Welcome to Asia’s most magical time of the year – Lunar New Year! It’s my favourite time to be in Asia, mostly because we have at least 5 days of holiday (I’ll try not to brag too much about my 2 weeks this year), we get to eat the most delicious, traditional food & everyone’s in fantastic spirits – best of all, there’s so much to do and so much culture to soak up! Before Asia, I would be suffering from post-Christmas blues, but now I’m lucky enough to have a whole new reason to celebrate. CNY, or Lunar New Year to be more politically correct (but we use CNY because honestly, the word “lunar” doesn’t pass language barriers well), also known as 春節 – the Spring Festival, falls officially over 3 days (but unofficially lasts just up of two weeks) which make Hong Kong’s 3 official public holidays:
February 8th: Lunar New Year’s Day, 過年
More literal Chinese translation – “Cross [the new] year”.
February 9th: The Second Day of Lunar New Year, 開年
More literal Chinese translation – “Open [the] Year”.
February 10th: The Third Day of Lunar New Year, 赤口
More literal Chinese translation – “Red Mouth [day]”.
.. although some work places and international schools may close for the whole week, and local schools 2 weeks. Don’t forget to wear red and pink colours over these days for good luck – no blacks and greys allowed! This year is the cheekiest animal of them all: the year of the monkey, which makes for way cuter decorations than last year’s ambiguous “is-it-a-ram-lamb-sheep-goat-or-ox” (the Chinese character could have translated to all meanings so it was a tough one) creature. It’s said to be bad luck when the year falls upon the animal of your own birth year (mine is next year GAH), so beware monkeys!
Last year, I spent the Lunar New Year in Shanghai, away from familiarity, so I only really got to see things from a tourist perspective. This year, I am staying in Hong Kong and I’ve been lucky enough to spend the new year celebrations with my fantastic students & great local friends, as well as being kindly welcomed into Desmond’s family home, which I am so grateful for, before jetting off to Japan, so I’ve had the opportunity to learn even more about the traditions and culture which I wanted to share with you all!
1.”年廿八，洗邋遢” – The Annual Clean Up
The annual clean up should be done a couple of days before the New Year, to clean away all the bad luck of last year, however this should never be done on the days of the New Year passing! To sweep your house over the New Year is literally to sweep away all the good luck that’s been given to you over the holiday period – so what a perfect excuse to be lazy for a few days and let the dust (I mean good luck) build up! Some people will even give their doors and window frames a fresh coat of paint: for some reason the elevators in my residential building were treated to a spruce up, too. I’ve heard rumor some people won’t wash their hair for the two weeks, as to not wash away the good luck..
2. Giving 利是 “Lai Si” – Red Packets & “Lucky Money”
Given usually only by married couples to the younger generation, red packets are red envelopes filled with ‘lucky money’ that were historically given to protect the younger generation from demons and sickness, but this tradition has developed to be given now simply for good luck and prosperity. You can get the envelopes in a whole variety of designs – I went for the cute Twin Stars design by Sanrio (shown in the picture above) – companies will also design their own to give out to their customers over the holiday season – the Frank Muller ones were given to me by Desmond’s cousin, and we received the Japanese ones from a Shabu Shabu chain restaurant. The amounts inside the envelopes vary, with the standard “minimum” usually being $20, although Desmond’s grandparents have a tradition of giving $100USD so it’s more difficult to spend! It also can depend on your age and who you’re giving it to. I’m not supposed to give packets as I’m not married, so I think I’ve been cursed forever or something like that, but I couldn’t resist giving a $20 red packet to each of the doormen working the night-shift in my building over the holiday period- let’s face it, it sucks working holidays when you should be with your family, so I thought they could do with some cheering up! As you may already know, numerology is important in Chinese tradition, so the amount given should never include the number 4, as the word “four” is pronounced similarly to the word “death”. The notes put inside the packets should be “new money”; crisp and clean, straight from the bank.
Red packets should be given and received with two hands, and the receiver will usually recite some traditional well-wishes to the giver. Here are some common phrases to be said when receiving red packets (CHI – Cantonese):
恭喜發財 “gong hei fat choi” – wishing you wealth (in the new year)
新年快樂 “sun nin fai lok” – a simple Happy New Year!
身體健康 “sun tai gin hong” – a wish of good health
學業進步 “hok yip jeun bo” – a wish of good progress in one’s studies (said to students)
龍馬精神 “lung ma jin san” – [have the] energy of the dragon and the horse (said to elderly)
笑口常開 “siu hau seung hoi” – laugh a lot (usually said to children)
心想事成 “sum seung si sing” – achieve all that’s in your heart
and of course, never forget to say 多謝“do ze”, THANK YOU!
3. 舞獅 – The Lion Dance
At this point, you might be thinking “Lion dance? What lion dance? I thought it was a dragon dance?”, in which case it should be clarified that this popular costume is actually supposed to be a lion (despite the obvious similarities that are more consistent with a dragon). The types of costumes and dances will vary depending on which region you are in, but Hong Kong uses the single-horned lion head in parallel with the traditional “Southern Lion, 南獅”.
The dance was inspired by a variety old myths and folklore, one telling that ancient villages would call upon lions to come and scare away the evil spirits. Some stories even claim that the lion was the monster, that was then tamed by the village master. The lions are often accompanied by a pretty creepy looking Buddah with, what is literally translated as, a “Big Head” (left). Apart from giving young Chinese children everywhere nightmares, this man is in charge of leading the lion to the villages, teasing it to dance by either hitting him on the head with a straw fan (which I’m sure is a fantastic idea, don’t-try-this-at-home disclaimer) or hanging lettuce in front of the lion. The dance is performed with basically as much noise as possible. Drums, symbols, firecrackers – the noise is supposed to scare away all the bad spirits that will try to enter the year.
We had a fantastic time with this at school, despite most of the teachers leaving for the holidays with a huge headache from all the drum-banging and symbol-clapping! The real Lion Dance performance can usually be seen in Tin Hau to Causeway Bay, plus an extra performance in Tsim Sha Tsui for 2016, but I got enough of a headache from my student’s Lion Dance, so I think I’ll give it a miss this year…
4. 花市– Flower Market
This was by far my favourite event of the 2016 New Year! More than the name, the flower market is not limited to only flowers, but also a market full of loads of other cute, useless crap you’ll find yourself wanting to buy when swept away in the festive mood! The atmosphere is like no other, and really is a must-visit. It’s actually one of the few places in Hong Kong I’ve actually seen strangers freely interacting and having fun together (it’s sadly rare)! Most people (including myself, even after much research) literally have no idea how this became a tradition, but it just is. The general belief is that the opening of flowers can be representative of the opening of the year, and they bring luck into the home. Popular flowers at this time of year include Orchids for fertility, Willows for growth and prosperity, Tangerine Trees for abundance and
happiness, and Peonys for riches and honor. These markets are open generally around a week before the first day of the new year, and close on New Year’s Eve. According to locals, the best time to visit the flower markets is around 2-4am on the early morning after NYE, as all the stalls will be clearing all stock at the cheapest prices, ready to close up again until next year. You can enjoy this experience in the most famous, all year round Flower Market of Prince Edward, and the temporary pop-up fairs in Kowloon City & Causeway Bay, which are much more lively. This year, we opted for the fair in Kowloon City which was fantastic and really surpassed all expectations – this fair is also a little less crowded than its CWB counterpart, as less people *cough tourists and expats* know how to get there. We also held our own flower market at school, where we taught the kids to bargain and shout “cheaper please!” – Don’t forget to haggle!
We even had one stand sing us a song, for the fact that I might’ve been the only foreigner they’d seen all day! They were selling “Blessing Boxes”: homemade boxes full of trinkets including teas, biscuits and soaps – and all the proceeds were going to a Hong Kong founded Charity, “Meng Ngoi”. The song was called “Blessings to Your Home”, which I think they literally just made up on the spot, but they let Yumana and I sing it with them!
5. 團年飯 – Family Dinners
Family gatherings will start the week before the new year as “Reunions” and continue throughout. There is literally SO much food to be eaten – the whole day during the first day of the new year was literally just spent eating around 3 big meals, with snacks and desserts inbetween, and it would be way too long to describe all of the foods and their meanings! My favorites were the noodles, lots & lots of egg and rice, a special fruit salad prepared by Desmond’s mum & TONNES of tangerines, I mean tonnes. Oranges play a big role in this time of the year, as the Chinese pronunciations can sound similar to “wealth” and “luck”. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese New Year in many regions can actually be an extremely quiet time of year to be out on the streets, similar to Christmas time in the
West. With the obvious exceptions of the fireworks displays & parades, locals will mostly spend the days of the lunar New Year at home with their families. Hong Kong is a very international city with many foreign workers and global chain / department stores, so is not affected too much by closures over the New Year, but if you are planning on visiting Mainland China, you will need to re-think your itinerary. When I visited Shanghai for CNY 2015, most places I was recommended to visit were closed down due to the owners heading back to their hometowns, with the exception of The Bund (Shanghai Skyline) which was too busy to enjoy, plus taxi prices were hiked up at least two-fold. The best named places on many travel sites to visit during this time of year are Taiwan, Hong Kong & Singapore, as they are more international and face less closures.
6. Making Tong Yuen (湯圓)
This tradition is nowhere near as popular or as common as many of the above, although a lot of people may eat tong yuen at this time of year, they will rarely make it from scratch (like most things these days!), but we did this at our school so I wanted to write about it regardless. Tong Yuen, 湯圓, are sweet, glutinous rice balls, often made into dessert soups or added to hot drinks. However, they haven’t always been called “tong yuen” – their old name, 元宵, can be translated to “first moon”, which is why they are traditionally made during the lunar new year. Their round shape is also thought to symbolise family togetherness.
They can be made by mixing glutinous rice flour with water, rolled into soft balls and then cooked by boiling. They are often made with fillings such as bean pastes and fruit preserves, but obviously ours were nowhere near as complicated, as we were making them with 5 year olds, and honestly we just ended up throwing them at each other.
Whilst learning to make the tong yuen, we also learnt a super annoying song that’s been stuck in my head all week cute Mandarin song that’s commonly taught to improve vocabulary:
And that pretty much sums up my experiences of the New Year holiday period in Hong Kong! The celebrations are still continuing – we will go to watch the annual fireworks by the harbour this evening – so I’ll update as much as possible. It’s probably one of the best, but if not busiest, time of year to visit so if you do get the chance to come and join the festivities, take it! Happy New Year – 新年快樂!