushrooms. The gathering goes on until 11.45pm, when we meet at the village's Tai Wong Ye shrine and light firecrackers to welcome the New Year.'

A sleepless night follows when mahjong and computer games are played by old and young. 'But no one stays up after 3am, as we need to be up the next morning to pay tribute at the shrine,' Chan says. 'On New Year's Day, vegetarian meals are served, and we spend the day with the elderly members of the clan, hearing their stories.

'On the second day of the new year, lion and dragon dances are performed by our boys. They start at the ancestral hall and continue on to individual households across the village. They collect lai see in exchange for the performance. The sound of drums and cymbals mixed with firecrackers is heard on and off throughout the day.

'In the evening, we gather in front of the ancestral hall and feast again with more than 100 relatives and friends. That completes the new year festivities in the village. Clan members then go their separate ways to visit friends in town on the third day,' Chan says.

Chan, 53, has witnessed the traditions change over the years. 'When Hong Kong was a labour-intensive community, we used to celebrate up to the seventh day, or Everyone's Birthday. Factories would close for seven or even 15 days. But now it's much shorter. Some people even work on New Year's Day,' Chan says.

Other changes include the tradition of eating vegetarian meals on New Year's Day. 'We still do it for lunch. But in the evening, we go for a barbecue by popular demand,' he chuckles. He remembers the children used to get up early and serve the elderly tea and dim sum.

'I am afraid my two girls don't even know how to boil water, and they stay online so late that it takes a few wake-up calls to get them up on New Year's Day,' he says. But Chan remains confident the family traditions will live on.

'We'll have to see how it goes, but I am positive about it. From what I see, the younger generation still cherishes the reunion of family members,' he says. 'The new year is a very good example of that.'

In Yuen Long, the Lunar New Year tradition is still going strong, especially in big families with elderly members. Raymond Hung Kam-kwan, the eldest son of a family of 10, says the two most important family occasions of the year are the winter solstice and the Lunar New Year. 'Every member of the Hung family has to be present at the family meal at these times,' he says.

'We used to do it at home. Space was limited, but the atmosphere was great as we all shared the food at two tables and played games under one roof,' he says.

Like the Chans, the Hungs also begin the new year on the 28th of the previous lunar month. 'We get new clothes and shoes, and a good haircut, too. The elderly ladies are the busiest, as they prepare the food, the sacrifices to the ancestors and gods, the lai see, and so on. We boys help with the decorations, putting up red calligraphy posters bearing good wishes. It's all based on the Chinese proverb, 'Greet the spring and receive the blessings.''

After the reunion dinner on New Year's Eve, the family members proceed to Tai Shue Ha Tin Hau Temple in the centre of Yuen Long. There is a huge banyan tree in front of the temple, which has been standing there for 350 years.

'We bring flowers, food, incense and other offerings to the gods and stay there from midnight to two in the morning.

'By that time, firecrackers can be heard across town. No one wants to sleep and everyone plays all kinds of games,' says Hung, a retired police chief inspector.

Hung, too, sees a gradual change in the old traditions. 'We still stick to vegetarian meals on New Year's Day, and also for the grand meal on the second day, to start the year. But the food is no longer home-cooked. These days, we usually order it from a restaurant.'

Hung still enjoys the new year celebrations, he says. 'As we grow older, we cherish these reunions even more. We tell stories to the younger ones. Then we get nostalgic about when we were taken by our parents to get lai see. It was great fun.'

The New Territories is a very traditional area. So if the traditions there are changing, what chance do urban residents have of upholding traditional Lunar New Year rituals?

Paul Yeung Chun-pong, a banker from a big family, says he has not had a full family gathering for at least 20 years.

'The problem with having an extended family is that we are scattered everywhere - Hong Kong, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco and who knows where else,' he says. 'Another thing is that making arrangements for a gathering needs to take account of seniority, and grandma is alive and well at 97.

Lunar New Year is a welcome chance for a reunion. 'We have not all been able to get together for many years,' he says.

'But Lunar New Year has become the main gathering of my own family and immediate siblings who remain in Hong Kong,' Yeung, a father of two, explains.

He says both the cleaning on the 28th and the New Year's Eve meal are still observed. But the tasks are delegated to the domestic helper.

The New Year's Eve mahjong game is a special time for the family of four. 'We have a good time when we talk and exchange views during the game,' the banker says. 'My girls love the game and, of course, we don't play for money.'

As for the rest of the clan: 'We usually see each other on Facebook rather than meet up in person.'

Yeung believes that this will become a wider trend as Hong Kong families become smaller and more scattered than ever before.

For Gidget Lun Kit-chi and her family, the Lunar New Year is even less traditional - it is a time for skiing. 'My husband Tony and I have always loved taking our sons skiing during the new year holidays,' says Lun, an architect. She says part of the reason they don't celebrate the new year in a conventional manner is a lack of pressure from grandparents.

'Tony's parents live in Toronto and my own parents are very liberal. My mum never pressed me to do anything for the new year,' she remembers.

There is also the timing of the new year holidays. 'There are exams for the boys right after the Western new year. But they are over by the time Lunar New Year comes around. So we can drop everything and leave town.

'I remember in the early days, Tony and I had to carry our sons, Samson and Michel, on our backs when we went up the ski slope. To us, skiing is bigger than the Lunar New Year.'

A student at St Andrew's School in Toronto, Samson does not feel deprived of the traditional Lunar New Year festivities.

'I simply don't know anything about them. To me, it's just a holiday. Chinese culture is not built on one holiday, right?' says the 18-year-old, adding he still gets lai see from his parents and relatives.