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Hong Kong: Festivals

There are six traditional Chinese festivals that you can experience in Hong Kong, all with various traditions and customs attached to them: Lunar New Year, Spring Festival, Ching Ming, the Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival and Chung Yeung.

Chinese New Year

One of the most important festivals in the Chinese calendar is the start of the new lunisolar calendar.

This festival sets the tone for the rest of the year, so steps are taken during these days to bring good fortune to households.

Although the festival actually lasts for 23 days - from the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month to the 15th day of the first one - it is the start of the New Year that is the most important. This is where you will see most of the festivities taking place. In mainland China, the festival is a two-week period of holiday and celebration, but in Hong Kong workers get just three days off, from the first day to the third day of New Year.

During Chinese New Year, small red envelopes containing money, known as lai see are given out.

It is customary for more senior people to give lai see to their juniors. Thus a manager in a company should plan to give lai see to all staff that work for him or her, including security guards, receptionists and cleaners. The amount given usually depends on the seniority of the donor in the team.

Do not let your kids hand out lai see to older people: this would be considered rude.

Traditionally, married people give lai see to single people. But this is only a very general rule. It is still a good idea to give lai see in order to thank people for the work and service that they have provided: the concierge at the apartment block where you stay or the hairdresser that you regularly go to, for example.

If you have one, include your helper in all this generosity, too. If this is your first time dishing out the red packets, remember: whatever you give will set a precedent for future years.

Give your lai see the first time you meet with someone during that period. It is a good idea to carry plenty of red envelopes with you, split up into different amounts of money, so you don’t get caught empty-handed.

You don’t need to enclose much money — 20 or 50 HKD in each is fine, although there’s no harm in including more if you can afford it.

Lai see packets should ideally contain only crisp new notes and not ones from the previous year, since they are supposed to symbolise a fresh start for the year ahead. You will see big queues outside banks in the final days before the holiday as people scramble to get their new notes. Get yours early to avoid the lines!

As with many things in Chinese culture, numbers and symbolism play an important part in the amount of money that you should give. For example, don’t give a monetary amount with a four in it, since the word for ‘four’ in Cantonese sounds like ‘death’. Thus both 40 HKD and 400 HKD are out; give 50 HKD or 500 HKD instead.

You should give and receive lai see with two hands. When giving it, remember to also extend a heartfelt ‘gong hey fat choy’ (‘congratulations and prosperity’).

One of the most recognisable ceremonies during Chinese New Year is the famous lion dance. If you choose to spend this period in Hong Kong, it will be impossible not to encounter at least a few of these mesmerising spectacles. They are typified by a great deal of noise — usually heavy banging on drums — and men dressed in a lion costume weaving through the crowds.

The dance is supposed to drive away evil spirits and monsters (particularly Nian, which according to legend lives in the mountains and comes down at the end of each year to destroy crops and livestock). For good luck, the lion will often make a mock attempt at eating a lettuce that is placed before it.

Spring Lantern Festival

The Spring Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month and is therefore also the day of the first full moon of the year.

Don’t confuse this celebration with the Mid-Autumn Festival in other places such as Singapore and Malaysia and is sometimes also known as ‘the Lantern Festival’. Thailand also has a Lantern Festival, which is nothing to do with the Chinese Spring Festival.

The Lantern Festival is one of the most important festivals in the Chinese year. It symbolises the sweeping away of past transgressions and the heralding in of positive change. It is also the time when the decorations for Chinese New Year are taken down.

In modern times, the day has become one of courtship and a period that Chinese couples like to spend together. For this reason, it is often known informally as ‘Chinese Valentine’s Day’.

In Hong Kong, the festival is marked by thousands of lit lanterns all the way throughout the city. Riddles are an important element of the Lantern Festival. Many of the lanterns that you see during this period will have riddles attached to them. Solving the riddle often earns prizes from the lantern-bearer. Children particularly enjoy this part of the festival.

The origin of the Spring Lantern Festival is unclear. Some have suggested that it celebrates the ending of dark winter nights, whilst others say it was a festival to worship the Chinese God of the Sky, Taiyi. Taoists associate the festival with one of their own gods, Tianguan, who is said to bring good fortune. Another legend tells of an ancient warrior named Lan Moon who led a rebellion against a tyrannical king in ancient China.

Whatever the origins of the festival, we do know that it has been celebrated for more than 2000 years. It is popular to eat glutinous rice balls (tangyuan), during the Spring Lantern Festival. These balls are usually filled with red bean or sesame paste. The shape of the balls, and the bowls in which they are served, are supposed to symbolise family togetherness. However, since the Spring Lantern Festival is not one of Hong Kong’s national holidays, families often can’t spend the day together. They will usually celebrate in the evening instead.

Ching Ming Festival

Ching Ming - or 'tomb-sweeping day' - is the day when people in Hong Kong tend to the graves and tombs of their ancestors.

Ching Ming takes place on the 15th day after the spring equinox. During the festival, many people also burn offerings at burial sites — such as paper money — and offer cooked food (such as roast pork and chicken) to the deceased.

Incense is usually carried to the graveyard and willow is used as a way of warding off evil spirits — this being a time, of course, when ghosts can walk among the living.

Not only is Ching Ming a day for commemorating the dead — it is also a day for family outings, as the trees have started turning green and flowers are in bloom. Kiteflying is particularly popular during this festival.

Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival — Tuen Ng — takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, and commemorates the famous Chinese scholar Qu Yuan (who, legend has it, killed himself in China's Miluo River as a protest against corruption).

The festival is typified by three days of racing in long dragon boats.

You can gather at many points along Hong Kong’s coastline to watch the races take place. Each area will usually organise their own races. You can participate as well, and many offices and clubs will put together their own team to compete.

Mid-Autumn Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. The festival is sometimes also known as the Moon Festival because it takes place during a full moon.

This is the time when people should spend time with their family and give thanks for the harvest and the bounty of their lives.

Mooncakes and fruit baskets are given as gifts. Mooncakes are small round pastries filled with a sweet paste, typically made from lotus or sesame seeds although fruit paste fillings are becoming popular.

Tea made from chrysanthemum flowers and sweetened with sugar is a popular drink during the festival, since it is believed to ward off the colds and coughs that are associated with the onset of winter.

Another tradition during this time is the fire dragon dance. Celebrations also include colourful Chinese lanterns, and there are usually thematic lantern displays all over Hong Kong.

Chung Yeung Festival

Falling on the ninth day of the ninth month, Chung Yeung is another day for commemorating ancestors.

As with the Ching Ming festival, people visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects. They also clean the tombstones, repaint inscriptions if necessary and make food offerings to the deceased.

This is a day with too much yang and not enough ying, and thus is an inauspicious day. Hiking up the highest hill that you can find is thought to ward off this ill luck.

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