How Hongkongers celebrate Chinese New Year
From bespoke calligraphy to asking for that special wish amid a cloud of incense, we take you inside the cultural event of the year
Chinese New Year is a time to unite with your family and eat auspicious foods, play mahjong and (for some) pray for luck in the next year. Being such a long held tradition, there are a few important rituals that have developed, including rules about cleaning your house, haircuts and the colour of your underpants. The rules are far from universal, and really depend on how lucky or faithful a person feels.
See Derek Chan work outside Man Mo Temple
As many Hongkongers attempt to decorate their homes and other places they spend time regularly – from businesses to school desks – they like to put up sayings such as those that encourage wealth creation, prosperity and success at studying called fai chun.
Fai chun are sometimes ready-made or printed out but it’s still possible to get them hand-made. Calligraphy writers tend to write on red paper, use gold or black ink and must practise for years to make their characters perfect. The crowds surrounding calligraphers can be crushing, so prepare.
There is humour in some signs, as calligrapher (and high-flying lawyer) Audrey Eu Yuet-mee SC says. She has been busy writing in markets and outside MTR stations all over Hong Kong for the past 10 years and learnt so that she could do the service for the Civic Party, of which she is the chairwoman. “It’s almost practically non-stop,” she said of the demand for her work over CNY.
Another calligrapher who sets up behind the Man Mo temple on Ladder Street, Derek Chan, said he learned the art when he was in grade three, and has written fai chun for CNY since 2008 at the site. “When I first saw this old man in the street doing Chinese calligraphy, his hands shaking, I learned from him,” the man, born in the year of the horse, said. “Maybe this is my fortune.”.
WATCH: The foods of CNY explained
While the Shangri-La Hotel may be serving up to the top echelons of CNY revellers, the ingredients of their dishes explained in the video above are held dear across the gamut of auspicious new year foods. Like the citrus fruits, many of these dishes are roughly homonymous with messages of goodwill, and have been chosen to signal prosperity.
Black moss is called fat choi in Cantonese; the words sound like prosperity, a la the widely offered kung hei fat choi message. Dried oysters are also chosen as ho si is similar to ‘good business’, pig trotter (represented by pork knuckle at the Shangri-La) represents unexpected financial windfalls, sticky rice cake represents self improvement as it sounds like ‘higher year’ in Cantonese. The sweet, sticky rice ball called Tongyuen sounds like tuen yuen or reunion in English, another nice wish at a time when families come together.
— Video by Vicky Feng, Robin Fall and Bernice Chan
Inside a typical Hong Kong home during Chinese New Year, by Vivienne Chow
The Lunar New Year had always been my favourite time of the year when I was a child. It wasn’t just because of the new clothes, lai see or the great food throughout the festive season. It was because the new year was the time to get together with family.
The celebration of Lunar New Year softly began weeks before the actual date. While my mother would be busy with cleaning up our home and decorating our place with new year flowers such as peach blossom or narcissus and fai chun – the red banners on which phrases wishing people good luck and prosperity are written – we also had to juggle the dates for the tuen nin dinner – the Lunar New Year’s eve dinner.
Both of my parents came from big families, so we had to work out the dates for gathering and celebration with other family members. The usual practice for my family was to visit my maternal grandparents a week before Lunar New Year’s eve for tuen nin dinner, and we had tuen nin dinner with paternal grandparents on the actual Lunar New Year’s eve.
Tuen nin dinner was probably the most important meal of the year besides winter solstice – it signified the reunion of all the family members to conclude the year before embracing the arrival of a new beginning. It was also the time to celebrate the harvest of a year’s hard work.
Chinese people might not be great at expressing their love for family in words. But they said “I love you” to each other through food.
For an important dinner like tuen nin, chicken and fish fresh from the market were indispensable. The rest of the dishes were decided by my mum and my aunts, depending on which ingredients were available in the wet market. There was also dessert – my all-time favourite tong yuen or sweet dumplings. The Cantonese sound of tong yuen resembles that of tuen yuen – reunion – which was essentially the meaning of new year’s eve dinner.
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That isn’t the end of a typical new year’s eve programme. Usually we would take a stroll at the nearest Lunar New Year market but it was never my favourite thing – I couldn’t stand the crowd.
Before heading to bed my mother gave me a special red packet – it was not the actual lai see I would receive during the new year. It was called aat sui chin, a kind of blessing for children from senior members of the family. My mother instructed me not to open the red packet and to place it under my pillow. In theory I could open all of it on the 15th day of the new year – just like what I could do with the rest of my lai see. But usually I forgot about it and slept on it until the next new year’s eve.
But there was more to do before I could crawl into bed – we had to put on new slippers and pyjamas. Some of my friends were told to bathe with pomelo leaves to cleanse their energy before the new year arrived but it was never my family’s tradition.
Food and fun gambling games were always the theme throughout the new year holidays. But before consuming any of my favourite Lunar New Year snacks – my paternal grandmother’s unique deep fried dumplings and turnip cakes – I must start the day with a vegetarian brunch. It was our tradition to kick off the new year without sacrificing a soul.
The following days of the new year were occupied paying visits to family members I didn’t get to see on a regular basis – except for the third day as traditionally it was believed to be a day of quarrelling. My cousins and I might get into friendly rivalry over who got the most lai see but after all, the Lunar New Year was just an excuse for families to get together and share a great time.
Wong Tai Sin Temple
Crowds of Hongkongers turn up at Wong Tai Sin temple before CNY begins to be the first to make their wishes at the altar, amid the clouds of incense smoke. About 50,000 people were expected in 2015, in line with numbers for 2014’s lunar new year. The temple hosts a 93-year-old portrait of its patron deity and is known as a place where wishes come true. Worshipers bring offerings – from oranges to suckling pigs despite requests not to – to curry favour with Wong Tai Sin’s spirit and shake out fortune telling sticks. The practice relates to Wong Tai Sin’s story, as significant milestones in her life were foretold by fortune-tellers who used the sticks.
Che Kung Temple
Another popular temple in Hong Kong is Che Kung in Sha Tin, where worshipers come to seek good luck from Song Dynasty general Che Kung, achieved by spinning a brass wheel of fortune which looks like a fan. The second day of the new year is the temple’s most crowded day. Another, smaller Che Kung temple exists in Sai Kung.
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Lobbing a lucky tangerine
Orange citrus fruits being often homonymous with luck; it had become a tradition to tie wishes to a specimen and throw it as high as possible into the banyan in Lam Tsuen. According to Elaine Tai at the Chinese University of Hong Kong the tree also had a dose of luck, so tangling your orange-paper wishes in its branches was considered very lucky. That said, the old tree was in bad shape and was replaced with a younger one imported from Guangdong in March 2008. These days it is no longer allowed to throw oranges into the tree so people tie their wishes near it on wooden racks and throw plastic fruit in plastic trees.
Not just for the new year – and its zenith is around early March – some Hongkongers pay women on Canal Road to curse those who spread rumours about them. In practice, these service providers smack the unworn shoe of the client with the name of the rumourmonger attached to it on a piece of paper, which has been smeared in fat.
WATCH: villain beaters in practice
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