Since the time of Emperor Wu Ti of the Han Dynasty (141–87 BC), acknowledged as one of the greatest of Chinese emperors, the Chinese New Year has fallen on the second new moon following the winter solstice, which means that in 2010 it will be on 14th February. And the usual signs of its impending arrival have been gathering for the past fortnight, starting with a gradual increase in the price of oranges, always popular at this time of year. In fact, a lot of prices go up: in some cases, traders claim that it’s their way of receiving lai see (the ‘lucky money’ that is given in red packets at this time of year), but given that, traditionally, lai see is given only by older people to those younger than them, this can be seen as the pathetic excuse for blatant profiteering that it is. And it doesn’t explain why the dim sum in our local restaurant have had $2 per dish slapped on the price; but increased custom (from non-regulars) does.
The supermarkets are also busier, and so are the temporary flower markets that spring up all over the territory, which do a brisk trade in peach trees of various sizes (the symbol of longevity), potted kumquat trees (the symbol of good health), potted chrysanthemums and cut flowers, mainly lilies and gladioli. Other popular goods on sale include tinsel windmills (for the children). Unsurprisingly, nowadays these have eight separate miniature windmills on a plastic frame, because eight is the lucky number in Chinese culture. And good fortune and the means for ensuring that it comes your way are an integral part of modern new year observances.
The weather was unseasonally cold for about three weeks over Christmas, which played havoc with the local peach trees. Although growers have a range of tricks up their sleeves to ensure that the blossom appears at the required time, this year I noticed that many local trees were sprouting leaves a week early (the blossom precedes the leaves). Not to worry: the trees will be bigger next year and will thus fetch a higher price (the trees that are ready are sold like Christmas trees, that is with the roots sawn off).
The flower markets open about two weeks beforehand, and stallholders make an obscene amount of money, judging by how much they are prepared to pay to rent a pitch for just a fortnight. However, if you baulk at paying the prices charged, you can always wait until about 5am on New Year’s Day, when the stalls close for the last time. Anything that hasn’t been sold is available at a small fraction of the original asking price. But nothing is free, of course: whatever remains after the knockdown bargains is trashed to ensure that it is beyond use.
However, a cheapskate like me has an even better solution. Don’t buy any of this surplus vegetation in the first place. There is certainly no chance that I’d be found in Victoria Park in the early hours of the new year, and even less that I’d be found at Che Kung Temple in Shatin or Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon, which attract so many visitors eager to check up on their fortunes for the coming year that the police have to implement crowd-control measures. There is only one place that I want to be at midnight.
Although I’ve seen a lot of new year celebrations in Hong Kong over the years, last year was the first living where we do now, and I didn’t realize how much I still had to learn about how rural people mark the occasion. One thing you will never see in the city is firecrackers, because they’ve been illegal here since the 1967 riots. However, that’s clearly only a minor difficulty around these parts. How else could the ghosts of the old year be frightened away?
Our house faces a natural amphitheatre of hills, close on the left, slightly further away on the right and more distant straight ahead, and a single bang from behind the house comes back as five or six separately identifiable echoes. And there are a lot of villages behind and to the right of our house. And all of them set off huge quantities of firecrackers at midnight. Last year, we were caught by surprise when this happened: my first reaction was that it was another war game by the People’s Liberation Army, which took over the old British army base in front of the house in 1997. We’d seen such exercises (in daylight) for four days just before Christmas prior to some kind of demonstration that was put on for a group of visiting big hats, who arrived in black limousines for the show and disappeared as discreetly as they arrived, or as discreetly as it is possible to be when travelling in a convoy of large limousines. We didn’t realize at first that it had just turned midnight. The cacophony, complete with multiple echoes, lasted almost thirty minutes and was a lot more entertaining to listen to than a piece by Harrison Birtwistle.
So you will have to excuse me! It’s five minutes to midnight and I’m going up to the roof to take a seat. And, in case you were wondering, the title of this post is the traditional greeting at this time of year, expressing the hope that the coming year will be a prosperous one. Kung hei fat choi. Fat chance.