• Peter Alton

Hong Kong: Past and Present

Modern Hong Kong is influenced by many cultures from all across the world all playing a part in helping to shape the island’s character and identity. Over the centuries China as its closest neighbour and guardian understandably has left the greatest mark here but still a part of Hong Kong remains British. The old and new live comfortably side by side with modern technology and ancient superstition offering a strange harmony. Prayers and offerings are given to the gods in the hope of a prosperous life and many special days are celebrated over the course of a calendar year in the hope of appeasing the spirits of the ancestors. There are many festivals and celebrations whose roots lie in the past and all it seemingly with a fascinating story to tell. Some of the celebrations are relatively new while others go back centuries, whatever their origins they all are important in some way to the people and families who live on the island.


Food as we have seen plays an important part in people’s lives in Hong Kong so it should be no surprise that food plays an important part in their festivals and celebrations as well. There are foods for the gods, foods to promote luck and foods that protect you both spiritually and physically. As we go through this chapter we shall try to look at the issue of Chinese culture and celebration in Hong Kong and the important part food plays and the symbolism it has for many of the islands residents. Walk down any street in Hong Kong and if you look carefully at ground level you may well see outside a shop or business a tiny altar complete with food offerings and even smouldering joss sticks in a pot or placed in the ground. These are offerings for the gods and a way for the proprietor of the business to secure prosperity for the coming year. Whether it works or not millions of people believe it and adhere to the practise, even some of the most powerful businessmen in Hong Kong will make offerings just in case.


The biggest celebration in Hong Kong by a long way is Chinese New Year. It is one of the most colourful and extravagant celebrations that you will see anywhere and one that both the young and old look forward to. Chinese New Year is a time for celebration with family and friends. It is celebrated wherever there is a large population of ethnic Chinese and in Hong Kong it is the only time when shops and businesses close. Some shops will close for a full week but nowadays in the fiscal climate that Hong Kong embraces two or three days is the norm. Chinese New Year is also referred to as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival and is celebrated on the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar. The date changes every year but the first day of Chinese New Year is always between the 21st January and the 21st February, coinciding with the first new moon, known as the darkest day between these two dates.


Preparations for Chinese New Year begin at least a month in advance when people begin a deep clean of their houses both inside and out. Floors are swept to clear away bad luck and aging paintwork is retouched often in bright red to encourage wealth and prosperity. Paper chains and banners with Cantonese phrases proclaiming health, wealth and happiness adorn windows. Living rooms are decorated with plum blossoms, bamboo and azaleas as blooming plants signify rebirth, On New Year’s Eve a big dinner is served, often a feast of seafood and dumplings with many auspicious foods eaten to bring luck into the house. The dinner is usually held at the house of the most senior family member with all members of the family present. Many traditional Chinese New Year foods will be eaten with more food being consumed during the New Year celebrations than at any other time of year. Many foods are consumed because their name is a homophone (a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning) such as fish where its Chinese name sounds like the word for abundance and bamboo shoots whose name sounds like the phrase ‘wishing everything could be well.


Dumplings are eaten as they are thought to represent good luck sometimes with a lucky coin hidden inside, lotus seeds as a blessing for many male offspring, black seaweed and ginkgo nuts for wealth and oranges for abundance and sweetness. Whole fish are served to symbolise togetherness and abundance, chickens are served complete with head and feet to show completeness and noodles are left uncut to ensure a long life. Chinese New Year is also the time of Nian gao, otherwise known as Year Cake or Chinese New Year Cake. This is a steamed sweet pudding made from glutinous rice flour, wheat starch, brown sugar, salt and water. It is considered good luck to give Nian gao to friends because its name is a homonym for a prosperous year, (a homonym describes two words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings) It is also extremely popular in the Philippines where it is known as tikoy and symbolises a sweet life with abundance. In Hong Kong oranges, satsumas and tangerines are also popular gifts for friends especially if they have the leaves still intact as this is thought to secure the friendship and abundant happiness. Another gift commonly seen is a candy tray which is tray of assorted sweets and nuts offered to secure good fortune. Candied melon is given to symbolise growth and good health, Kumquat for prosperity, coconut for togetherness and peanuts for a long life.


Families will often wear something red as this is the colour to ward off evil spirits or wear new clothes to symbolize a new beginning in the New Year. They will then play cards and games until midnight when the Hong Kong skyline is lit up by fireworks. The firework displays in Hong Kong Harbour are legendary and a must if you happen to be in Hong Kong when a display is planned. The stunning backdrop of skyscrapers makes for an awesome sight and with no expense spared on the fireworks themselves you will be in for a real treat. At one time families filled bamboo stems with gunpowder or set off red firecrackers outside their homes to scare off evil spirits. Today in Hong Kong fireworks and firecrackers are banned and the only place to see them is in organised displays.


On New Years Day a tradition of handing out red envelopes containing money to children and unmarried adults is observed. The red envelope is known as Lai See and it is thought to come from ancient China in the Qing Dynasty where the elderly would thread coins with a red string. Over the years the red string was replaced by red envelopes. The money was called yāsuì qián meaning ‘money to ward off evil spirits’, and was believed to prevent sickness and give luck to the bearer. A similar practise is observed in Japan during New Year where a monetary gift called otoshidama is given to children by their relatives in white envelopes. The amount of money given should always be of even numbers, as odd numbers are associated with cash given during funerals. The number 8 as we have seen is very auspicious so it is common practice to give HK$88 in an envelope. After the handing out of Lai See Cantonese families exchange greetings with friends and neighbours. The most popular greeting you will hear is Kung Hei Fat Choi which means ‘Congratulations and be prosperous.


Legends from ancient China warned that at the time of the Lunar New Year a mythical beast known as Nian walked the streets silently infiltrating houses to devour the occupants. The villagers sought the help of a colourful lion spirit, who came and drove Nian away in a frenzy of noise and colour. The following year the lion was protecting the Emperor's palace so the people were left defenseless. In desperation the people used a bamboo frame and colourful cloth in the image of the lion spirit along with Chinese firecrackers to scare away Nian. It worked so well that the villagers repeated it the following year creating the tradition of using the lion costumes and lion dance during the Chinese New Year period. Nowadays you will often see lion dances performed in the lobby areas of the island’s hotels all over the New Year period and even at special events during the remainder of the year. Normally the dances will be performed by local Kung Fu schools delighting audiences with their acrobatic dexterity. The lion is respected as a holy animal in Chinese mythology and in Hong Kong you will see two distinct groups of lion enacting this tradition; the Northern Lion and the Southern lion.


Northern lions are usually seen in pairs or family groups with young cubs and have long orange and yellow fur with a red bow to represent the male and a green bow to represent the female. A Northern lion is very reminiscent of the Chinese Fu Dog or Guardian Lion seen outside of temples and financial institutions. They move very realistically and incorporate acrobatic movements into the dance. The Southern lion is very colourful sporting a distinctive head with large eyes a single horn and a mirror on the forehead. There are various types of lion that you may see performing but the three most common are Lau Pei, Kwan Kung and Chang Fei who are based on three brothers from a famous Chinese Historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Lau Pei is the eldest of the three brothers and has a yellow face white fur which represents age and wisdom. He also has a colourful tail representing the colours of the five elements and three coins on his collar. Kwan Kung has a red face with black fur and red tail with black trim. He is known as the second brother and so sports two coins on his collar. Chang Fei has a black face cauliflower ears and black fur with a white trim to his tail. He traditionally has bells attached to the body to serve as a warning as he is the most aggressive of the three lions. He is also the youngest which is depicted by a single coin on his collar. Southern lion dances are more symbolic and are often performed as a part of a ceremony to exorcise evil spirits and to summon good luck and fortune. Local martial arts schools often perform lion dances and choi chang at local businesses. Choi chang literally means ‘picking the greens’ and is a symbolic act where a business ties a red envelope filled with money (Lai See) to the head of a lettuce in a position above the front door. The lion will approach the lettuce cautiously, moving over various obstacles before pouncing and spitting out the leaves but not the money. The lion dance is symbolic and is supposed to bring good luck and fortune to the business. The lion dancers keep the money as a reward for their efforts so everyone benefits in some way. In the past there were often huge sums of money involved and the performers had to grab a lettuce that was sometimes over 20 feet off the ground a practise that resulted in many injuries.


Today the dance is very much safer but still can be dangerous and a challenge to the performers who often amaze audiences with their skill.

There are many superstitions surrounding the New Year period such as opening the windows and doors to allow luck to enter your house or keeping a light burning in the house at night to scare away evil spirits. You should also avoid wearing black or white clothes as this is seen to be unlucky and don’t buy any books as this is regarded as unlucky as the word for book is a homonym for the word ‘lose’. Everyone should also refrain from using bad language and the use of scissors on New Year’s Day should be avoided as this may cut off good fortune. However if you eat something sweet then this is believe to give you a sweet New Year as is seeing a red coloured bird.






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