Think of Christmas in the West, and you have a small idea of how Chinese New Year unfolds in Hong Kong. As with Christmas, Chinese New Year coincides with plenty of giving gifts and feasting on food, as well as feuding with family members after being shut up inside watching old film reruns for a couple of days.
That’s as far as the similarity goes, though. The roots of Chinese New Year are in the farmers harvest, though it’s also evolved into an all-purpose excuse for celebration between family and friends.
People spend their days on a regimental timetable of family visits, spruced up by the many mandatory events and celebrations held around the city. Below are some of the main Chinese New Year traditions and customs that Hong Kong has given its own unique twist.
Possibly the only time of the year that Hong Kong’s shops bring down their shutters, Chinese New year can play havoc with tourist itineraries, as much of the city goes into shutdown.
During the official holidays for Lunar New Year, most shops are shut for the first two days. Many independent retailers will close their doors for the full week. Restaurants, bars, and clubs will be open and busy, as businesses look to snap up the tourist and expat trade.
Most major tourist attractions will only close for the first day of Chinese New Year, while the city will also be home to a buffet selection of top-class events.
Those traveling to China should be forewarned that Chinese New Year witnesses the world’s largest human migration and it will be nigh on impossible to get a seat on planes, trains or automobiles in the country. Outside major cities, the country will resemble a ghost town for a full week.
City in Flower
Hong Kong is perpetually doused in a riot of color, however, with the onset of Chinese New Year the city is decorated in a fresh coat of red, gold and green. From skyscraper-sized neon signs to the red ribbons draped throughout the streets, the brightest and best colors come from Hong Kong’s flower markets.
The big day for the flower market is Chinese New Year’s Eve when the city’s biggest flower market at Victoria Park will be swarming with people looking to pick up prize bouquets. The flowers are said to give good luck and are given when visiting family for the traditional New Years Eve feast of chicken and fish.
In 2020, the Victoria Park flower market will run from January 19 to 25, from 12 noon to midnight; on New Year Eve (January 25), the market runs from midnight to 8am.
One of the more solemn duties of the Chinese New Year celebrations is for families to drop into their local temples.
Tradition holds that the first three days of the New Year are the best time to visit temples, ideal for currying favor with the deities inside and bring luck for the year ahead. Traditionally families pop into the temple on the mornings of the first and second days of CNY.
Even if you don’t want to bag some luck for the year to come, Hong Kong’s temples are one of the best places to see Chinese New Year in action. The intense mixture of noise, smells and sights is intoxicating, and without formal services, people are free to come in and look around. (You should, however, be sensitive to photographing worshippers.)
New Year Feasts
Unique Chinese New Year food is a staple of celebrations all over the world, and Hong Kong is no exception.
The one-pot casserole dish known as poon choi is particularly prized in the New Year. Originating in Hong Kong’s walled villages, this style of cooking has evolved from a simple communal dish to decadent family feasts, incorporating everything from lotus root to fried fish maw to chicken to pork to duck to abalone. The more ingredients, the better—as poon choi symbolizes the abundance expected in the coming New Year.
Other Cantonese dishes become New Year favorites thanks to Chinese wordplay.
The name for dried oysters in Cantonese sounds like the phrase for “good business”; and the glutinous rice cake nin gou sounds like the Cantonese phrase for “reaching higher skies”, another portent of good luck for the New Year. Finally, the sweet, glutinous rice balls called tong yuen remind the Cantonese of the word for “reunion”--thus referring to families coming together for the holidays.
All these dishes are staples for family reunions during Chinese New Year—but if you’re in town with no extended family to visit, you can hit up the local restaurants to enjoy all these New Year food favorites!
Chinese New year sees the city go into a frenzy of present giving, from workers receiving their bonuses to the handing out of Hong Kong’s iconic Lai See packets. If you’re staying at a hotel for a prolonged time, or eating repeatedly at the same restaurant, your waiter and doorman would certainly appreciate some Lai See, otherwise, you won’t need to get involved.
Find out what Lai See is and how to give it in this Guide to Hong Kong Lai See.
Meet the Family
Hong Kongers spend the first two days of New Year to see relatives. Traditionally, folks spend the first day visiting paternal relatives, and the second visiting relatives on their mother’s side. On both days, you’ll see whole families out and about in their newest clothes, resplendent in traditional New Year colors like red and gold.
Day three of Chinese New Year is not the day to see the in-laws. Known as “red mouth” day, it's said that any encounters with family will be rewarded with bar room brawls and arguments.
A better alternative for the third day – one that many Hong Kongers take – is to try their luck at Sha Tin Racecourse, where the Hong Kong Jockey Club holds the year’s biggest equestrian party during Chinese New Year. The winning horses take home the Chinese New Year Cup.
Make a Wish
The village of Fong Ma Po in the New Territories hosts a quaint Hong Kong-only New Year celebration—the Hong Kong Well Wishing Festival—that involves throwing joss paper onto two large banyan “wishing trees”.
The Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees are held to grant wishes to visitors who throw joss paper (written with the visitor’s wish, tied to an orange) up into the trees’ branches. The higher it reaches on the tree—assuming it stays on the tree, and doesn’t fall on the ground—the more certain (they say) your wish will be granted.
Formerly a local tradition, most of Hong Kong now converges to Fong Ma Po to get in on the fun. To accommodate the overflow, imitation trees have been set up, where locals can tie their joss-paper wishes onto the branches.
For more information, visit their official site.