Up Close and Personal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 4:01pm

During my childhood in the 1950s and '60s, Lunar New Year was the most important festival. My father ran a grocery shop on Queen's Road East in Wan Chai, and the new year was the only time when the store was closed for three days.

The hard-earned break was preceded by overtime work on New Year's Eve. The store closed after the sumptuous dinner, but all the staff stayed on to do stocktaking, an annual exercise only possible on that evening. It would go on until about 2am or 3am. Grandma and my mother would cook an extra supper for the staff. Father would give up on sleep and go to Victoria Park for early morning bargains for peach blossoms and other flowers from the flower market.

He began this habit of staying up all night during his childhood when children were required to keep a New Year vigil as their filial duty, to ensure good health in the new year for their parents. My generation did not observe this custom. We got a few hours' sleep after supper. My mother would put a red packet under my pillow.

I would get my hair cut 10 days in advance, before barbers raised their charges during the last week of the lunar year. By contrast, mother took me on a shopping spree during that week when everything was a bargain. I would invariably get a new pair of shoes and a new suit with a shirt and tie. In this new outfit I went through the New Year's Day routine, starting with greetings and presentations of cups of tea on my knees to my elders: grandma, father and mother. This was a profitable ritual. Pouring tea, kneeling and reciting some well-used seasonal wishes, I would receive red packets in return.

Setting off firecrackers was a favourite pastime until they were banned after the 1967 riots

The rest of New Year's Day was usually spent in the closed grocery store, playing mahjong with visitors, relatives and friends dropping in. Over the next two days we would call on those same relatives, exchanging gifts which were recycled from one visit to the next. I suspect we often handed the same box of confectionary we had received from callers back to them. I stood to gain, with red packets filling up the pockets of my new suit.

But the most memorable and touching visit was after the grocery store resumed business, and my parents were busy working again while I was still on holiday. Granny would pick a day during the first 10 days of the new year and take me, the eldest grandson, on the old steam train to Sha Tin to visit her sister who was living alone in a home for the aged. They usually laughed a little and cried a lot. These visits went on until my great aunt passed away.

The rest of the holidays were spent eating and playing. Setting off firecrackers was a favourite pastime until they were banned after the 1967 riots.

The snacks were mostly home-made, notably fried dumplings made by Granny.

And then I, too, had my own family. I remember taking my first child Phoebe to the flower market in Victoria Park as a one-year-old. I bought her a toy plane.

As parents, we never enforced any New Year's Eve vigils. A haircut was not essential either. But we did dress up our kids in new clothes, and in traditional Chinese costumes as well. Phoebe looked smart in her cheongsam decorated with embroidered phoenixes. We dressed Phoebus, our toddler son in a maroon cheongsam for boys, topped with a black waistcoat with silk clasps instead of buttons. And he wore the black skull cap with the round ball on top. When we went out, he was the star attraction! Many passers-by took photos of him when we were in the park. His outfit was inherited by Fabian the youngest when he was a toddler.

We nonetheless put red packets under their pillows on New Year's Eve, and demanded they went through the New Year Day rituals, but without pouring tea or kneeling, or saying those well-wishing clichés to us, the parents, in return for more red packets. But we had come to the age of early initiation to financial management by then, and their mother would confiscate each child's red packets at the end of each day "to save it up for them". The upshot was each child had a savings account opened with their mother as joint holder. They only got to claim back this childhood treasure when they reached 18.

Now that our kids have grown up, Helena and I dress up Chocolate, our toy poodle, for Lunar New Year in the nostalgic way, complete with cheongsam and waistcoat, but he refuses to wear the skull cap, and while he also receives red packets, we usually get to spend it for him. Kung Hei Fat Choy!

Rupert Chan is a recently retired university administrator and chairman of the Chung Ying Theatre Company