Bring in the Year of the Horse

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Two weeks 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.”

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, at least not in the city centre. But this is a new tradition, the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, that 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. “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 10 of its counterparts from across China’s cultural spectrum, plus free screenings of Chinese opera films.

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, 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.)

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West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre

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Victoria Park’s round-the-clock New Year fair

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.

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New Year rush in the Mongkok Flower Market

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Lucky banners

Family, after all, is really is 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 15th 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.”

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New Year feast in a Lantau village. Photo by Edwin Lee

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 street, offering beloved local treats like curry fishballs 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 the new year, after all.

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The city takes a rest – but only for a few days

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday January 26 2014at 10:01 pm , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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