Why Is the Poinsettia So Popular in Hong Kong?
You’re speaking, of course, of the poinsettia plant, whose red leaves—not flowers—blaze all over the city’s shopping malls and building lobbies this time of year. But on the surface of it, they’re not actually a particularly Hong Kong plant.
In fact, the poinsettia is indigenous to Mexico, where the plant was long treated as a symbol of purity, and used to make dyes and medicines. You can blame its global popularity (and name) on Joel Robert Poinsett, the first American Ambassador to Mexico. He took a shine to the plant and introduced it to the U.S., where it’s become a cornerstone of the American Christmas industry.
How did it become associated with Christmas? Well, the legend goes that in 1500s Mexico, a poor girl had nothing to offer her church’s nativity scene but a handful of green weeds which she had painstakingly gathered from the side of the road. When she placed them by the altar, the weeds grew beautiful red leaves: a poinsettia came into being.
But there are reasons for the poinsettia’s enduring popularity in the SAR. In Cantonese the poinsettia is yat bun hung (一品紅), literally “a red item,” which is at least an accurate translation. But yat bun also means “first-rate” or “superb,” so that you could translate the name as “reddest of all.”
It’s exactly that shade of first-rate red that’s ideal for our city, given its love of this auspicious hue. After all, while the rest of the world packs away its poinsettias after Christmas, in Hong Kong they remain through to Chinese New Year.
A plant that’s good for a western and an eastern festival alike: Could there be a more perfect Hong Kong flower? One last thing about poinsettias and the SAR. Let me tell you about Hong Kong Poinsettia Primary School. It was set up in 1999 as the only school in the territory which provided education aimed at the city’s Nepalese community, who were struggling in the local system—a system which to this day has little time for ethnic minorities. The school was desperately poor and occupied a makeshift campus inside a deserted shopping mall in Yuen Long, with empty shop spaces taking the place of actual classrooms.
Sadly, the struggle to keep the school open given a lack of government subsidies became too much, and after years of financial difficulty it shuttered in 2010. But for a few years Hong Kong Poinsettia Primary school blossomed like the flower it was named for: Unassuming but somehow able to grow bright and vivid. What better icon of hope could there be for a city?