Lunar New Year

The Hongkongers working through the Lunar New Year holiday

Not everyone takes a break during Lunar New Year. Joyee Chan hears how those who work through the holidays will mark the occasion

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2015, 6:11am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 January, 2016, 4:23pm

Over the Lunar New Year, most Hongkongers get togetherfor family banquets, tally up the number of red packets they've received, or simply take the opportunity to enjoy a well-earned break. But some are still hard at work during the festivities.

For trade unionist and legislator Alice Mak Mei-kuen, working through the holiday comes with the territory. It's a schedule she has maintained for the past 21 years. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, she is already busy wishing her constituents in New Territories West health and prosperity.

On Lunar New Year's Eve, visitors to the annual fair at Victoria Park will find her at the Federation of Trade Unions booth, between stalls selling helium balloons, fragrant narcissus and dragon floss candy. The hectic pace will continue into the first days of the Year of the Goat, when she tours her districts, giving out sweets and spreading good wishes.

"It's an important custom to wish them good health and prosperity in the Lunar New Year," she says, adding that the communities of New Territories West are like an extended family to her.

She is grateful to have a supportive family who don't complain about her working on public holidays. She hopes to finish her work in the morning so that she can spend the afternoon with them. "I usually have dim sum with my father," says Mak. "It's the best way to start the Lunar New Year."

Mak, who shares a village house with her young brother, her godparents, and their families, also hopes to spend time with her newborn niece. She's looking forward to festive fare such as turnip cakes, red bean pudding and fried dumplings, while waiting for friends and relatives to visit.

But there won't be time to visit her brother in Singapore, she says, as Legco meetings resume on the fifth day of the lunar calendar.

Lunar New Year's Eve marks the start of a hectic 16 days for Ha King-man, leader of an 80-year-old lion dance troupe founded by his great-grandfather Ha Kwok-cheung.

The troupe will make 180 performances during Lunar New Year. Hotels, racecourses, golf clubs, residential estates and office complexes have booked them, to welcome good fortune and expel evil spirits. Even though that total doesn't compare to bumper years, when they staged 250 dances over the festivities, prancing around in a 3kg lion head is still heavy work.

The first day is the longest for the lion dancers. "After two appearances at countdowns the previous night, I will meet my 150-strong crew at 6am," says Ha. "During the day, we will split into five teams and perform at top hotels across the city. At night, the troupe will hit the annual parade in Tsim Sha Tsui.

"When the crowds have dispersed, and the team has packed up, I still will have to figure out the arrangements for the next day. I'll be lucky if I can call it a day at 1am," he says.

Not that the fourth-generation lion dancer minds: he enjoys working over Lunar New Year, and wouldn't have it any other way. "My family celebrate Lunar New Year while we work," says Ha. "It is illegal to light firecrackers in Hong Kong, so lion dances with loud music are one of the best ways to spread the energetic spirit of the festivities across the city. And holidaymakers are always happy to see us, too."

Ha's wife, also a descendant of a lion dancing family, will take part of their troupe to perform on the mainland, and the couple won't see each other for three weeks. This year, Ha made it up to her by preparing a meal of her favourite rib-eye steak and Thai-style raw prawns for Valentine's Day. The couple usually can't celebrate Valentine's Day together because of their hectic Lunar New Year itinerary.

Most Hongkongers will have reunion and hoi nin (year opener) dinners on February 18 and 19, but Ha's family has brought forward their get-togethers.

With an extended family of 60 people on his father' side, it's impossible to get everyone together except for Lunar New Year, says Ha.

"I treasure these boisterous dinners, when we can catch up and eat braised dried oysters with hair moss [signifying good business and prosperity] and pork knuckle stew [which signifies abundance]," he says.

Mango Tsang Chiu-lit, executive chef at the Langham Place Hotel's Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant, Ming Court, will also be at work.

Tsang has worked through every Lunar New Year in the 40 years he's been working in the kitchens. On the first day, he and his team will serve dishes of auspicious foods - pan-fried lamb buns and minced lamb lettuce wraps are expected to be popular - to 400 guests.

"We will have two seatings - 6pm and 9pm - and also serve guests in the banquet hall," says Tsang. "I need to be there to check that all the dishes are well executed, that my clients' special requests are met, and that staff morale is high."

He is most looking forward to the third day, though. "I hope to get some much-needed shut-eye, before heading out for dinner with relatives, and giving out lai see to the young ones."

Peter Chan Chun-wai will be on duty at Eastern Hospital male internal medicine ward. Over the holidays, it is the busiest place after the accident and emergency department. Experience has taught the 26-year-old nurse to expect a surge of patients on the third day of the new year.

"After two days of reckless feasting and drinking, a number of people with heart and liver problems will suffer organ failure, leading to swelling in the legs and lungs, and difficulty breathing," says Chan.

"Since GPs close during the holiday, patients go to hospital. My team is usually snowed under, giving injections and putting patients on ventilators."

There are only two nurses on duty overnight to care for 50 or more patients, compared to six or seven during the day. Chan hopes he will be proved wrong. "I hope nobody is seriously ill and it will be an easy night at work for me. Everyone deserves a healthy and happy Lunar New Year."

Chan's family has yet to fix a date for the festive meal as his father, who drives a tram, will also be working through the holiday. But if he can't attend the family get-together, he will visit his grandmother after his shift, and give her some of her favourite treats.

She usually prepares a Chaozhou-style lunch of lemon-infused fish, minced beef omelettes and seaweed soup for Lunar New Year's Day. But she is fighting cancer and may be too weak to cook this year.

Chan will also make time to go shopping with his father for robots and superhero figures for his two nephews.

"My dad always likes to pamper the little ones during the festive season," Chan says.

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