Where do I fit in to Chinese New Year?
An easy guide to the essentials of Chinese New Year customs for a Hong Kong newcomer
Newcomers to Hong Kong will find the customs a bit strange, but imagine what an outsider would think of a rabbit leaving chocolate eggs in your backyard. Here are the most important ways you can observe the shifting of years in Hong Kong and make someone’s day.
Lai see don’ts, lai see dos
Newcomers must be careful to observe the lai see tradition. It’s a way of giving back to people who regularly provide a service. Maids, doormen, rubbish collectors, regular waiter/waitresses, employees or those under your supervision at work, younger relatives and so on are privy to lai see. Amounts vary, but they’re usually not a lot of money. And the quality of the notes and packet design is important. Banks will exchange old notes for new ones for during Lunar New Year. Here’s a graphical tool to let you know who you should give to, and how much.
Many Hongkongers tend to keep a few lai see packets on them in case they bump into people on the street they need to give to. Under no circumstances give in denominations that include a four. The word in Cantonese sounds like death and a superstitious faux pas in Hong Kong.
Get around the guide:
Am I a monkey?
The zodiac follows a 12-year cycle, and for a look at what that might mean for anyone born 12, 24, 36, 48, 60 and so on years ago take a look at our Chinese Zodiac. There are also other cycles in the zodiac which means that while your animal sign comes up every 12 years, it corresponds to the same elemental sign – wood, earth, fire, water, metal – of the year you were born in your 60th year, so kung hei fat choi to any sexagenarian readers.
What is Lunar New Year?
Not so crazy to ask this; it’s a bit like asking why the sky is blue, as there’s a scientific answer but it changes very little about day-to-day life. In the past the date was essential to harvests, ceremonies and general date-setting. A new lunar year begins on the day of the second new moon after the winter solstice. Because the lunar year is shorter than the solar year, the Chinese calendar – a mix of both astronomical guides – uses leap years every three years to keep the start of the new year around January-February.
It’s also important to people in other countries and often follows harvest themes:
Kyushogatsu in Japan, which translates to “outdated new year” as since 1873 lunar new year is just for the more traditional after the country officially switched to January 1 for the start of the year.
Get around the guide:
Like over Christmas and Easter in Western countries, many shops and eateries close over the holiday. You won’t starve, but the hustle and bustle dies down a bit as Hongkongers spend more time with family or leave for holidays. See our guide to the events that run over CNY in Hong Kong here. Some places are crowded as people flock to major attractions.
Can I take part?
Apart from decorating your flat doorway in flourishes of red and gold, you can slap on a set of red undies if it’s your zodiac year to keep the luck where it counts.
If you’re invited to someone’s family home to celebrate CNY then go for it, and make sure you bring an appropriate gift. Here are some other kind wishes you can offer for a bit of variation from kung hei fat choi, or to wish someone good fortune.
What should I say?
Chinese people use many phrases to send well wishes designed for someone older or younger, men or women, and depending on their occupation. Surprise the people around you with some unexpected phrases.
Long ma jing sun (龍 馬 精 神) — to wish someone the energy of a horse or dragon for a spirited and energetic year. Literal meaning: dragon horse energy.
Leen leen yau yu (年 年 有 餘) — to wish someone wealth every year. Literal meaning: year year have wealth.
Hok yip jun bo (學 業 進 步) — to wish someone (in school or taking classes) excellence in learning. Literal meaning: education improve.
Faai go jeun dai (快 高 長 大) — to wish someone (young) to grow up healthy and strong. Literal meaning: grow tall fast big.
Sun tai geen hong (身 體 健 康) — to wish someone (everyone, but particularly elderly) good health. Literal meaning: body healthy.
Lai see dou loi(利 是 逗 來) — to wish to receive lai see money. A cheeky phrase potentially considered cute from precocious young children, but unacceptable from teenagers and adults. Literal meaning: Lai see collect here.