FUN & GOOD FORTUNE DURING CHINESE NEW YEAR IN HONG KONG

[PHOTO AT LEFT - Spectacular, spectacular: Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year fireworks display takes place at Victoria Harbour, against the dramatic skyline of Hong Kong island.]

MANILA, MARCH 1, 2010 (STAR)  CULTURE VULTURE By Therese Jamora-Garceau - Compared to the Chinese, the rest of the world is positively laissez-faire about ushering in the New Year. While we clink glasses of champagne, set off a few firecrackers and make resolutions that typically fizzle within a month, the Chinese store up a whole year’s worth of good luck, wealth and blessings via age-old traditions that remain sacred — and therefore supremely relevant — to this day. And fireworks? Heck, they were the ones who invented fireworks.

I got a chance to experience New Year the Chinese way thanks to the efforts of the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB). The HKTB’s efficient marketing has kept visitor arrivals on the increase — 29.6 million in 2009, a gain of .3 percent over the previous year — with most of the arrivals now coming from mainland China.

Keeping its attention trained on all markets, however, the HKTB invited media from over 20 countries to witness Hong Kong’s triumphal New Year celebrations, which was doubly special this year because it fell on Valentine’s Day, making it a romantic four-day holiday for Hong Kong residents and a fascinating peek into Chinese culture for foreigners.

Shopaholic’s New Year’s Eve

On Feb. 13 we saw how the locals prepare themselves for Chinese New Year: lots of shopping for gifts to bring to reunions with family and friends. For that purpose, everyone swarms around Mong Kok, Hong Kong’s premier bargain shopping district. At the Fa Yuen Street open-air market, funky sneakers, trendy fashion and fresh produce (not to mention gold chocolate coins and Chinese candy boxes) can all be had for a song.

Then, before heading home, everyone troops to the nearby Fa Hui Park flower market. We jostled with thousands of people buying everything from cabbage roses to stargazer lilies to spruce up their homes for the New Year. To the Chinese, flowers symbolize prosperity and a fresh start, and auspicious blooms include kumquat trees, narcissus and peonies for wealth; peach blossoms to add fire to romance; and tangerine plants (intact leaves are important) to help ensure long-lasting relationships and “fruitful” marriages.

All Is Noisy On New Year’s Day

On Feb. 14, the first day of Chinese New Year, we saw the traditional lion dance performed at the five-star Langham Hotel in Kowloon. As performers in lion costume danced their way through the ground floor of the hotel, our HKTB guide Fred Cheng noted, “They’re chasing away evil spirits. Putting on this lion dance is expensive, so not all hotels do it.”

To culminate the dance, the lion eats a small bunch of fresh lettuce leaves tied together and hanging from the ceiling.

“Eating the sound choy (lettuce) means creating a fortune,” says Fred.

A man dressed as the Fortune God also toured the lobby, distributing lei see — red or gold envelopes containing money (or in some cases, gold chocolate coins) — to visitors, similar to the way Filipino and Chinese elders give aguinaldo or ang pao to young family members during Christmas.

One of the highlights of Hong Kong’s New Year is the Cathay Pacific-sponsored International Night Parade, which we watched that night from the stands at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Piazza.

The festivities felt a lot like Mardi Gras, with 2,000 performers from all over the world strutting their stuff along Tsim Sha Tsui’s klieg-lit streets, from midriff-baring American cheerleaders to cute Japanese anime characters to towering Belgian stilt walkers gliding their way through the wintry night.

In between the performing groups came 14 floats representing various enterprises, from Hong Kong Disneyland to Macau Tourism. All that plus more dragon and lion dances made the night parade seem like one huge street party.

Temple Wishes & Extravagant Firepower

On the second day of Chinese New Year, locals visit one of the two most popular temples, Wong Tai Sin, to pray for good fortune in the Year of the Tiger. They have a many-pronged approach to doing this. Some buy bunches of joss sticks and walk in procession towards the temple, their prayers reaching heaven in the form of incense smoke. Others kneel off to the side with fruit offerings to their ancestors and bamboo-stick cups in hand, which act like Chinese crystal balls. They ask questions with numerical answers about business, love or family, and shake the cup until a stick drops out bearing the number they seek, which they then record in a little notebook for future reference. Yet more of the faithful write their wishes down on blessed slips of paper, then stick them on Wong Tai Sin’s own version of a “wishing wall.”

We then drove to Yuen Long in the New Territories to visit a bai nian, or local family, and glimpse how they celebrate Chinese New Year with relatives and friends. Part of the tradition is to bring the hosts a special gift — I could have bought mine in Mong Kok but I’d already brought a box of tikoy from home, which I then presented to the Mak family: schoolteacher Vanessa, her calligrapher/artist husband, Mac, and best friend Anita.

Just like most Filipino-Chinese families, Hong Kong’s bai nian have reunions involving three generations, from grandparents to grandchildren. They play mahjongg, eat white radish cakes that they believe will bring them great job promotions or higher achievements, and freely dip into a lacquered Chinese candy box (how Café World) containing dried lotus (for fertility), lotus seeds (for having a son), melon seeds (for money), and other candies (for sweet and lucky lives).

The Maks had a fortune tree in their living room from which lei see hung, and Vanessa later gave her little nieces and nephews gold envelopes fattened with Hong Kong dollars (another HKTB guide, Fred Cheung, told me that amounts can range from HK$20 to $200).

While we came back from Yuen Long with our hearts similarly filled, perhaps the most awaited event for visitors is Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year fireworks display, which we viewed from the roof of Harbour City mall in Kowloon. Set against the skyline of Victoria Harbour, above the city lights with the mountains behind and the sea in front, the 20-minute show was absolutely stunning, with intricately choreographed fireworks that formed flowers, smiley faces, and huge, starry bursts that filigreed the lowering skies (it rained the whole time we were in Hong Kong).

“That display cost half a million US dollars,” said Fred, who admitted that this year’s show was “a bit smaller” than last year’s. While that might be the fastest half million Hong Kong’s ever burned through, at least there were around 200,000 people there to appreciate it.

A Day At The Races

I’ve never started a New Year by gambling, but Hong Kong’s horseracing faithful believe it’s good luck to start the New Year by betting on their favorite horse. So the third morning of our Chinese New Year was spent at Shatin Racecourse, learning rudiments like “quinella” and the various ways you can place money on a pony. I chose a horse named Scoot da Loot, who was ranked seventh but hey, he bore my husband’s nickname.

So I placed the minimum bet of HK$20, and braved the Arctic winds outside to watch the jockeys charge their steeds down the straightaway. While the top-ranked horse indeed came in first, Scoot did not bad at all, coming in a glorious second. If I had bet on him to place instead of to win, I could have come into a small fortune (or not-insignificant dividends, at least). Looks like my year is starting out lucky already.

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For more information, call the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s multilingual visitor hotline at +852-2508-1234 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily or visit DiscoverHongKong.com.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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