Keeping Lunar New Year traditions alive

Not all traditions are worth keeping but some Lunar New Year customs are a good way of bolstering heritage and family values, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 4:04pm

Photographer Simon Go Man-ching has an annual ritual: when Lunar New Year looms, he takes his young daughter Queenie to Yau Ma Tei for a trawl through the confectionary and dried seafood shops.

"Yau Ma Tei is among the few places in Hong Kong still filled with old-style shops. Those dried seafood shops where clerks have to climb up to foodstuff stored in big glass jars are a rarity now. In most stores, it's all sealed into plastic bags that customers just grab before heading to the cashier," he says.

The visits are a way of giving Queenie, now 10, an appreciation of traditions and how previous generations celebrated the Lunar New Year, Go says.

"She just wants to go to Disneyland during Lunar New Year. To her, it's nothing more than a chance to get red packet money. I want her to realise that there are many customs associated with the festival, which is a valuable chance for the extended family to gather and greet each other."

Lunar New Year has lost much of its lively communal spirit as old customs are giving way to modern preferences for mall grazing or holidaying overseas. Still, some families like Go's seize the opportunity to teach youngsters about their cultural heritage.

Among Go's plans is a visit with Queenie to the Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree, where oranges tied with joss paper are still tossed on to its branches to improve the odds for the future. But even that ritual has lost much of its flavour as real fruit has been replaced by plastic and joss paper has evolved into a checklist of standard wishes that people can tick off instead of writing out specific hopes, he says.

His daughter lives in an affluent world, so to keep her grounded, Go is making use of the Lunar New Year to teach her about traditional virtues.

An avid collector of vintage lai see packets and old coins (part of his collection is featured in a festive exhibition at East Point City in Tseung Kwan O until February 25), he says that for many people in the 1960s a lai see packet was simply a square of red paper folded around one coin. "But children were satisfied and would save up whatever they got. Frugality, contentment and prudence with finance are values that today's children lack," he says.

Visits to relatives are another chance to teach his daughter about manners, he adds. "Kids today don't know how to communicate with people. They don't even say thank you after receiving a red packet. Teaching Queenie that she has to greet everybody, including the cleaners [in the residential estate], can boost her confidence and help her become less shy."

Kids today don't know how to communicate with people. They don't even say thank you after receiving a red packet.
Simon Go, photographer

Recalling his childhood, Go says his family, who were originally from Fujian, would make the province's traditional sweet potato and glutinous rice cakes for the celebration each year.

"We were quite poor so an annual trip to a Chinese emporium for new clothes was the most exciting activity for the children. We would fill the big earthen rice container to the brim to signify a bountiful year ahead. All the kids would help spruce up the ancestral altar, filling it with flowers and platters of fruit and chicken. A candle would be lit on the eve and kept burning until the New Year to symbolise continued family harmony. Lion dance troupes would visit every household in the estate," he adds.

"All these have become a thing of the past; most Chinese emporia have closed and modern residential buildings with tight security do not allow lion dancers in."

Lam Yue-ling, a housewife, also seizes the chance to teach her only daughter Wong 

Ching-wai, 11, to appreciate her affluent life in Hong Kong.

Their family usually spends the Lunar New Year in her native Guangzhou, where they have many relatives and where there's more of a festive spirit, Lam says.

"We don't stay in Hong Kong as the celebratory atmosphere is much stronger on the mainland. The ban on firecrackers and fireworks is also not as strictly enforced."

Three days ahead of the festival, Lam gets her daughter to help in a customary clean-up of her mother's house.

"While she doesn't need to do much housework in Hong Kong, I get her to vacuum the floor and clean furniture and knead dough for making dumplings. All the housework and cooking tasks can help her learn about independence," she says.

One of their favourite activities is buying kumquat trees and peach blossoms, and various kinds of sweets and nuts to fill up the candy box.

"When I was a child, Lunar New Year was my favourite festival as it was the only time that I could get brand-new clothes. My daughter does not have this yearning as she can get whatever she wants now," Lam adds.

"I always tell her about the frugal New Year shopping trips during my childhood. I want her to be grateful for the bountiful times she is raised in and not to take things for granted."

For now, some folk traditions are still kept alive in New Territories villages, such as San Tong Tsuen in Tai Po.

At Johnny Wan Koon-kau's home, for instance, the big brick stove in their backyard will be fired up four days before the New Year to steam Hakka cha guo (a kind of glutinous rice dumpling with fillings such as crushed peanut or bean paste). They make hundreds to give away, so the process, from kneading the dough to allowing time for leavening, takes a few days.

The custom stems from San Tong Tsuen's roots as a poor farming community, when most people could not afford to buy festive gifts, and homemade dumplings were given to relatives and neighbours instead.

"Although we have become more well-off, the tradition remains to this day," says Wan, who has served as village chief since 1998.

The Wan and Lau clans dominate San Tong Tsuen, and clan representative Lau Kwai-ying makes sure his children get involved in sprucing up their ancestral hall for the New Year.

"It's the sacred place to worship our ancestors. I make my children work with our elders in refurbishing," Lau says.

"Hakka people are famous for their hard-working spirit. My mother, who is 80, still tends the fields of vegetables outside our home. But my children are no different from city kids now though they live in a traditional village.

"My youngest son, Jazz, who is in Primary Five, loves to play video games and watch TV. By making him help with cleaning the ancestral hall, I want him to realise the importance of respecting our elders and how our ancestors, who tilled the fields, raised cattle and did all kinds of back-breaking work, helped lay the foundation of the Lau clan many years ago."

The 28th generation of his clan in San Tong Tsuen, Lau has fond memories of fun, lively times during Lunar New Year week.

"I was born in the '60s, the second of seven children. Everybody had a field day in the run-up to the New Year. Seven days before, we prepared offerings to the Kitchen God who was ensconced in an alcove next to the stove. We were able to put food on our plates over the past year because of his blessing, so we had to express our gratitude."

Another clan custom was for families who delivered a son over the past year to put up a paper lantern inscribed with the baby's name and birth hour at the ancestral hall. Each new male child had a lantern, which was lit for an entire year to express a wish for more children. But of the 26 villages in Lam Tsuen, Lau says, only two still maintain the lantern tradition.

"People today are not as superstitious and much has been sacrificed for the sake of convenience, so we no longer keep the shrine for the Kitchen God and the tradition of lighting lanterns for new offspring has also been scrapped."

Still, every family creates its own customs and Chau Pik-hung has made a tradition of storytelling and creating auspicious couplets to mark the festival. And her daughter, Alice Lau Man-ching, eight, looks forward to cuddling up with mum, who tells her many stories related to the Lunar New Year.

Chau also teaches her daughter calligraphy, and each year the pair select poetic couplets to reproduce for their festive decor. "Alice loves writing Chinese greetings for the couplets, and I explain to her the meaning behind those greetings."

For the family reunion dinner on New Year's Eve, however, the influence of Chau's native Fujian province remain strong.

"Although there are just four people [with my husband and son], we still cook 12 dishes. It's a Fujian tradition to symbolise prosperity and abundance."