One week before Chinese New Year, the floor creaks as Sunny Yim walks through the bamboo theatre he has helped build. A few of his wiry colleagues stand on a platform, making adjustments to the lattice of bamboo rods that is holding this cavernous structure aloft, but the work is mostly done.
Yim, a compact man with a ruddy face, looks up at the vast ceiling with satisfaction. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years, since I was 15,” he says. “I only build theatres. This is my passion. Sometimes I come and see the audience is looking up at the bamboo theatre. You can see that they’re impressed.” Soon, the theatre will be filled with chairs,
red lanterns and the wail of Cantonese opera as 800 people converge to celebrate the new lunar year. Chinese New Year is a time for traditions, even in aggressively modern Hong Kong: families reunite for dinner and lunch, freshly swept homes are filled with exuberant bouquets, the crash and clamour of lion dances herald good luck in the months to come. Bamboo theatres, strangely enough, have never been part of New Year festivities. But this is a new tradition – the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre was launched to great success in 2012. Its first edition featured five days
of opera, films and art. This year, the festivities will last for nearly a month, from January 17 to February 9.
“This time, we’ve moved the theatre next to the waterfront,” says Louis Yu, performance director for the West Kowloon Cultural District. The schedule is more packed than ever: not just Cantonese opera, but ten of its counterparts from across China’s cultural spectrum, plus free screenings of Chinese opera films. There will also be a
market with artisanal Hong Kong crafts: bamboo scales and tin letterboxes, along with more contemporary design objects. Hong Kong is never more alive than in the weeks before the New Year, which culminate in a frenzy of all-night activity on New Year’s Eve, which this year falls on January 30. On the old stone steps of Ladder Street, under the spindly vines of a banyan tree, neighbourhood residents ask for good-luck banners penned by a calligrapher. Kung hei fat choi is the classic message – “Wishing you prosperity” – but there are plenty of others, too, like Yat fan fong shun (“May everything go smoothly”). In Victoria Park and a handful of other spots around the city, round-the-clock New Year fairs are stocked with novelty gifts, many inspired by the coming year’s zodiac sign. (Expect a lot of cute horses this time around.)
Hong Kong is never more alive than in the weeks before the New Year,
which culminates in a frenzy of all-night activity on New Year’s Eve.
The crowds also flock to the Mongkok Flower Market to look for the perfect plants for the New Year. Fruit and flowers are an apt symbol of rebirth, and everyone has their favourite. “People like orchids because they’re elegant, they’re high class and they last for months,” says one flower shop employee. Kumquats and oranges are also popular,
and so are the yellow, udder-shaped fruits known alternately as Nipple Fruit, Apples of Sodom and Five Generation Fruit, which are particularly auspicious to have around when the entire extended family gets together. Family, after all, is really the most important part of Chinese New Year. Like Christmas or Ramadan, Chinese New Year is an occasion to see old relatives and reconnect. “For the first three days, my family gets in a car and goes to everyone’s house for a few hours each,” says food writer Janice Leung, who creates bespoke walking tours for Little Adventures in Hong Kong. “You have tea, lou bat gou [radish cake] – it feels festive.” This being Hong Kong, where an average day spans five meals – breakfast, lunch, tea-time, dinner and siu yeh, or midnight snack – food is a central part of the New Year celebrations. “My family is a little different because my mom is vegetarian on the first and fifteenth of the month, which is kind of a Buddhist thing,” says Leung. For the first meal of the New Year, they make vegetable dumplings with bean curd skin and a fish-shaped taro dish, which is pan-fried and served with sweet and sour sauce. (The Cantonese word for fish, yue, sounds like ‘leftovers’, which are always a good thing.) Most families would also have siu yuk, which is an entire roast pig, and lots of rich meat-filled pastries.
This emphasis on family time means that, on the first day of the New Year, Hong Kong can be eerily quiet. Shop
shutters are closed up tight, adorned by a poster of Choi Sun, the Chinese god of wealth. Stray cats are the only signs of life in normally crowded street markets. Still, there are exceptions like Hong Kong’s walled villages, ancient settlements that predate the modern city by hundreds of years. “They celebrate Chinese New Year like no one else,” says Leung. “They’ve got lion dances, phoenixes – even firecrackers, though that’s strictly speaking not legal. You might not know anyone there, but if you walk in at the right time, you can watch everything happen.” Of course, Hong Kong doesn’t stay quiet for long; the city returns to life almost as abruptly as it slumbered. On the second day of the New Year, the sky glows red, white and gold with fireworks, explosions reverberating through skyscraper canyons. Later, as the crowds stream home, hawkers flood the streets, offering beloved local treats like curry fish balls and charcoal-fired egg waffles. Any other day, government workers would chase the hawkers away, but today they are on holiday – or maybe they are just being lenient. It’s Chinese New Year, after all. Everyone is in good spirits.
On the second day of the New Year, the sky glows
red, white and gold with fireworks, explosions
reverberating through skyscraper canyons.
5 Senses – Touch
Hong Kong wisdom states that Chinese New Year is the coldest time of the year, and while that may not be borne out by the statistics (it’s more likely to push past 20˚C on New Year’s Day than it is to dip below 10) there’s no harm in being prepared. Traditional attire at New Year includes a padded silk jacket with a mandarin collar and frog buttons. Get one at Yue Hwa, a department store specialising in Chinese products. 301–309 Nathan Road, Kowloon. www.yuehwa.com
5 Senses – Sight
NEW YEAR NIGHT PARADE
Even the most tight-knit families need a break after a full day of social calls. Held on the evening of the first day of the New Year, the New Year Night Parade draws an enthusiastic crowd of more than 120,000 to watch a procession of glittery floats, dancers and other performers make their way through the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui. www.discoverhongkong.com
5 Senses – Taste
Lou bat gou is an everyday dim sum, but the savoury dish takes on added meaning during Chinese New Year, thanks to its main ingredient – daikon radish – whose Chinese name sounds like ‘good fortune’. Made by combining shredded radish with rice flour and water, the cake is steamed and sometimes pan-fried. Try it at boisterous Lin Heung, a dim sum parlour hat has been around since 1928. 160–164 Wellington Street, Central.
5 Senses – Sound
In the first weeks of the Lunar New Year, Hong Kong’s streets fill with the unmistakable drumbeat and cymbal crashes of the lion dance, or choi cheng. Guided by martial arts students, extravagantly coiffed lions writhe past enthusiastic crowds, plucking from their hands red lai see envelopes stuffed with cash.
5 Senses – Scent
WONG TAI SIN TEMPLE
You smell it before you see it: the sweet, smoky aroma of incense wafting out of Wong Tai Sin Temple. Built in phases starting in 1921, the sprawling temple complex honours a Taoist god known for his healing powers; Hong Kong is one of only two places where he is revered (the other is his birthplace in Zhejiang province). Every Chinese New Year’s Eve, thousands of people wait until the stroke of midnight to rush inside and offer their incense to the god in the hope of receiving good luck in the coming year. 2 Chuk Yuen Village, Kowloon.