Gong Hey Fat Choy! This signature phrase literally means “Congratulations on winning the lottery!” A funny phrase to wish someone Happy New Year, wouldn’t you say? But in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, this old-school callout represents a culture that values good luck and big fortune year-round. So why not declare this grand wish right at the start of the Lunar New Year!
Celebrating CNY in Hong Kong is like watching the ball drop in NYC on New Year’s Eve.
The fantastic Chinese New Year festival is like rolling Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s/Father’s Day’s and Valentine’s Day, all into a two-week-long holiday. A former British colony as a result of the First Opium War due to the tea trade, Hong Kong celebrates CNY with awesome customs, from eating dumplings to receiving Lai-see lucky money and watching the lion dance. This holiday is as colorful and grand as they come!
To get you ready for the Year of the Ox 2021, beginning on February 12, here’s an article to help you discover fascinating facts about this most important holiday in Chinese culture. You may want to head to Hong Kong for some CNY fireworks one year.
1. Certain foods bring you good luck
The city of Canton (now Guangzhou) is known as the gastronomical capital of China for centuries. So Cantonese foods are legendary, such as Wanton noodles, dried-pan-fried beef noodles, fried rice of all types, Kung pow dishes, and on and on. To celebrate Chinese New Year properly, people make unique dishes that are tasty and symbolize good luck. No matter how much you’re craving something, it’s essential in Chinese culture to stick to the New Year foods that are meaningful to the occasion and bring you good fortune. Some foods you can expect to eat while celebrating the Chinese New Year include:
For longevity. Long noodles mean long life. So don’t cut your noodles short with a knife or fork.
For wealth. Dumplings are stuffed with goodies inside, so naturally, dumplings come with good blessings.
For moving up in the world! Also known as Annual Sweet Cake, these glutinous rice cakes are made with brown sugar. This good luck food symbolizes opportunities for big promotions! My mother used to make this sweet cake and required me to toss away my diet plans. Sure, why not? I was eagerly climbing the corporate ladders earlier in my career then. Writing this blog brings back many wonderful childhood memories as my sisters and I helped mom in the kitchen prepare foods for the Spring Festival. It’s just like friends and family gathering to make Christmas cookies in the US. Joyful and fun.
For togetherness. These delicious sweet dumplings are a must-have in family dinners. It symbolizes reunion. A harmonious one, please? Tang-yuan can be filled with different fillings like black sesame or peanut butter. My sister makes a nice ginger sweet broth with brown sugar to go with the sesame-filled Tang-yuan. These lovely treasures are the go-to dessert in many Chinese restaurants, served during Dim Sum.
Did you know that dim sum means “delicacies for the heart” in Cantonese?
For good fortune. These wonderful citrus fruits mean blessings and wealth. Tangerines make an auspicious gift for parties with family or friends. Preferably, you’d want a bunch of tangerines with green leaves attached. Green symbolizes life. See, it’s all about symbols and meanings in Chinese culture.
Spring Rolls & Wontons
For wealth and treasure. The good stuff is inside! Who doesn’t cherish that?
For prosperity. The word ‘fish” phonetically sounds “leftover” in Cantonese, which represents profit. Now, everyone wants profits! So expect lots of fish in every Chinese banquet. My personal favorite is a nice big steamed rockfish. The Cantonese tradition of steamed fish is a healthy, delicious way to eat fish.
When eating steamed fish, do not flip the fish over. Remove the fish skeleton to get to the other side of the meat. Why? Because the fish symbolizes a boat, flipping the fish over means flipping the boat upside down. This is a long-held tradition amongst Cantonese people. So I never flip my fish over. Call me old school.
2. Red is your friend during the Chinese New Year Celebrations
Historically, red is associated with danger and sacrifice. However, during the Chinese New Year, red is the official color of the holiday.
Red Pocket (or Lai-see in Cantonese) is the go-to gift for children and single folks, given by parents, forbearers, or married couples. Red packets are lucky money, symbolizing love and blessings. Children say “Gong Hey Fat Choy” as a CNY greeting to collect their Lai-see from smiling, willing adults.
Why is red a symbol of good luck for the Lunar New Year? According to Chinese legend, Nian was a ravenous beast known for terrorizing villagers by eating livestock, crops, and even the townspeople. The villagers then discovered that Nian was afraid of only a few things–loud noises, bright light, and the color red. And these became part of the Lunar New Year elements.
People would hang red lanterns, burn bamboo to make cracking noises (later fireworks), and rock the dragon/lion dance to scare away Nian. These customs evolved, so later, people would hand out red packets to friends and family, wishing them good luck and fortune for the upcoming year.
3. It’s best to avoid taking medication
Another superstition that is strongly frowned upon in Chinese culture is taking medication on the first day of Chinese New Year. In some cultures, it’s common for those who are already ill to break the medicine bottle to get rid of any further sickness going into the new season.
Along with taking medication, avoid going to the hospitals on the first day of the Lunar New Year. Superstition says that it’ll bring you sickness throughout the next year. Similarly, try not to take any medicine during the holidays also.
4. Stay away from sharp objects. No haircuts, manicures, or washing your hair!
If you’re hoping to take good fortune into the new season, you’re better off staying away from or hiding from sight any sharp objects, such as scissors, knives, etc. For many people, this means tending to personal grooming, such as hair cuts or manicures/pedicures, before the Chinese New Year day.
I remember my mom forbade us (four girls in the family) from washing our hair! Why? Because hair washing symbolizes the act of washing away fortune. “But mom, I’m only 10!” After a long negotiation, we got mom to let us wash our hair on the third day of CNY.
5. Make sure to pay your debts before the Lunar New Year
In traditional Chinese New Year spirit, it’s best to stay away from taboos as they are said to bring bad luck for the next year. One thing you should stay away from (in all aspects) is collecting debts.
If you happen to owe others money, it’s essential to pay your debts before celebrating CNY. The Chinese people believe that if you go into the new year with outstanding dues, you’re bound never to settle those debts throughout the next year.
If you want wealth and good fortune for the upcoming year, it’s crucial to pay back all the money you’ve borrowed from colleagues, friends, and family.
6. The celebration is 16-days long
The most critical days are the last day of the previous year, Chinese New Year Eve, the first day of the year, and the final day or 15th day of the Lunar New Year.
So the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration starts on the eve, with the biggest parades and fireworks kicking it off. People go to flower markets to buy plants and flowers and celebratory gifts to prepare for the long festivity. The most critical dinner of the year to a Chinese family is the reunion dinner on the new Lunar New Year’s eve.
The CNY festivities unfold into a 15-day long tradition, filled with an abundance of drinks, foods, parades, and parties. Why is the celebration 15-days long? Because the 15th day is the arrival of the first full moon of the Lunar New Year. This wrap-party is also known as the Spring Lantern Festival.
During this 15-day New Year celebration, there are special activities dedicated to each day:
Fireworks! Opening day. For the new year’s first meal, many Chinese would visit the Buddhist Temple to light incense and eat “Jai” or Buddhist Delight. “Jai” is a vegetarian dish consisting of many vegetables, like mushrooms, lotus seeds, tofu, cabbage, carrots, snow peas, etc. It’s a sumptuous and healthy meal, and I loved eating Jai at the temple in Hong Kong.
Why eat vegetarian on the first day? Because vegetables purify the body.
Dinner time is different. CNY banquets are lavish affairs, served with 9 or 12 courses. Similar to Chinese wedding banquets, the number of courses served is of paramount importance. Hong Kong Chinese loves the number 9 as it means “long-lasting” phonetically. As you can imagine, a 9-course banquet would fit perfectly for a wedding.
People eat wontons, and married ladies visit their birth parents.
Those with deceased relatives will visit graves and pay their respects.
A continuity of day 3.
People visit their friends and eat dumplings in the morning.
A day for visiting temples, friends, and family.
Celebrate the commoner. Vegetable dishes are served during meals.
Family reunion dinner.
Taoist temples hold grand ceremonies to celebrate the birthday of the Jade Emperor.
We are celebrating the God of Stone. It’s forbidden to move any stone or build anything with rocks.
Fathers-in-law entertain sons-in-law. They eat leftovers from the Jade Emperor’s celebrations.
Days 12 to 14
Preparing for the Lantern Festival.
Celebrate the Spring Lantern Festival. Also known as Yuan Xiao Jie (Traditional Chinese: 元宵節), the Lantern Festival wraps up the Lunar New Year celebration with another family reunion dinner. More yummy Tang-Yuan to eat for the occasion! Traditionally, this day is to honor the ancestors. During this celebration, thousands of lanterns are released to bring hope and good fortune to everyone!
7. Bring in the Chinese New Year on a clean slate
As tradition will tell it, it’s best to kick off the Lunar New Year with a fresh start. So out with the old and in with the new! However, you should make sure to do it before Chinese New Year Eve, or else your hard work won’t be bringing you the good fortune you may be hoping for. Growing up, my mother would have the family wear all new clothes and shoes too! What an excellent excuse to go shopping!
Once you’ve finished cleaning up and tidying your space, all the cleaning equipment (plus the knives and scissors) must be put up and out of sight. According to tradition, if you clean or wash anything during CNY, you’re washing away all the good fortune. And that means no sweeping or vacuuming either.
8. Fireworks are beautiful protectors (Louder the Better!)
Circling back to the Legend of Nian, the beast was also terrified of loud noises. Therefore, fireworks became a significant part of the celebration. What’s even better than regular fireworks? Red fireworks! Every year Hong Kong hosts a firework show for the Lunar New Year, way more expansive than any New Year firework show hosted on January 1. Lasting over 25-minutes long (and wholly computerized, wow!), fireworks light up the sky over the Hong Kong Victoria Harbour. This fantastic fireworks show attracts visitors from all over the world.
9. The date of Lunar New Year changes every year
Why does the date of the Chinese New Year change every year? Because the Lunar New Year is founded on the lunar calendar, based on 12 moon cycles. So the date for CNY falls between January 21 and February 20 every year.
Unlike the Western Gregorian calendar used in modern-day China, the Chinese Lunar Calendar is only 354 days, 11 days shorter than the Western calendar.
10. CNY is celebrated all over the world
Over 1.5 billion people worldwide, or 20% of the global population, celebrate Chinese New Year, making it one of the most famous festivals on the planet. A vast country with ancient history, China has 23 provinces and hundreds of dialects. The ancient Chinese New Year tradition, which is more than 3,500 years old, varies from region to region.
Besides Chinese living in mainland China and Hong Kong, people in Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and overseas Chinese in such cities as New York, London, and Vancouver, also celebrate this vibrant tradition. Many countries also take part in the CNY holiday celebrations, adding their cultural traditions. For example, the festivities in South Korea only last three days rather than the traditional two weeks.
In California, San Francisco holds the largest parade for the Lunar New Year in America. The SF Chinatown parade stretches over 1.3 miles long and attracts over 3 million spectators and television viewers every year!
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