Happy Year of the Rooster!
By unimaginable luck and skills on the side of our agent’s, we got train tickets to take us from Shanghai down to Shenzhen at the start of the Chinese New Year – also known as the largest human migration on earth. We put on our imaginary armour and prepared for a rough trip, but it went like a breeze, almost disappointingly easy.
Chinese New Year means family time, firecrackers, lanterns, flower markets, temple visits, gifts, red envelopes with money, the smell of incense and burning paper, crowds and empty streets, business downtime as well as bargain hunting at the sales, traditional food and dragon dances. We spent the bulk of it in Hong Kong, a city that really opens the festivities up to visitors.
January 27 – New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve is traditionally celebrated with a family dinner and, since the ‘80s, with a four-hour TV gala, watched by Chinese across the world, one of our hostel hosts explained. Add a visit by Santa and it sounds a bit like Christmas at home. In Hong Kong, people often visit one of the city’s flower markets after dinner so we headed to the famous one in Victoria Park.
Half the market was flowers (lots of orchids), half was other merchandise, mostly pillows (I still don’t know why), with mandatory snack stalls sprinkled on for good measure. Teenagers on chairs shouted pillow marketing in Cantonese and gave us the impression they were collecting money for school trips or some other kind of cause. The florists were serious business people, quick to exchange buds and blossom for dollars. The orchids were popular, but lots of people left with coloured willow as well.
January 28 – New Year’s Day
New Year’s Day means a big evening show and parade in Hong Kong. We squeezed into a strategic position in between of some sedentary flower pots, the front railing and two robust Chinese men armed with selfiesticks and phones and got pretty decent views of the performers dancing by. We were there about two hours early and watched some twirling school children and superheroes warm the crowd up before the main performers arrived.
It was a lot more international than we had expected. There were the classical dragon dancers and Chinese school troops, but also US cheerleaders, French dancers in butterfly costumes, Germans on stilts, Italians with trumpets, Spanish carnival dancers and a Russian man in suit and sunglasses, making cotton candy to cool tunes. But it was long, colourful and well worth the wait and the sharp elbows of the Chinese grandmother who squeezed herself and her family into a prime slot between us and an Indian family.
After the parade, the streets in Kowloon teemed with life; the music and laughter of the bars and restaurants spilling out onto the streets through open doors and windows. It felt like a big party.
January 29 – Second Day of the New Year
Famous all over China, Hong Kong’s New Year’s fireworks were almost as spectacular as we had hoped, although the heavy fog that had surrounded the city all day drowned out some of the higher flares. For fear of accidents and fires, a lot of large cities have banned firecrackers and public fireworks are a way of compensating for this. Despite the weather, the panoramic views of the huge, half-hour performance over the Victoria Harbour, between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the mainland, was truly impressive. Just like the previous evening, the event turned into a big party as we walked through the streets of Wan Chai.
January 30 – Third Day of the New Year
The third day, known as red mouth, is a day when you’re likely to get into an argument, so it’s better not to visit anyone. I’m thinking it may be linked to four days of family dinners as well… Even though people were supposed to stay home, we joined seemingly thousands of others heading for the Che Kung Temple.
Visiting temples to bring luck for the year ahead is an important tradition and most of the temples we peeked into during the holidays had several worshippers burning incense and stacks of paper. However, Che Kung took it all to a new level, we noticed, as we were funnelled into a 45-minute waiting line just to get in the doors. Luckily for us, it was only 10 minutes in practice, but for the poor souls on the other side of the street, the forecast was probably correct.
Inside, there wasn’t much other choice than to follow the crowd around a tall statue of the Song Dynasty general Che Kung. After the tour, many worshippers kneeled down to shake a box of wooden sticks, having their fortune told based on the numbers on the sticks that fell out. Back outside, we switched to a more commercial tone at a large market selling colourful pinwheels in sizes of big, larger and giant.
The second event of the day was a trip to the horse races, another local New Year’s tradition. Christophe and I have never watched horse racing before and were a bit lost among the avid betters studying complicated program sheets and placing surprisingly large sums on their favourite animals. After a lot of confusion, we placed a feeble ten dollars on number seven, which ended up second to last. Betting might not be our thing, but it was fun to watch the people eat, drink and cheer, with no sign of any arguments.
February 11 – Last Day
The Chinese New Year officially lasts for 15 days, although a regular person’s holiday will be much shorter. We spent those days in Hong Kong and Macau and returned to the mainland for the last celebration: The Lantern Festival in Guangzhou.
Most of the day was spent in and between busses and trains, crossing the Macau-mainland border and exchanging our last Hong Kong dollars and Macau patacas for yuan. It was dark before we could put our bags down in the province capital and ask our host how to get to the festival. “It’s in Yuexiu Park, but there will be a lot of people there,” she said.
She wasn’t kidding. We had finally found the classical Chinese horde and our Hong Kong experience was nothing next to the sea of people walking left, right, back and forward in a mess that I can’t describe. You have to feel the pull of the crowd. But the weirdest bit that despite the lack of order it was very efficient. I was close to calling it off when I realized we had to get tickets from somewhere before entering, but I have spent more time queuing for cash at the Brussels airport ATM. Stumbling over prams and using our new-found elbow skills we got in in no time.
The Lantern Festival is also celebrated as a Chinese Valentine’s Day and the park was full of young couples taking cute selfies. I can see it: You, me and 20,000 strangers – how romantic.
Walking around the park, we saw anything from humble lanterns in the shape of flowers and birds to large displays naturally following the rooster theme. Along the path hung traditional red lanterns. It was like one last explosion of colour, emotion and size, old tradition taken to a new, electrical level, connecting thousands in a country of more than a billion.
Kung Hei Fat Choi!