Chinese New Year

It's day one of the Chinese New Year, and after watching weeks of preparations, we're getting into the mood and feeling quite festive. We don't totally know what to expect this week, but any holiday that involves time off work (today, Tuesday and Wednesday are all public holidays, and most schools and offices take off the whole week), along with fresh flowers and sweets is alright by me. Here are some of our observations about what the Chinese New Year celebrations involve.

1. Decorations: Most lobbies and stores are now decorated with blossoming peach branches (many hung with red lai see packets), miniature orange trees, narcissus bulbs and other flowers. There are flowers for sale everywhere, in fact, especially the orange trees, orchids and narcissus bulbs. Red and gold are the colors of the holiday, and streamers, lanterns, firecrackers, and paper dragons adorn any and every possible surface. Hong Kong is a pretty colorful city to start with, but now, it's like a three-year-old was asked to do the decorating (and I mean that in the nicest possible way): anything happy and colorful goes. And because this is the year of the Ox, symbols of the Ox abound as well.  

colorful lions

2. Sweets: The grocery stores have aisles filled with tins of cookies, candies and other sweets, along with special displays of fancy liquor and other expensive foods, like abalone. These tins and boxes of sweets are a huge deal--not just the grocery stores but every 7-11, drug store, and hardware store is filled with them.  Apparently eating sweets helps ensure a sweet year to come, and this is a tradition I'm happy to take on!

sweets from a student

yummy chocolates

3. Money: Another CNY tradition--one in which we participated first hand--is queuing at the bank in order to get new bills for giving lai see. Lai see is the money given in small red envelopes, primarily to employees and children, and also to doormen or other service people. It's supposed to bring luck to both the giver and recipient, and it's not a huge amount of money, unless you are the big boss. But the bills should be new, and they should be in even amounts. Multiples of four are bad, but eight is good. Or so we understand. We have also noticed an increased police presence in recent weeks, and our guess is that it has to do with all the money walking around these days. We also experienced, for the first time, a Hong Kong phenomenon of which we were warned before coming--being asked how much we paid for something.  Coming home from the New Year's Fair (see no.4), a new orchid in hand, our doorman nodded appreciatively, then said "100?" It took us a minute to realize he was guessing (and asking) about the price, and we were proud to be able to say "oh, just 88," knowing we had gotten a good deal.  ($88 HK is roughly $11 or 12 US)  

4. New Year's Fairs: Last night we went to the huge New Year's Fair in Victoria Park (lots of parks hold these fairs, but the Victoria Park one is the big daddy). Part flower market, part plastic-tchotchke extravaganza, we saw all manner of things both weird and wonderful. In the wonderful category: thousands and thousands of flowers for sale: the afore mentioned citrus trees, orchids, bulbs, peach trees, along with cut flowers. The fragrance was heavenly, especially walking by a booth specializing in lilies. We were seduced, and brought home some flowers ourselves. Such a nice way to celebrate a new year--I'd be happy to take on this tradition as well.

narcissus bulbs

orange trees

there must be peach tree farms that grow just for the CNY, similar to the Christmas tree farms in the US?


cut flowers

We also saw some great fair food: frozen strawberries on a stick (which if it hadn't been 50° out we would have tried), fried ice-cream-filled donuts (no weather could stop us from trying this one), fresh sugarcane juice, fresh coconut milk, fried cuttlefish and squid, along with the ubiquitous fish balls.

sugarcane juice

In the weird category, we learned that Hong Kong has a love affair with all things inflatable or stuffed, and the more realistic, the better.  We saw inflated buses that look exactly like the city busses, inflated i-phones, giant stuffed croissants, giant Ferrero Rochers (the gold-wrapped Italian hazelnut candy--extremely popular here for CNY), even an inflated Hong Kong waffle, complete with the paper bag.  We also saw shabu-shabu towels (shabu-shabu is a type of hot pot meal, with very thin slices of meat that you dip into simmering broth. The towels resembled the thinly sliced meat).

the translated name for these waffles is "little chicken eggs"

shabu shabu towels

 gives new meaning to the beach being a "meat market"

A popular item for sale were pinwheels of all types, and both Matt and I were enchanted by the following booth, selling beautiful wood and paper pinwheels. I'm hopeful that next year Finn will be old enough to appreciate them, even if the enchantment lasts only a short time.


Reports differ on how many shops/restaurants will be open or closed this week. Tonight is the big parade and lion dance, which we'll watch on the computer since Finn will be asleep, and Tuesday night are the fireworks. We're going to try and watch from our balcony, but we may end up back on the computer for this one too. Both of these events, by the way, start at 8 pm, since 8 is a lucky number.  

I'm sure there are lots of nuances and traditions of the Lunar New Year that we're missing, especially all the superstitions that seem to govern this holiday. But the combination of the new year falling close to the start of spring is a great symbol, and from all we have observed and learned, it really does feel like a time for newness, for cleaning out the old and starting fresh.  Kung Hei Fat Choi to all of you!

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