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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!