It's the wish of the people

WHAT are the wishes of Hong Kong people for the Year of the Dog? Apart from good fortune in general, people in Hong Kong want school achievements for their kids, good health for everybody in the family, peace and harmony in Hong Kong and all over the world, and prosperity in business, in that order.

This I found after spending 20 hours at the Chinese New Year Fair listening to people relating their wishes.

The DAB (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong) hosted a stall at the fair in Victoria Park. For a donation to the Hong Kong Community Chest, a visitor could say his or her new year wish, and have it written into a faichun, a poster with Chinese calligraphy on red paper, to decorate the home with at new year time.

I sat at the stall for hours and gave away hundreds of faichun, all written by request to depict the most earnest wish of the recipient. Besides collecting a handsome sum for charity, I gained some insight into people's perceptions of happiness.

By far the phrase in greatest demand was ''Progress in Learning'', sought not by students themselves, but by parents for their children in school. It is no news that parents in Hong Kong care a lot about their children's educational achievements, but still it was quite remarkable so many put it before health and riches.

As they took their faichun inscribed with the promising words, many parents turned to the kids by their side and delivered aloud a little speech urging them to work hard to make the wish come true. Most of the youngsters listened to the paternalistic instructions very nicely, if sometimes looking a little sheepish.

Of course those were kids who had not grown out of the age of going out with their parents. Yet to their Western counterparts they must look rather submissive. This does not mean that a Chinese child is less happy at home. Happiness depends on how you perceive your world. It is not something to be defined for you by others. Indeed, happiness is rarely compatible with imposing alien values or standards on an existing culture.

The quest for good health is perhaps more cross-cultural. A common faichun for good health, another popular one at the fair, was ''Well-being for the Old and the Young''. Young people who did not have to look after infants and the aged at home preferred something more dynamic for themselves: ''The Vitality of Dragons and Horses.'' Strangely, few asked for longevity, which usually goes with health in wishes. There is a traditional Chinese New Year scroll that reads: ''The people are long-lived and the years are abundant'', but it was wanted by only a few. People seemed to be interested in the quality of life rather than its span.

After health there was the desire for peace and harmony. These days we have heard a lot about standing up to defend one's principles or to fight for one's rights, and it is said that Hong Kong people have hardened their nerves towards the never-ending political disputes. But at heart most people long for a more harmonious society, and few would want to see the strife continue. IT was noteworthy that so many people were ready to approach the DAB stall for a transcription of their new year wish. As a political alliance with strong views, the DAB has its ardent supporters as well as vehement opponents, and when the two groups meet harmony is hardly to be expected.

A couple of unpleasant incidents did occur at the fair. Someone defaced the stall with stickers bearing vilifying remarks while no one was watching, and an antagonist came up trying to start a squabble. But the incidents did not mar in any way the atmosphere of goodwill. Friends and foes alike stopped by to exchange kind regards, putting aside political arguments, at least for the time being.

Many went away with scrolls reading ''One in Harmony'', ''Prosperity from Harmony'' and ''Peace to the World''.

Prosperity in business wound up the list of the most popular wishes. It was gratifying to note that, while many aspired for wealth, relatively few people hoped for financial gains by sheer good fortune, as promised in a number of traditional faichun thatused to be very popular, including kung hei fat choy. This is probably the only Chinese New Year greeting known to foreigners, to whom the expression simply means good luck.

So, kung hei fat choy to everybody!