China · Food

Chinese New Year: Parades, Awkward Family Dinners and Fireworks

After being in Hong Kong for one week, one of my good friends from high school arrived to visit her family. It was during this time that I got to see a bit more of Hong Kong, guided by both my friend Kimi and her parents. Since my friend’s family lives on Hong Kong Island, I was able to get to see more of the island.

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My friend’s mom and dad show me around a market

The British Empire gained control of the territory of Hong Kong following China’s disastrous defeat in the Opium War. At the time only 3,000 people lived in the sleepy fisherman villages of the islands yet now that population has mushroomed to become millions over the past centuries. Due in part to being a commercial hub for British East Asian trade and its geopolitical importance, Hong Kong has become a financial capital with massive skyscrapers that now dot what was once a small village.

One of my favorite ways to get to the island was by ferry which I first did with an Italian boy and Russian girl that were staying in the same hostel as me. The famous bar street of Lan Kwai Fong is host to dozens of bars, many of which are owned by foreigners. As it turns out, going out on a Wednesday night is not exactly ideal so the three of us were in for a bit of disappointed due to the lack of anything of note. Still there were plenty of nice places to eat and hang out and of course on weekends this area teams with foreigners and Hong Kongers alike who take advantage of the affordable prices.

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Lan Kwai Fong is just a short ride away

Hong Kong Island, as I would soon find out, has a lot to offer when it comes to things to do. With my friend Kimi and her mom showing me around, I got to see a slice of life from the perspective of Hong Kong citizens. I was shown a variety of different places to eat as well as also be shown how people get ready for Chinese New Year. It is celebrated in globally, especially in East and Southeast Asia due to the large Chinese influence as well as significant Chinese populations. But what place is better than to celebrate where it all started, China itself.

According to legend the Nian was a mythical creature that ate children, to get revenge an old man used firecrackers to fight the beast while other villagers went into hiding. The following day villagers realized that nothing was destroyed and came to understand that the Nian was afraid of loud noises as well as red. To this day much of the celebrations surrounding the Spring Festival include firecrackers and red papers with the character 福 (for good fortune)  on doors to ward off the Nian.

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Chinese New Year is typically a family affair with celebrations lasting 15 days. As the days get closer, houses will increasingly get decorated with red lanterns and papers while families go on to spend time together or have dinner together before the big event. For many it is also an opportunity to visit temples, buy new clothes as a symbol of a new start, and most importantly to eat. Almost always at the centerpiece of any dinner is a large fish which is only to be partially eaten, as a symbol for surplus and prosperity.

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Since I would have spent my New Year alone otherwise, my friend and her family invited me to dim sum for a pre-celebration before the actual event. There is a saying that says “生在苏州, 活在杭州, 吃在广州, 死在柳州” (Be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, die in Liuzhou); my point being that the Guangzhou or Canton area close to Hong Kong is known for its food, in fact much of people’s earnings goes to eating no shortage of delicious foods. At the dim sum that I was invited to there was a seemingly unending variety of different Chinese dishes and despite already being full I kept being encouraged to eat more, I suppose this is a universal thing that people around the world do for guests. My only wish would be to have some knowledge of Cantonese or at that point a better grasp of Mandarin because I was only able to communicate through my friend, making the whole dinner a bit awkward when it came to communication. Still the fact that I was welcomed by everyone and given money in the customary envelopes given to friends and family, though especially to children, was truly heartwarming.

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On the actual day of Chinese New Year I got to see the parade in Kowloon that passed right on the street where I was staying. It took hours waiting in a crowded sidewalk but the illuminated dancers, elaborate floats with the shapes of dragons and goats was really a sight to see. While I was not able to see the fireworks display over Victoria Harbor in person, I did see them on television as I ate with my friend’s family. All in all celebrating was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it but eventually I had to get going towards Beijing where I would study and the festivities would continue. 新年快乐!

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