Crowded, colourful flower fairs are one of the great Lunar New Year experiences across Hong Kong. From Causeway Bay’s Victoria Park to Mong Kok’s Flower Market Road and on to Tsuen Wan – all districts boast seasonal flower and plant markets. Sourced from as far afield as Kenya, Columbia, the Netherlands and Hawaii, the sheer variety of plants and flowers offered for sale to see out the old year and bring in the new is overwhelming. Prices are generally reasonable – even allowing for seasonal demand – and most Hong Kong families will be able afford at least a few blooms.
Local flower markets have been a characteristic of Hong Kong since the 19th century; lyrical descriptions of Wyndham Street, in Central, in particular, feature in many period memoirs and travel accounts. Now taken for granted as a seasonal pleasure, these spring fairs have been widespread only since the 1970s; before then, most people were too poor to spend money on decorative plants, which could not be eaten and didn’t last very long anyway.
While some of Hong Kong’s seasonal flowers are sourced from local nurseries, generally in the New Territories, most are imported from other parts of China. For months before Lunar New Year, village growers, usually in central China, produce massive quantities of narcissus bulbs for export. South China, with its long, wet, humid summers and short, relatively warm winters, is not suitable for growing the same bulbs year after year; they eventually weaken and rot in sub-tropical conditions.
Narcissus bulbs have also historically been imported from China for a “scent of home” in Chinese immigrant communities across Southeast Asia. Like other perishable products exported in the days before widespread refrigerated transport and inexpensive air freight, these bulbs were considered luxurious, since they had to be carefully nurtured to flower in tropical conditions and seldom survived for more than a season. As wealth and status markers, such ostentatious imported displays were highly prized from Penang to Surabaya.
Kumquat trees are another Lunar New Year staple, and potted specimens are imported in the tens of thousands for decorative purposes in the weeks leading up to the festival. To get the required shape is very labour intensive; kumquat trees have their fruit and branches closely wired together by nursery workers to give the desired “tree covered in gold” effect. Few outlast the festive season by long and all over Hong Kong, rubbish skips are soon full of ragged, half-dead specimens thrown out when their decorative usefulness has passed. Jam-makers beware – the fruit of these decorative trees is forced with fertilisers and pesticides to achieve the desired “heavily-laden” effect. Further concentrating this potent chemical cocktail into jam (however delicious) might not offer the healthiest start to the new year for those who eat it.
Ornamental peach blossom is also traditionally popular, as it symbolises both renewal and longevity. Since late autumn, in various corners of the New Territories (around Fanling, Lam Tsuen and Shek Kong in particular), local growers have been carefully cultivating grafted specimens, which are eventually cut and sold. Prolonged cold conditions a few weeks before Lunar New Year are essential; unseasonably warm weather will cause the flowers to bloom too early. Peach blossom can be purchased as a sprig, a branch, or a whole tree with large, flower-laden specimens fetching several thousand dollars. Like the faded kumquats and spent narcissus bulbs, however, these magnificent trees all end up abandoned in rubbish heaps only a few short weeks later.