“Kung Hei Fat Choi!”
Roughly translated, that’s “Best wishes and congratulations. Have a prosperous and good year.”
It’s the Year of the Snake and the party’s started without me….after a month of Australian sunshine (make that heat waves, cyclones, tornadoes and flooding) I’m heading back to a wintry Hong Kong, smack bang in the middle of what’s unquestionably the ‘big kahuna’ on the Chinese calendar, Chinese New Year.
Make no mistake though, I’ve been under no illusions…CNY (for short) is coming!
No sooner had Santa left the building, tinsel was unravelled from those perfectly-primped Christmas trees and in their place, lions, lanterns and Lai See emerged in all their red and gold glory.
Anticipation has littered the air for weeks as locals frantically prepared to farewell the Year of the Dragon and welcome the steely snake, slithering ever-closer to his moment in the sun.
For the record, the snake doesn’t have the same kudos as the dragon – dubbed the luckiest of the Chinese lunar years.
If you’re born a ‘dragon’ in China, it’s safe to say you’ve hit the zodiac jackpot! A mythical legend, you’ll walk through life the strongest, smartest and luckiest of all 12 animal signs.
To give you an idea of the divine powers the Oriental Dragon wields, last year saw wedding planners literally run off their feet as the number of couples racing down the aisle sky rocketed and hospitals were inundated with mums who’d desperately timed those romantic rendezvous to ensure a much-coveted ‘dragon’ baby.
This year though the soothsayers are out in force to warn of the perils of the slippery snake and his venomous bite.
The word is, commitments and promises made will be sorely tested and romance will be put on the back burner as the agile and dangerous reptile weaves its way through 2013. The previous two “snake” years have seen the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China in 1989, making locals fearful of a rocky year ahead.
Nonetheless, the snake can also promote ambition, wealth and power and Feng Shui experts are trying to encourage positive vibes for an harmonious year.
If you’re not familiar with Asia, about now, you might be thinking pffftt! what a load of poppy-cock!
For non-believers and (grateful) expats it might be a chance to take a week long holiday, sit back and let the fun begin, but for locals it’s much more than a few sleep-ins and respite from the daily grind.
Firstly, there’s a mad rush to get home…travelers literally cause gridlock as they scramble to be with family (if you live away and only come home once a year, this is the one occasion you make the trip). For many people it’s the only holiday all year and so far over a billion people have hit the road to be with loved ones.
Just as westerners like to ring in the New Year with parties and plenty of frivolity under the guise of starting anew – the same can be said for Chinese New Year but don’t think you can get away with making a few half-hearted resolutions through the champagne bubbles (how is that New Year’s fitness plan going by the way??)
Nope if you’re a CNY devotee it’s serious stuff and it revolves around family, friends, food and a whole lot of highly essential Chinese customs.
Mostly, it’s about reconciling ….and that means forgetting all your grudges and wishing peace and happiness for everyone!
Yes that’s everyone! (So if you’ve been harbouring a sour taste in your mouth over that family feud, now’s the time to swallow your pride and make amends.)
This is a culture so sincere in its well-wishing, it takes saying Happy New Year to a whole new level!
You really want to hope you stuck to your christmas budget because if you’re around these parts over CNY you better have pockets full of money when you make your well-wishes. Red pockets that is. (I’m pretty sure in our first year in Hong Kong, we left ourselves a bit red-faced, unaccustomed to Chinese New Year etiquette.)
They call them ‘Lai See’….originally given to ward off evil spirits, these days they symbolize good luck and prosperity… and it’s a sure bet tucked deep into everyone’s winter jackets you’ll find pockets overflowing with red envelopes. Banks are stretched to the limit as locals rush to get crisp new bank notes. (Crinkly old crushed-up notes simply will not do.)
Basically, the lucky Lai See receivers are unmarried relatives and friends, employees and children! Everyone else step aside and be prepared to dish out the dollars.
There’s a “standard” token amount of a $20 dollar note in a red packet, but you can give as much as you like to those ‘special’ people. If you live in an apartment and most of us do, it’s customary to give the doormen, concierge and so on Lai See. Married couples might be wise to give two packets to unmarried friends – giving just one I’m told signals your relationship is separating! (No wonder they looked at me strangely last year.)
As a hotel manager my husband will shell out no less than $8000HK. (Guess now’s not the time to bring up that new frock huh?!)
Before you go galavanting with your red packets of lucky cash, tradition dictates things at home must be spic and span.
It’s critical to clear out the cobwebs before CNY begins if you want good luck and harmony to come your way. Yep! time to roll up your sleeves ladies and gentleman and get down and dirty with the dust-buster.
(Take note: whatever you do, refrain from sweeping once CNY is underway…..this could very well sweep all the good luck right out the front door!)
Many homes and most businesses see CNY as the time to bring in a Feng Shui master to ensure the year starts off on the right footing. He’ll advise whether offices should be changed, walls painted, chairs moved…all to “improve the air.” It’s all about the flow of energy. If you’ve had an influx of resignations and too many employees calling in sick, maybe it’s time to re-think your office space!
All sharp knives must be put away (not in case you’re feeling a little unstable) rather in case they cut through potential luck coming into the house.
It might also be a good idea to invest in some small ‘orange trees’ for the pad. They represent wealth and prosperity.
It’s one of those ‘the word sounds like’ situations. In Chinese ‘oranges’ sounds the same as the word for ‘gold’ and also for ‘lucky.’ You get my drift?
If you’ve racked up any debts, no ifs or buts, now’s the time to repay them. Heading into the new year with a clean slate is paramount to future success.
It will also hopefully mean you’ve got enough cash for the all important new year makeover.
It’s not just your house that needs to be in ship-shape, you’ll reap the rewards for sprucing yourself up from top to toe. What better opportunity to purchase a brand spanking new suit or ladies some sexy stilettos for the first day of CNY and it’s all in the name of maintaining the sanctity of an ancient tradition (now that’s a shopping spree to remember)! Red underwear are also deemed part of the ‘lucky’ outfit.
If you need a haircut, don’t wait for the holiday to head down to the local barber for a snip. It’s got to be done before the New Year Festival begins.
Why? According to Chinese mythology, the word ‘fat’ in the New Year greeting ‘Kung Hei Fat Choi’ sounds the same as the word ‘hair’….(here we go again) and because having a lot of hair is seen as a statement of wealth, if you take the scissors to it, you’re effectively cutting your money loose.
In fact, some people don’t even wash their hair at all over CNY for fear of bringing bad luck upon themselves. (You wouldn’t want to let any of it slip away down the plug-hole would you)!
If you don’t like the cut, try not to shed any tears on New Year’s Day either, this can mean you’ll cry for the rest of the year.
Also on the to do list, five days before New Year, many households like to offer a sacrifice to the Kitchen God by putting sweet, sticky food, like sticky rice or lotus seed in front of his picture.
He looks over families and apparently reports to ‘Jade the Emperor’ on who’s been naughty or nice (a bit like Santa really). It’s hoped the offering of sweet food will encourage him to give a “sweet” report to the emperor and also stick his mouth together so he can’t tell anyone about the questionable deeds he’s witnessed.
On the eve of Chinese New Year, supper is a family feast and fire works at midnight mark the beginning of the new year. It’s believed the noise of the fireworks will drive away any evil spirits. Early the next morning, children wish their parents a healthy and happy new year – in return they receive Lai See. (Hello Toyworld!)
At midnight on the first day of Chinese New Year, locals head to their local temple to place an incense stick. This I’m told brings luck for the entire year, so probably not one to miss.
Then there are the zestfully colorful community events taking place around the city, most notably the ubiquitous ‘Lion dance’……
It started thousands of years ago to scare away evil spirits. Two people perform at the head and the tail synchronizing their moves to music from a drum, gong and cymbal.
The Lion has a mirror on his head to frighten away evil spirits with their own reflections. As the courageous lion runs along the streets visiting different places, as odd as it may sound he looks for green vegetables like lettuce, hung above the doors of houses or businesses.
Hidden in the leaves is, you guessed it, Lai See. The lion must eat the lettuce and red packet and scatter the leaves to symbolize a fresh start for the new year and the spreading of good luck. Even better, should a family member or the owner of a business stick his or her head into the lions’s mouth, the year to come will even be more lucky and prosperous. Get dunking!
The Festival of Lanterns on the first full moon of the New Year marks the end of the festivities (usually on the 15th day). A 500 year old tradition, it celebrates the return of light, the coming of spring and the beginning of the growing season.
So is it all superstition gone mad, rituals gone wrong?
Perhaps to some of us unfamiliar with these customs it can seem like a whole lot of mumbo jumbo, but to those who stem from generations of Chinese families it’s all about honoring and respecting their ancestors. Things may be changing in China but taking pride in ancient traditions that have seen a culture of people live harmoniously and peacefully for thousands of years is still one thing that remains the same.
So from me to you, Kung Hei Fat Choi!