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. Previous years have seen streets decorated with lanterns, dragon and lion dances, plus large and delicious meals to be shared with family and friends.
Although the pandemic has put a hold on large gatherings and many local outdoor festivities, for now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t still celebrate! 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.
Chinese New Year: 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 2021, the Chinese New Year takes place from Friday, 12 to Monday, 15 February 2021 (with three statutory public holidays on Friday 12, Saturday 13 and Monday 15 February 2021). During these public holidays is about the only time you’ll see shops closed in Hong Kong and the normally bustling streets become eerily quiet! Chinese New Year is a time meant to be spent with family. As many will not be able to travel this year to see their loved ones though, virtual celebrations will take centre stage. In fact, prior to the pandemic, Chinese New Year would always record one of the largest human migrations in the world.
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. 2021 is the year of the ox. The (lunar) year you are born in 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 ox 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. Before 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. Of course, with restrictions in place, this year will be a little different.
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, the previous 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, pre-pandemic).
Another popular custom during Chinese New Year in Hong Kong is the Well-Wishing Festival. This event takes place in Lam Tsuen, 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’d usually see a variety of lion dances in neighbourhoods and business venues all over Hong Kong – although this may not be the case this year.
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.
Read more: How To Raise Multicultural Kids In Hong Kong
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 Friday, 26 February 2021. 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.
Chinese New Year Food
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 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.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2019 by Danielle Roberts and updated in January 2020.