Flower markets, special cuisine, night parades, betting at the races, hurling oranges at the Wishing Trees of Lam Tsuen and fireworks over Victoria Harbour, ANURAG MALLICK lives up the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong
When Coca-Cola was about to enter China in 1928, excited Chinese shopkeepers jumped the gun and put up their own signs in Mandarin with little regard to meaning. Written Chinese employs 40,000 different characters and the phrase ‘ko ka ko la’ phonetically translated to ‘bite the wax tadpole’, ‘female horse fastened with wax’, ‘wax flattened mare’ and other nonsensical variations. Meanwhile, after ongoing research, Coca-Cola officially launched with ‘ke ko ke lê’, a more positive transliteration that denoted ‘happiness in the mouth’.
Fantastic as it seems, one might find this piece of marketing folklore perplexing and perhaps unrelated to the Chinese New Year celebrations. But for someone who has just returned after the festivities in Hong Kong, one realizes the importance of symbolism and rhyme in the life of the Chinese. Come new year, every home, hotel, office and bank is decorated with peach blossoms and pots of kumquat, a miniature orange that looks and sounds like gold (kum in Chinese). Eating unusual combination dishes like Braised Dried Oyster and Pig’s Tongue with Sea Moss or Braised Abalone with Sea Cucumber in Oyster Sauce is integral to the celebrations, as they rhyme with positive attributes like wealth, happiness and abundance.
Contrarily, the number ‘four’ is considered inauspicious because the Chinese word for it sounds similar to ‘death’. Which is why Nokia has no cell phone series beginning with 4, Canon’s PowerShot series jumps from G3 to G5 and most high-rises in Hong Kong skip all floor numbers with 4. ‘Eight on the other hand is extremely lucky and people pay huge sums for favorable license plates or telephone numbers’, my guide Koko elaborated, as we drove out of the swanky Regal Kowloon Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Preparations had begun weeks in advance with endless rounds of spring-cleaning and shopping. Those abroad returned to their families while flower farms in the countryside of New Territories timed their blooms to coincide with the season. A few days before the Chinese New Year, parks, playgrounds and basketball courts transformed into makeshift open-air marts. We were headed for the largest of the 14 flower markets in Hong Kong – Victoria Park at Causeway Bay. Under the stern gaze of Queen Victoria’s statue, excited crowds picked their favourite flowers. Each had its own symbolism. Narcissi, peonies and pussy-willow denoted good luck and prosperity; peach blossoms sizzled up romance while unblemished tangerine plants ensured long-lasting relationships.
After hours of preparation, on New Year’s Eve, the entire family sat down for a sumptuous feast, which marked a joyous end to the year gone by. After dinner, it was customary to gift lai see or red envelopes gold-stamped with good-luck motifs containing crisp, mint-fresh banknotes. Elders gave lai see to the young, the married to the single and bosses to their employees. To fulfill this surge in demand, banks timed the release of their new notes during this period. Greetings of ‘Kung hei fat choi’ (Wishing you success and prosperity) echoed through the air while hotel lobbies, town squares and temples came alive with acrobatic lion dance performances. The rhythmic beating of drums, the clash of cymbals and the sound of the gong are believed to frighten away evil spirits. As the lion leapt into the air to grab chai-ching (lettuce bunch) suspended from a street-side balcony, people applauded the good omen. The Chinese words for lettuce sound like growth and wealth!
We walked down the Avenue of Stars, past the statue of Bruce Lee, dodging the pavement with hand impressions of movie stalwarts like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li, John Woo and Wong Kar Wai. The Cultural Centre was abuzz with preparations for the Night Parade, ranked by Lonely Planet’s Blue List among the world’s Top 10 New Year Celebrations and by Travel + Leisure as one of the six great Chinese New Year parties in the world. We marveled at the colourful floats lined up against the old clock tower, the only remnant of the original Kowloon Station. Suddenly, a collective gasp made us turn and we watched a city of skyscrapers morph into the world’s largest outdoor nightclub. Orchestrated lasers animated nearly 40 harbour-front buildings in a jaw-dropping Symphony of Lights. Koko whispered, ‘Wait till you see the fireworks day after.’ After an elaborate seafood meal at the iconic Lung Mun Restaurant, we retired with stars in our eyes.
The next day we took the Big Bus Tour, a leisurely way to explore the city. Like rubberneck tourists, we gawked at the lofty skyscrapers from the open-roof bus, until we reached the Lower Terminus of the Peak Tram station. The historic 120-year-old tramway chugged up a 45-degree incline before depositing us at the Peak Tower, an architectural marvel that bustled with shops, eateries, Madame Tussauds and a viewpoint called Sky Terrace. We got back just in time for the Night Parade, which came alive with Samba dancers, American cheerleaders, Korean percussionists, Peruvian performers, Taiwanese acrobats and Thai artistes, as decorated floats and performers paraded through the streets. The Hong Kong Tourism Board took its tag ‘World City, World Party’ quite seriously. But under all the glitz, there was a strong undercurrent of tradition.
People flocked to various shrines to pray for good fortune. The first ones to light incense at Kowloon’s Wong Tai Sin Temple received protection for the entire year. At the Man Mo Temple in Central, where giant incense coils hung overhead, people prayed for intelligence and strength. At Lam Tsuen, people scribbled prayers, tied it to oranges and hurled it at a sacred Wishing Tree. It is believed that if the orange got stuck leaving the paper dangling below, the wish would come true. On the second day of the Chinese New Year, people spun the Wheel of Fortune at Che Kung Temple to dispel bad luck and placed bets at the Sha Tin Racecourse as winning money augured well for the year.
Every single act was nuanced with meaning. Incense removed impurities in the air; miniature windmills and pennants acted as agents of change while crackers warded off evil spirits. Though there was an embargo on fireworks during New Year, a public pyrotechnic display over Victoria Harbour more than made up for it. Long after the last firework had died out and a pall of smoke hung in the air, the residual images that ushered in the Year of the Rabbit flashed past our eyes. It seemed, like Alice, we had fallen down a rabbit hole and emerged in an enchanted Wonderland called Hong Kong.
Box: Chinese Zodiac
The Chinese Zodiac follows a 12-part cycle divided into years, not months; each related to an animal and its attributes. When the sun enters the sign of Aquarius, the first day of the first moon marks the lunar New Year, the most important Chinese festival (usually between 21st Jan-19th Feb).
Hong Kong’s homegrown airline Cathay Pacific operates daily flights from Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. The approx distance of 4000 km is covered in 5 hours. Hong Kong is 2.5 hours ahead of IST.
Where to Stay:
An important tourist and entertainment hub, Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon has the highest concentration of hotels in Hong Kong. The Regal Kowloon and Kowloon Shangri-La (Mody Road), The Peninsula (Salisbury Road) and The Kowloon Hotel (Nathan Road) rank among the best.
When to Go:
Culminating in the Lantern Festival (Feb 17), the Chinese New Year marks the onset of the spring season with traditional celebrations, sporting events, art shows and festivals in the months to come, making Hong Kong a great place to visit.
For more information, contact:
Hong Kong Tourism Board
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 28 February, 2011 in Deccan Herald (Sunday).