Songkran in Hong Kong: get very wet at Thai community's New Year parade
Encroaching redevelopment and rising rents in Hong Kong's predominantly Thai neighbourhoods haven't dampened enthusiasm for the Songkran festival
When pistols are drawn and battle breaks out in Kowloon City on Sunday, anyone who wants to stay dry should wear a raincoat. Put your phone and wallet in plastic bags, and bring your sense of humour because there'll be an all-out water fight as the local Thai community celebrates Songkran, the Thai New Year.
Residents of "Little Thailand", as the neighbourhood south of the Kowloon Walled City Park is nicknamed, mark Songkran as fervently as they would back home. With dustbins for ammunition dumps, the weapons of choice are hosepipes, buckets and high-powered water pistols.
Although rent increases and redevelopment threats have been felt by the area's many Thai restaurants and shops in recent years, nothing dampens enthusiasm for the water festival - and if anything, it just gets bigger. For the first time this year, two groups will hold separate celebrations and come together for the annual street parade that starts at about 5pm.
"During Songkran, this whole area is buzzing", says Lam Ka-kwan, whose mother owns Little Thai, which sells traditional Thai street food. "Business will be quiet, but when the parade ends we get huge queues. Everyone comes in soaking wet, and the floor and the sofas get drenched. So we now put plastic covers on the seats."
Ethan Wong, from Baan Thai Thai handicraft store, says he's usually busy working. "It's really fun; there are lots of kids running around. This year we're promoting the more traditional side … I'm really looking forward to it and I'm going to be playing [with water] this year."
Support group the Thai Regional Alliance has organised activities for Songkran since 2004, and hopes this year's will be the liveliest yet. The programme kicks off at 1pm with games, performances of traditional dancing and a singing contest. An official opening ceremony begins at 3pm, followed by more dancing, then the ritual of bathing a Buddha image and giving respect to the elderly as a mark good luck, starting at 3.45pm.
A large number of people will join the parade that follows, holding aloft a Buddha statue - with many participants toting water guns.
Alliance chairwoman Bungon Tamasorn says participants will wear purple shirts in honour of Thai Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. The princess reaches the auspicious age of 60 this year and purple is associated with Saturday, the day on which she was born.
Organising the festival, Bungon says, has been "trial and error for years, but now it's the 11th year and we're finally doing it right".
"In the first four years the festival was held at the Kowloon City park or on a football pitch, so we could organise a big stage," she says. "But we found these events too formal. We thought the most important aspect of the festival was to have fun."
A low point came six years ago, when the alliance was unable to rent a venue from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, and was forced to hold the celebrations in a shopping centre. Since then, festivities have taken place in and around a sitting-out area at the junction of Tak Ku Ling and Nga Tsin Wai roads, where the parade also kicks off. Another group will hold activities in the park.
Bungon says being able to celebrate on the streets is more casual and relaxing, and a more authentic reflection of Songkran in Thailand. The festival has become "quite touristy", she says, attracting many locals and expats. "The expats love to celebrate Songkran and they sometimes start playing with water before everyone else. It's like they don't want to miss it."
Behind the scenes, it's serious work arranging a day of fun. An army of volunteers is deployed, organised by a 10-member committee that first sets the date.
New Year's Day in Thailand is April 13, but in Hong Kong the festival is being celebrated on April 12 because it's a Sunday, Bungon says. "Many migrant workers only get one day off a week and that's a Sunday."
The committee assigns groups to tasks including managing the location, Buddha decoration, communications and entertainment. Invitations to VIPs, such as district councillors and the Thai consul general, must be sent and followed up on. Talks are held with the Transport Department to secure road closures, and with police regarding public safety.
"Alcohol is permitted and people do drink a bit - although, of course, it is not to the point of binge drinking. There could be arguments, but we've never had that problem," Bungon says.
Police officers tasked with crowd control are tolerant of the water-splashing custom, she says, and seem to enjoy themselves. "I remember the first year, they all came in raincoats. As time passed they stopped wearing them, and they smiled as we put powder on their faces."
After the parade, volunteers clean up around the venue, "so the government and Hong Kong people can see we are respectful, and we can hold the event again without complications".
Bungon says the festival costs less than HK$20,000 to organise, with funds allocated from the alliance's budget and a contribution from the Thai consulate.
In the morning, before the revelry begins, many Thais in Hong Kong observe the older, more sober traditions associated with Songkran, Bungon says. Like the Lunar New Year, this involves cleaning the home and Buddha bathing. "This tradition is a must," she says.
"We bathe the Buddha statue with water, flowers and sometimes powder or even nam ob [a perfume made of flower essence]. Then we pay respect to elders, parents, employers, by pouring a small bowl of water over their hands to represent washing away misfortunes and bad luck for the New Year.
"That's how the water celebration came about - from pouring water from small bowls, to water guns, buckets and a nationwide water fight."
Most of the Hong Kong Thai community are migrant workers, who are unable to observe these customs with their families. "So they will come out to the streets to celebrate in this family community that we have created together," Bungon says.
Thais may also visit temples to give alms to the monks, she adds. Among the city's largest Thai temples are Wat Mekthumvanaram in Tai Wo and Wat Yuen Long.
Kowloon City has been a stronghold of the city's more than 11,000-strong permanent Thai community since the 1970s, when there was a spike in the number of people leaving Thailand to seek jobs abroad. Constant noise from low-flying aircraft using the former Kai Tak airport across the road made it an affordable neighbourhood.
Over the years, Thais and Chinese intermarried, and Thai restaurants replaced many serving Chiu Chow food, finding popularity among locals and airline staff. Grocery stores sprang up selling imported Thai ingredients and fresh produce.
Seventeen years after the airport's closure, however, there has been redevelopment pressure on the low-rise tenement blocks, and rents have been rising steeply. A number of shops have come and gone, Bungon says, but those that remain have thrived and the Thai community is holding out.
Sanit Fanbaen from Cheong Fat Thai Noodles says business "hasn't been entirely great but we get by just fine". It was tough-going when Kai Tak closed, and again in 2009, after the global financial crisis. "Now it's OK. No one is trying to kick us out yet."
Bungon thinks some shops may have to close but says it's not a big concern right now. "Rents go up and food prices get higher. People won't just allow developers to kick them out, and if they do, the price will have to be pretty high. We'll do our best to protect the fact that Kowloon City is Thai Town."
Asked what she likes most about celebrating Songkran in Hong Kong, Bungon says: "We get to express and continue Thai culture and traditions, and most importantly create peace and unity for Thais to come together. Also, we have a place where we can celebrate Thai New Year - and that's a good thing."
How to get to Kowloon City by public transport
From Tsim Sha Tsui, take bus 1A from the Star Ferry terminus and alight at Tung Tau Tsuen Road opposite Kowloon City Walled Park.
From Hong Kong Island, bus 101 departs from Kennedy Town bus terminus and passes Pacific Place. Get off at the Regal Oriental Hotel in Kowloon City.
The district is easily accessible from anywhere by MTR. Go to Lok Fu station and take a short taxi ride.