How to best spend Chinese New Year in Hong Kong
When the Chinese New Year rolls around, Hong Kong puts on an amazing show
- June 2018
Just as the glitter of tinsel and boisterous renditions of Auld Lang Syne are starting to fade from memory, another bigger, bolder, brassier celebration looms large in Hong Kong – that of Chinese New Year (CNY) the biggest celebration on the Chinese lunar calendar. If there has ever been any doubt that this modern mega-city is still steeped in a long history of Chinese tradition, then this celebratory 15-day festival (beginning on 16 February and culminating in the lantern festival on 2 March) will put the record straight. Like a clock resetting, the city and its ever-busy populace turns its back on the hard-working world, and reverts instead to age-old customs and traditions dominated by food, family, fortune and a coveted long weekend (16-19 February).
When you live in this city, like I did for six years, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the celebrations. The universal Cantonese ‘kung hei fat choi’ new-year greeting rings through the streets, mastered by even the most monolingual of expats, often to the amusement of non-English speaking locals. Street markets, awash with red and gold (the colours of happiness and wealth), sell decorative paper flowers, blingy dragons, strings of bangers and festive lanterns. Like pine trees at Christmas, little gardens of lucky bamboo, cherry blossom, tangerine and kumquat trees bloom in shops, temples, office buildings, lobbies and even sidewalks. They’re sold from a huge flower market in Causeway Bay’s Victoria Park, which gets peak crowds on CNY Eve.
Elsewhere, traditional goodies such as glutinous rice cakes and turnip cakes line bakery shelves. Restaurants like to add auspicious savoury dishes to their menu. Steamed glutinous rice cake, for example, sounds phonetically like ‘higher year’ in Cantonese so is ever-popular. Around the streets, drums and firecrackers are the sure-fire sound of a nearby dancing lion or parading dragons, marking the festivities not only in the city’s temples, but also as a gesture of prosperity in malls, restaurants and banks. You won’t see one dragon dance over the new year period – you will see a handful.
Going off with a bang
Perhaps the most obvious celebration is Hong Kong’s CNY fireworks display, one of the world’s most elaborate and expensive. The fireworks are launched on Victoria Harbour, watched by hundreds of thousands of spectators. Statistics convey an idea of the drama: last year a staggering 31,888 pyrotechnic shells, costing HKD $13 million, were launched in the 25-minute extravaganza, with 250,000 spectators on the Kowloon waterfront and 26,000 on the island side.
My first CNY fireworks were perhaps my most memorable. When you’re young and fancy-free, the city’s harbour-view bars are the place to be. Cafe Gray Deluxe atop the Upper House hotel, Sevva on top of Prince’s Building, Lobby Lounge at the waterfront InterContinental and Ozone at the Ritz-Carlton are favourites. I somehow scored tickets to a soiree at highfalutin Sevva, with its gorgeous rooftop terrace overlooking the flashy HSBC building and harbour – the perfect setting. There we were, glammed up, sipping on Champagne and supping on canapes … then one of the harbour barges from which crackers were being launched caught fire. Caustic smoke wafted direct to our sky-high oasis, clouding the crowd in sooty blackness. We heard the fireworks that year, we just couldn’t see them. Or each other.
Family meals are another big tradition. Hongkongers typically go all-out, booking big tables or private rooms and sparing no expense at the city’s best Cantonese restaurants. Fook Lam Moon in Wan Chai, The Chairman in Sheung Wan, Lung King Heen at Four Seasons, Spring Moon at the Peninsula and T’Ang Court at the Langham, to name a few, have a galaxy of Michelin stars between them.
By the time I started a family in Hong Kong, my sister was living a couple of blocks away, so we immersed ourselves in this tradition too. Our family stretched to seven – four adults and three (young) kids. With their mouths stuffed full of pork bun and tiny hands clasping fortune cookies, the children were awed by dragons prancing around the dining room and cooed over by Chinese matriarchs who would squeeze their cheeks and scatter spare red envelopes on the table.
These red envelopes, or lai see, are another omniscient custom of the festive period whereby ‘good luck’ money is presented to building staff, employees, single people, kids – in fact, almost everyone. At first, it’s awkward, as tipping can be for Australians – there’s a certain hierarchy and learned etiquette to be followed by the book, but as the years went by we started to catch on. Some things I learned: do only give fresh, crisp bank notes (this is why the bank queues are so long leading up to CNY); give single notes where possible (obviously the bigger the better); don’t ever give two HKD $20 notes (this equals 40 and four is unlucky); do have spare red packets – there’s always someone you’ll forget or want to charm; don’t forget the doorman at the neighbouring apartment – it will mean unlimited pool access for the whole year. And if that’s not good fortune, I don’t know what is.
Five experiences not to miss
1. Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree
The Lam Tsuen Wishing Tree in Tai Po is a popular place for locals to give thanks for the year just gone and pray for good fortune for the new year. Write a wish on a piece of joss paper, tie it to an orange and fling it into the tree. The higher the branch it falls on the more likely the wish will come true.
2. Chinese New Year Night Parade
If you love crowds, you’ll love the city’s colourful New Year’s Day (16 February) night parade, held from 8pm-9.45pm on the streets and harbour front in Tsim Sha Tsui. It features multicoloured floats, 3000 performers and attracts 155,000 visitors.
3. Chinese New Year Race Day
On the third day of the holiday (18 February) celebrate your good fortune with a flutter on the gee-gees at Chinese New Year Race Day at Sha Tin Racecourse. The program promises lucky entry prizes, a feng shui arcade, lion dances, live music and celebrity jockeys.
4. Chinese New Year fireworks
Celebrate the Year of the Dog with a view of the city’s firecracker extravaganza, one of the world’s biggest. The pyrotechnic display, which will continue for 23 minutes this year, is launched from a fleet of barges in the middle of Victoria Harbour so the night-sky fiesta can be seen from both sides of the harbour.
5. Temple visit
Hong Kong’s temples are some of the city’s most beautiful architectural icons. Visit at this busy time of year to see them heavily decorated in festive red and gold, and smelling like frankincense. As the locals pay respects to their ancestors, you can pray for health and prosperity in the new year. Tip: Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road and tiny Hung Shing Temple in Wan Chai are good examples.