Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: March 2015

Cultural kaleidoscope of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong dazzling

As someone who normally travels off-season for the better values and smaller crowds diving into the peak season of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong represented a bit of a departure from the norm but having always wanted to experience the event returned happy I took the plunge as the celebrations add another ingredient to what is already an exciting, dynamic city.

One of the first stops after checking into my hotel and depositing my luggage was the iconic Star Ferry for the short ride from Hong Kong Island over to Kowloon and found the fountains below the Clock Tower, a red brick remnant of the former Kowloon-Canton Railway Station that occupied the spot for 6 decades before being torn down in 1977, was lined with characters from pandas to elephants and the ever present red lantern to mark the holiday.

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Weeks before arriving I’d reserved a meeting with a volunteer in the Hong Kong Pals program offered by the Hong Kong Tourism Board which matches up curious visitors with knowledgeable locals willing to discuss a variety of subjects including Chinese festivals foods & culture.

I met Alice at the tourism board centre for an in-person, one-on-one hour long lesson on the history and symbolism of signs, customs and food and having our meeting early in my stay really help me better recognize and understand the holiday.

The red lanterns I learned are a centuries old tradition popularized by a Qing Dynasty emperor and symbolizes a warding off of evil spirits as well as a wish for success. The colour is seen everywhere on banners in homes and temples as well as the little red envelopes filled within small bills which are given to friends & family. Alice showed several small banners that wished success in business, education and sports including a pair of adorable little children with new year wishes and gently insisted I should take them home as a souvenir. She explained that their little hands are clasped together in a gesture that is done while wishing another person Kung Hei Fat Choi  or extending wishes for having and holding prosperity in the year ahead. Meet the pal  19 Feb - Alice & Mr. Ian Glen

CNY boy & girl

Red isn’t the only popular colour during this holiday however as gold and its connection to wealth and prosperity can be spotted on the gold letters of the characters on red banners as well as orange trees from small to large that occupy entrances to both houses or business.Hong Kong February 2015 332

Despite their Oriental originals Alice said fireworks have been banned in Hong Kong since the 1960’s as a security precaution but are widely used through the rest of mainland China as a way to ward off evil spirits with the loud noises.

Alice also explained other annual holiday traditions including personal examples of how much food she cooks and how it’s made such as is the case with the traditional wooden or more modern plastic moulds used for making the moon cakes made to celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival. The warm hospitality Alice shared was very much appreciated by this visitor and highly recommend meeting with a Hong Kong Pal to help add a different dimension to a visit to the territory.

The International Chinese New Year Night Parade winds its way through Tsim Sha Tsui and it can be viewed from paid seats in grandstands on one side of the Cultural Centre or for free at street level with 150,000 other spectators. The 20th annual edition of the parade featured floats from Hong Kong based businesses such as Ocean Park and Cathay Pacific Airlines as well as marching bands, acrobats and cheerleaders from around Asia and North America.

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The parade while worth seeing once wouldn’t be something I’d likely take in again as it was late in starting and meant standing for almost 3 hours, much of that time pressed tightly with scores of other spectators. After a long day of sightseeing that started before dawn it made for a physically draining diversion, one that I left before its conclusion to seek out a bench in the adjacent Kowloon Park.

While having just finished a filling Dim Sum morning meal in the Jordan district I happened upon a small crowd patiently awaiting the start of the traditional lion dance outside a mah-jong parlour so  eagerly joined the sidewalk onlookers finding space next to the band.  Minutes later at what was deemed an auspicious time the performers donned their costumes and the band kicked the show off with fervour, though the volume only seemed high given my proximity to the musicians. Hong Kong February 2015 161

All the movements are choreographed leading up to one costumed acrobat standing on the shoulders of the other reaching up to remove a bundle of green vegetable leaves tied with a red envelope placed high on an exterior sign. The lion symbolically eats the greens and keeps the red envelope with its cash contents as a reward for the dance troupe for performing and hopefully brining fortune and prosperity to the enterprise. 

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The short interlude was my good fortune to have come upon by luck and so left it at that without trying my hand at mah-jong.

While on Hong Kong’s efficient MTR subway network heading to Sha Tin in  the New Territories I’d noticed several fellow passengers holding brightly coloured and large pinwheels and found them for sale once I’d made my way to the Che Kung Temple named in honour of a respected Sung Dynasty general. I found out later the pinwheels symbolize turning challenges into opportunities or to turn ones luck around.

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The temple grounds were crowded but no where more so than the line to purchase incense sticks as it’s considered good luck to offer lit incense and offer prays to the gods on the first day of the new year. The smoke was thick in the open-air courtyard adding to the sense of occasion and after taking in the sights, sounds & intense incense smells of the temple left counting my continued good fortune at experiencing the holiday observed in an unplanned, spontaneous sightseeing fashion that made it all the more memorable.

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The highlight of the Year of the Sheep or Goat celebrations was the fireworks extravaganza over Victoria Harbour which drew an estimated 350,000 spectators.  After talking with several locals I opted to find some space on Hong Kong Island as the crowds would be less than along the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon and arriving several hours early found a wonderfully grassy promenade to sit and await the spectacle which was a relief after standing to watch the parade a night earlier.

While the forecasted rain held off the cloud cover was low enough to obscure the summits of several skyscrapers creating a foggy filter for the fireworks that were still an amazing sound & light show.
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As I settled into my seat on the flight home scanning the English language South China Morning Post it was interesting to read that mainland Chinese arrivals in Hong Kong from Wednesday to Sunday over Chinese New Year fell for the first time in 20 years though the amount was only off a fraction of a percent from the previous year at 675,000. Apparently the Autumn 2014 pro-democracy protests, currency fluctuations of the Yuan and growing anti-mainlander sentiment were all thought to have kept many more away but despite these factors some 40 million mainland Chinese visit Hong Kong annually and that number is forecast to rise to 100 million by 2023, sobering statistics for a city of 7 million.

How Chinese New Year will look in a decade remains to be seen but I left happy I’d finally made it to Hong Kong to celebrate the 2015 version as it was a mix of the familiar and new, big scale spectacles and small intimate moments and a sense of being a part of it and in it and not just observing from the outside. Travel truly is a tonic. Kung Hei Fat Choi!

A few ups & downs on my way to Hong Kong

After arriving from Edmonton on Alaska Airlines first flight of the day into Seattle Tacoma International Airport, Sea-Tac for short, facing a lengthy layover before an onward flight to Hong Kong I opted to spend it in the relative luxury of the Delta Airlines Sky Club so purchased a $50 one day pass while checking in online. Once the domain of business class passengers and frequent flyer elites many airlines monetized their lounge access in recent years and for longer layovers like mine at 6 hours they can be an option worth considering as it offers a quiet oasis in busy airport terminals with a place to relax and spend some quiet hours reading, watching aircraft taxi in or out or catching a few winks in a comfy armchair.

Hong Kong February 2015 008The design of the comfy armchairs in this lounge offered maximum privacy with their high backs acting almost as small cubicle walls. Hong Kong February 2015 007

With its free domestic beer, small snacks and some light bites I felt the price of admission was reasonable and left hours later to head to my gate to board my Airbus A330-200 for the expected 14 hour flight nonstop to Hong Kong.

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Having purchased seat upgrades into Delta’s Economy Comfort seats I piled into 10A, a bulkhead seat directly behind the business class cabin offering a little more legroom which would come in handy on a 14 hour flight.

Hong Kong February 2015 016Based on other review I was curious to see how the inflight meal service was compared to other airlines offerings and have to say I thought DL outperformed other N.A. airlines I’ve flown TATL in recent years.

The menu, which are rarely if ever handed out in economy class,  offered a good variety of entrée options and went with the penne pasta but apologies for the slightly out of focus smartphone picture as it seemed easier to wield seated with dinner service than my DSLR.

IMAG0211The pasta was uniformly cooked and not the simultaneous over and undercooked variety I’ve come to expect from economy meals with a nice tomato sauce that has some spice to it. A garden salad, bun, cracker and cheese with desert brownie all added up to a nice meal and for the first time in ages actually ate everything on the tray. Here’s the full flight menu as was handed out:

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After the meal service was over the trays were collected fairly quickly and I settled in to watch a few Academy Award nominated films playing on the excellent in-flight entertainment units including Boyhood, Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel having no inkling how much more drama would take place shortly on our flight beyond the silver screen.

Somewhere around 4.5 hours into the flight a female pilot came on and made an announcement that roused everyone from their relaxation as the flight crew had opted for safety reasons to divert to Anchorage due to a faulty cabin oxygen pressurization valve. As we were already past the Aleutians as shown on the trip map the sudden change of flight plan meant back-tracking an hour to ANC to land and hopefully find a quick fix to the mechanical fault as many were anxious to meet friends & family or begin their Hong Kong holiday in time for Chinese New Year, myself included.

As we winged our way back to ANC the flight crew kept us updated about our status and we landed at dusk.

Hong Kong February 2015 021After about an hour onboard I was standing stretching in the empty business class cabin directly in front of my Economy Comfort seat talking with a few other passengers about the situation when Captain Suzanne came over and said our hopes for a quick repair and resuming the journey that night didn’t look good as the required parts weren’t available in Anchorage but would be flown up immediately from SEA. She was saying it was a safety issue as they couldn’t risk continuing the flight with this critical valve not working and I appreciated both her candor and the whole crew’s efforts to handle the unexpected detour. It was announced a few minutes later that overnight hotel and transfers had been arranged and that we would be taking off the next morning at 9:15 AM so everyone disembarked and trudged to the waiting transportation noting the warm welcome to what can be a cold climate although luckily for us a warm spell had arrived as unexpectedly as we had making the transition to the hotel much easier for those without winter wear like myself.

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The Hilton Anchorage had rooms and a late evening buffet dinner waiting for us upon our arrival and despite being a little hungry opted to forgo the meal for some sleep and headed to the room just after 9 PM.  The  room was a fairly typical hotel chain accommodation with a decent view over the city center.

Hong Kong February 2015 025With buffet breakfast starting early at around 5 AM and busses back to the airport departing not long after the day was in full swing and was happy I’d gotten as caught up on my sleep as possible as it would prove a long day. The staff at the Hilton really helped make the forced overnight more bearable with a friendly attitude that I’d experienced before when visiting Alaska.

While the Anchorage stop wasn’t long enough to really do anything I did spot some local wildlife in the form of a moose albeit a stuffed & mounted one in the airport concourse.

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There are some majestic mountains that surround the city and are visible from the airport so snapped a few pictures before re-boarding the aircraft for what would be a 10.5 hour flight landing us in Hong Kong at 2 PM local time instead of 9:30 PM the night before.

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Most of the passengers I talked to including quite a few fellow Canadians were accepting of the situation though there were the odd one who felt Delta should come up with far more compensation that the $100 voucher mentioned in one announcement and vowed to make their feeling quite clear in calls or emails to the airline. I planned to focus instead on resuming my trip and worry about compensation later which I did upon my return home and was pleasantly surprised by the fast reply and offer of frequent flyer miles for the Anchorage diversion. The one prepaid Hong Kong hotel night lost when I couldn’t check-in  was also refunded after returning home once the circumstances were explained.

In many years of flying this was my first such unexpected detour for which I count myself lucky. The Delta Airlines flight and cabin crew and customer service staff all impressed me with their handling of the situation from beginning to end and would certainly opt to fly again with the airline on another overseas adventure.

In the end while the 16 hours lost put a dent into my Hong Kong sightseeing plans it was not a trip beyond salvage and very much enjoyed my Chinese New Year visit to the territory, more of which I’ll cover in future posts.

 

 

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