On 1 February, people from Hong Kong will be celebrating the most important festival on our calendar – the Chinese New Year.
The Chinese New Year begins on the first day of a year on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. This festival is not unique to people from Hong Kong: people of Chinese heritage celebrate it all around the world, but people from Hong Kong and Canton celebrate it with some regional variations.
How do Hong Kongers celebrate this, back home?
In Hong Kong, Chinese New Year preparations and celebrations can last for days – if not weeks. Before the New Year, people clean and decorate their homes with flowers, fai chuns, and shop for new clothes and gifts. On New Year’s Eve, the whole family will come together to have “reunion dinner” (“團年飯”). Afterwards, families will go together to Lunar New Year Fairs where they buy flowers, fresh produce, and novelties containing lucky messages or designed in the likeness of the Chinese zodiac sign of the year.
On the first day of the Chinese New Year (“年初一”), a long series of New Year visits (“拜年”) will begin: people will visit their families. Then they travel from home to home to visit extended families, distant relatives, and friends. Some families will instead gather in one home (usually that of the most senior family member) for a group visit. These visits are made in the first two days of the new year, but it is also not unheard of that in some big families the visits can last for a week.
As many of the recently arrived Hong Kongers came without their extended families (or even their immediate families), this Chinese New Year may feel a bit lonely for us. But there is something you can easily do, so that you can join in the fun and celebrate Chinese New Year with Hong Kongers in your community!
1. Visit us (or vice versa), then eat!
Anyone who has celebrated Chinese New Year before knows that it is all about food: you eat with families on New Year’s Eve, you eat the first meal of the year with families on the first or second day. You then eat every time you visit someone. So, if you know someone from Hong Kong, consider visiting them or inviting them to your home for a meal during the Chinese New Year period! Don’t worry about preparing anything fancy, for it is the welcome and the conversation during the meal that really count for our New Year experience.
2. Luck is (almost) everything
Another big thing about the Chinese New Year is lucky connotations. Because who does not want to have a good, lucky start at the beginning of a year? So almost every custom we have for New Year has associations with luck:
The dress code is red: Traditionally, red is considered an auspicious colour. So add a touch of Chinese New Year by wearing a red tie, a scarf, or even a red jumper! Some people from Hong Kong would even wear a whole set of new red clothes to symbolise new lucky starts for the year.
3. Greet us with a blessing! (And we have freebies to help you with that!)
“Gung hei faat coi” (“恭喜發財” / “Hope you get rich!”) is a very well-known one, but a simple “Happy Chinese New Year” in English is also a good blessing for the New Year period. The key here is to wish everyone a good year ahead, so be creative and come up with your own blessings! For example, Christians from Hong Kong would greet people with “May your cup overflow with God’s blessings”.
Apart from face-to-face greetings, we also like sending greetings online and putting them everywhere (like the “fai chuns” / “揮春” we put on walls, which are basically red papers with blessings written on). To help you to share the blessings to your neighbours from Hong Kong, we have designed a bilingual WhatsApp greeting and some fai chuns for you. You can download them from here, print them out and put them on walls, doors, everywhere!
4. Avoid “unlucky” conversation topics
In the Chinese New Year, people avoid words or objects associated with bad luck, like death, disease, and disasters. Some of us would go one step further and avoid unlucky activities, like washing hair on the first few days of the new year, as “hair” in Cantonese sounds like “prosperity” (“faat”) and so they do not want to “wash away the wealth”. So, keep to happy topics if you are visiting us during the New Year!
5. Bring an even number of gifts – but not 4!
If you are thinking about bringing gifts on your New Year visits, make sure the amount of the gift is in even number. (For example, give two apples instead of three.) The reason behind this is quite simple: if something is good, of course we hope it will happen twice (plural), but if something is bad, then once is enough (singular). The only exception to this rule is the number “4” (“四”, “sei3”), as it sounds almost the same as “death” (“死”, also “sei2”) in Cantonese, so do not be surprised if some people from Hong Kong avoid this number even in everyday life.
From the above, you might have realised that a lot of our New Year customs are exercises in Cantonese linguistics: many Cantonese words do sound similar, and many of these “puns” form the basis of what to do and what to avoid in the New Year. So if you are a guest at a New Year visit hosted by someone from Hong Kong, do ask us to explain our dishes and our customs. We might struggle a bit to translate – but many of us will be thrilled to know that you are interested in us and our cultures!
Happy Chinese New Year! May some items on this “to do list” lead to new, happy friendships between you and people from Hong Kong in your neighbourhood this year!
Written by Mina (UKHK)