Here is a confession: I hate Chinese New Year. Back in America I always thought Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it is more appropriately called, was pretty cool. A lion dance, some banging gongs and a coupla fireworks.
But now I’ve been in China for 3 spring festival seasons and I’m hating it more and more. The first year I was here we came back to Lin’an, desperate to avoid the crush of travelers (deemed ‘humans largest migration’) and the increased hotel and travel costs. Our town of one million changed from a bustling, exciting metropolis to a ghost town on the first day of Spring Festival. Not a single shop or restaurant was open. The street was devoid of drivers. And at my school only a few poor lonely souls walked the campus. But added to that was the non-stop barrage of constant fireworks. Daytime, nightime, midnight, 4 am, 6 am, timing didn’t matter. For 10 days, without a moments rest, I had to deal with the gunshot decibel level fireworks. Sleep deprived, I almost went insane.
Last year, eager to miss out, we went to America, arriving back in China on the last official day of the holiday, also known as Lantern Festival. We had to deal with some fireworks, but I was so jetlagged it didn’t bother me much.
So this year I was in a real quandary. What to do? How to escape without dealing with the hundreds of millions of travelers or tens of millions of fireworks? Wait, what about Hong Kong?!
In mainland China most people get about 8-9 days off. Businesses are closed, and nothing operates. But in HK, they only get 2 days off. HK has stringent rules about fireworks and best of all, my best friend lives in HK. So HK it was.
Spring Festival eve is a big deal, and the most important day of the holiday. Traditionally it is the day when you go to your families house, eat a huge meal, and enjoy each others company. My friend Color is a graduate student, and far away from his family, so instead of his family, his classmates all decided to get together. There was about 8 of us and they managed to whip up a traditional new years feast including one important food for luck: dumplings!
After we gorged ourselves we joined a billion chinese people and watched the Spring Festival Gala on TV. The gala is a 4-hour epic TV show that’s kind of a mix between the Oscars (without the awards) and Saturday Night Live. In a huge, glitzy stage famous actors, singers, performers and hosts sing, dance, perform magic, and do comedy skits. I even got to see my favorite Chinese singer, Wang Leehom, perform.
As for me, well, it was a tad boring. I liked the singing parts, and they had a good magician and some amazing acrobats, but I did not get the comedy bits. As Color and his friends were cracking up, I was playing mahjong on my ipod. I tried, really I did, but the level of Chinese was way above me, and humor is always tough to translate. So, while the show wasn’t for me, I’m glad to have finally seen it as all my students talk about it.
The next day I went to Man Mo Temple. It is one of the most important temples in Hong Kong, and packed with the devotional on the first day of the new lunar year. Man is the god of literature, and Mo is the god of war. It was built over 150 years ago andÂ Â survived Chinese, British and Japanese rule.
In the past, people would come here to settle arguments. They would write promises to the gods, sacrifice a chicken, and know that the gods would punish whomever broke their promise. Some Chinese preferred to let the gods handle their problems over the local British government. Nowadays, they just come to pray. The place was so filled with incense my eyes burned and the little old ladies with bundles of fake money hustled and pushed past me to deliver it to the open fire outside. I left a small offering to the god of literature (can’t hurt to have him on my side) and made my way out to the fresh air.
That night Hong Kong held their annual New Years parade with floats and balloons and a big helium filled dragon. I wasn’t planning on attending, I figured there was too many people, but I accidentally ran into the crowd and caught the tail end of it. I was right, there was too many people.
The next day Color and I headed over the the Wishing Tree park to make a wish for the new year. You buy a fake orange tied to a piece of paper. On one side of the paper was a series of wished you could check off. They were pretty predictable, good health, success, safe family and there is no limit to the number of wishes you can check off. (Nice, eh?) On the other side of the paper is a place for your name, and any other, more specific, wish that you would like to wish for.
Now this next bit was hard, but totally fun. You had to huck the wish into the tree and hope that the ribbon managed to wrap itself around a branch. If it didn’t, and the wish came tumbling down, you would have to run under the wish tree to retrieve it, all while avoiding being pelted by others’ wishes. I mean, this place was packed, and everyone from kids to old grannies were tossing around the plastic oranges trying to land them in the tree. So it was a little on the dangerous side and I got hit by a few before, on the 4th try, my wish stuck and I could get out of the “kill zone.” (Color had a bit more luck than I, scoring a hit on his very first one.)
Now I should mention the wish tree is a fake tree. There is a real one, several over the years in fact, and back in the day people would throw real pieces of paper and real oranges, but it cracked and couldn’t handle the added weight from all the wishes (it is a big responsibility, you can’t blame the tree) and you can’t use it anymore.
While we were at the wishing tree we also got to see another tradition, the lion dance! You know this, the yellow dragon with two people in it (one in the front, one as the butt) jumping and dancing and waving around. It was really cool to see one up close and personal and it threw out good luck candy and wishes for everyone. (Unfortunately I was at the ass end, behind the men banging on drums and cymbals and didn’t get any.)
After filling up on a little luck we headed downtown to Victoria Harbor to see the famous Hong Kong Spring festival fireworks. We arrived 3 hours early to stake out a good spot, and waited through rain, freezing temps and bouts of boredom. But it was worth it. Despite growing up next to New York City I’ve never seen the ball drop in Times Square. I usually avoid the crowded places, but this time I figured why not? I was in Hong Kong, celebrating the Year of the Dragon, which is my year, and it won’t happen again for another 12 years. Might as well join the crowds.
And crowds there were. Thousands and thousands watched the fireworks with us that night and they entusiastically oo’d and aah’d with every bang and pop. My favorite were the “smiley face” fireworks I saw at the Beijing Olympic firework show. I mean seriously, how do they do it?!
The crowd took over the streets of Hong Kong after the fireworks ended, but there wasn’t any rowdiness or trouble. In fact, I was really impressed with how organized the whole thing was. It could have been an organizational nightmare, but it was handled totally smoothly and before we knew it we were slurping on some street food in the famous Temple Street Night Market trying to warm up (and avoid the subway crowds).
So, while I still hate Spring Festival I will say spending it in Hong Kong was the best idea and I would highly recommend it if you get the chance.
One final note: thousands of people have waited specifically for the dragon year to have babies because they think dragon babies will be strong and lucky. As a dragon myself I think these people are very smart to do so. Happy Year of the Dragon everyone!