Everything you need to know about how to celebrate Chinese New Year with your family in Hong Kong.
Chinese New Year is the most significant holiday for people in Hong Kong. If you’ve never experienced the celebration with your family, it’s important to make the most of this fantastic time of year. From streets decorated with lanterns, dragon and lion dances, to large and delicious meals to be shared with family and friends, Chinese New Year is one of the best times of year to be in Hong Kong. Don’t know where to start? Sassy Mama has gathered all the information you’ll need on the most popular customs and traditions surrounding Chinese New Year in Hong Kong.
When is it?
Following the lunar calendar, Chinese New Year usually takes place in either January or February. Traditionally, this festival used to take place over fifteen days but, in the modern working world, only three days are given in Hong Kong as public holidays. However, many festivities and traditions still carry on past this three-day holiday. For 2020, the Chinese New Year takes place from Saturday, 25 to Monday, 27 January (as the second day of the lunar new year falls on a Sunday this year, Tuesday, 28 January has also designated as a public holiday). During these public holidays is about the only time you’ll see shops closed in Hong Kong and the once normally bustling streets become eerily quiet! Chinese New Year is a time meant to be spent with family, so many people will travel to see their loved ones. In fact, Chinese New Year records one of the largest human migrations in the world, so be warned if you’re thinking about planning a CNY family holiday in and around Asia during this time!
Chinese New Year is believed to have originated in agrarian society from when farmers used to pray for success in the coming farming season, which is why the celebration is also known as the Spring Festival. Legend has it that a monster named Nian would come to the villages once a year and eat children and livestock, and that the only way to banish Nian was with red decorations and plenty of loud noise. Fireworks and lion and dragon dances are some of the colourful and loud traditional displays that are still seen today.
The Chinese Zodiac
While the origins of this tradition aren’t certain, the zodiac has been a part of the Chinese calendar and new year since around the Tang dynasty (618 to 907 AD). The zodiac follows a 12-year cycle with each Chinese New Year representing a different animal. 2020 is the year of the rat. The year you are born determines what animal you’re associated with. Similar to Western astrology, each animal attribution has its own personality traits and will have different levels of luck depending on what year of the zodiac it is. Contrary to popular belief, the year of your zodiac is actually considered bad luck, so if you were born in the year of the rat you should take extra care to protect yourself from bad spirits this year! This can be done by wearing lots of red clothes.
Traditions, Customs and Celebrations
Just prior to the new year, families and businesses will start to decorate their homes with fai chun (揮春). These are bright red and golden banners and décor that contain sayings of luck and prosperity. Traditionally, fai chun used to be hand-painted but now you can easily find this décor just about anywhere in Hong Kong. Prior to the new year is also when locals clean out their homes and get hair cuts as it is considered bad luck to do either of these activities during the time of the New Year.
On New Year’s Eve, families will gather for a special reunion dinner (nian ye fan, 團圓飯). Traditionally this dinner is meant to be held at the most senior family member’s home, but in modern times these dinners are often held wherever convenient (or at a restaurant). During the first two days of Chinese New Year, families will visit each other and have large dinners, often wearing brand new clothes. Families will also take this time to visit temples in order to seek out blessings and luck for the coming year.
Children and adults who are unmarried will receive lai see (利市) packets, which translate as “lucky money” from family and friends. These little red envelopes contain money, often newly issued and never in unlucky denominations. The number four, for example, is – sei 四 – which is also the homophone for death – sei 死! Lai see is also given by bosses to employees, and married couples will also give lai see to those who provide them with a daily service like a doorman, security guard or a cashier at the supermarket. It’s a good idea to hit up the banks a few weeks ahead of the new year if you wish to partake in this tradition, as many banks will have long lines of people looking to get brand new bills in small denominations to fulfil this tradition.
Traditionally, the third day of the new year used to be a day to avoid visitors as it was generally considered bad luck to have guests or to go visiting on this day. It’s a day that was typically spent burning effigies, last year’s fai chun, and paper offerings over fires. Today, many in Hong Kong don’t take note of the superstition so other events take place on this day (like the Hong Kong Jockey Club horse races).
Another popular custom during Chinese New Year in Hong Kong is the Well-Wishing Festival. This event takes place in Lam Tsuen in the New Territories, with festivities taking place over the entire fifteen days of the new year. To partake in this custom, you just have to write a wish attached to a string, with an orange on the other end. You then throw the wish and orange up into the tree. You can also release a wishing-lantern at the nearby river to participate in the carnival. This custom and carnival is great fun with kids!
Even though many businesses resume operations as normal after the three-day public holiday, most schools and some businesses will remain closed longer. People will continue to give out lai see and wish people Kung Hei Fat Choi (恭喜發財), a congratulatory message of prosperity, and you’re certain to continue to see a variety of lion dances in neighbourhoods and business venues all over Hong Kong.
The lion dance is said to chase away evil spirits and usher in good luck and prosperity. The lion dance often has a common traditional element that takes place called “picking the greens” (採青). Oranges, tangerines or more often lettuce, as it sounds like a lucky word in Chinese (meaning to create wealth), is offered to the lion. Attached to the lettuce is a lai see red packet containing money. This is offered to the lion, who will then act curious and cat-like around it before taking the offering in his mouth. The lion will keep the lai see packet and spit out the greens and it is said that those who catch the greens will have exceptionally good fortune that year.
The last day of Chinese New Year, the 15th day, is called the Lantern Festival (jyun siu zit, 元宵節). This year the Lantern Festival falls on Saturday, 8 February. It is also the first full moon of the new year, which is what signifies the end of the new year’s celebrations. Illuminating lanterns is a way of wishing a good start to the new year. Hong Kong holds beautiful Lantern Festivals in a few different spots during the time of Chinese New Year, with the main one in Tsim Sha Tsui. The Lantern Festival is also the equivalent of Valentine’s day in the West so couples will often spend time together and go on dates.
Food is an essential part of Chinese New Year. When families get together for their new year dinners, trays of togetherness (cyun hap 全盒), or candy boxes, are brought out. These trays are circular and contain a lucky number of compartments within them, such as six or eight. Traditionally, these trays contain dried fruits, nuts and seeds but many modern ones now includes sweets and chocolates. The tray of togetherness is never supposed to be empty during the new year!
Other important new year dishes include rice cake, nin gou (年糕), a sweet and sticky treat that literally translates to “new year cake”. Turnip cakes, (lok bak go 蘿蔔糕), a savoury dish that is actually made from a daikon, which is a Chinese radish rather than a turnip. Glutinous sweet rice balls, (tang yuan 湯圓), that are served in a bowl of sweet syrup are significant as the name is a homophone for “union”. There is also the traditional Hong Kong poon choi (盆菜) or “basin dish” which originated in the New Territories sometime in the 7th Century. Villagers would bring meat and seafood all to be cooked in one pot and shared with the community. The food is arranged so that the delicacies sit on top. Poon Choi can now be eaten just about anywhere in Hong Kong from high-end Michelin star restaurants to fast food.
Chinese New Year Events in Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific International Chinese New Year Carnival – *Editor’s Note: This event has now been cancelled*
This year, the Chinese New Year celebrations in Hong Kong are going beyond the usual. The Year of the Rat will be kicking off with a four-day carnival at the West Kowloon Cultural District. You can expect daily parades and stage shows all day long from local and international performance groups. Your kids won’t want to miss the hair-raising flips and tricks from America’s Got Talent performers – “V.Unbeatable” from India or “Ocho the Octopus” – the stunning puppet performance by Tim Davies. Also in the lineup of 26 international performance groups include Japanese balloon artist Syan, acrobatic duo Kate & Pasi from Finland, and hip hop dance crews UPeepz and VPeepz from the Philippines. There’s also plenty of places to grab an Insta-worthy family snap – with the giant inflatable Very Hungry Caterpillar and, of course, plenty of mouse characters to get you into the spirit of the Year of the Rat. A good festival wouldn’t be complete without food and there’ll be a Chinese New Year market serving up all sorts of delicacies! Add on some twisted balloon animals and face-painting for the kids and you can be assured of a fun family day out!
When: 2pm to 8pm, Saturday, 25 to Tuesday, 28 January 2020
Where: Art Park, West Kowloon Cultural District, Kowloon, Hong Kong
How much: Free
Contact: Discover Hong Kong