Celebrate Chinese New Year, Hong Kong style

For anyone not of Chinese descent, Chinese New Year is a confusing concept. Travelers who visit Hong Kong during this important festival are likely to have questions. What’s the significance? How do you celebrate? But fortunately, Hong Kong is the perfect introduction to this most significant of Chinese celebrations. Hong Kong’s unique blend of familiar Western amenities and authentic Chinese culture make it the perfect place to begin your Chinese New Year experience.

Understanding and enjoying Chinese New Year in Hong Kong depends on three distinct activities: the main rituals, the typical foods and the public celebrations. Each of these activities is tied to longstanding Chinese traditions, dating back centuries, and are designed to ensure good health and prosperity in the year ahead. Experiencing the festival in the dense urban environment of Hong Kong adds an additional layer of fun, allowing you to enjoy the festivities on a huge scale.

Ever wanted to learn more about Chinese New Year? Don’t know the Year of the Tiger from the Year of the Ox? Let’s take a closer look at how to celebrate in Hong Kong and how to get started. Keep reading below for more.The Rituals
To truly understand Chinese New Year, you need to get familiar with the festival’s unique rituals. The best place to get started is at Hong Kong’s Chinese temples, where citizens head to pray for good luck, burn incense sticks and have their fortunes told. Hong Kong’s most famous temple is Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon, which sees nearly 300,000 visitors during the New Year festivities.

Upon arriving at Wong Tai Sin, take a moment to soak in the temple’s solemn atmosphere with worshipers bent on their knees, the air thick with sweet incense smoke. Grab a tube of fortune sticks from the table near the entrance to inquire on your prospects for the year ahead. Ask a question, give the cylinder a shake, and wait for a stick with a number to fall out. Then bring your number to one of Wong Tai Sin’s numerous fortune tellers to have it interpreted. Good or bad, the answers you receive are meant to help guide your decisions in the year ahead.

The Foods
Chinese New Year is a time heavy with symbolism. This is particularly true of the holiday’s typical foods, all of which are laden with spiritual significance. Everything that’s eaten during these important days is intended to bring prosperity, happiness, longevity and good fortune in the months ahead.

A good place to begin your culinary exploration is at Hong Kong’s daily markets. In neighborhoods like Wan Chai, you’ll find a flurry of activity in the days leading up to the festivities, as market goers pick up supplies for the traditional reunion dinner. Butchers wield cleavers like madmen, chopping, hacking and yelling. Giant carp thrash about in bubbling fish tanks. Typical Chinese New Year foods are everywhere. At the dried goods stalls you’ll find a variety of New Year specialties like chocolate coins, dried oysters and Chinese Sausage. At the produce stalls, take your pick from New Year favorites like juicy mandarin oranges or crunchy melon seeds.

Each New Year food has been specially chosen to bring good luck in the New Year. For instance, the Cantonese word for dried oysters (ho see) sounds similar to the words for “wealth and good business.” It’s eating that’s as much about symbolism as it is about the taste.

The Events

The celebration of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong happens on a scale and size like nowhere else. The city’s seven million residents come out in force to enjoy a variety of festive activities surrounding this annual event.

On the first day of the New Year is the annual Hong Kong Chinese New Year Parade, packed with colorful floats, wild drumming, manic dragon dancers and throngs of spectators. The parade is a microcosm of Hong Kong’s frenzied street life, awash in a flurry of sensory delights. Make sure to secure yourself a spot a few hours early and watch out for pickpockets, as the crowds can be intense.

On the second day of the New Year, the city celebrates with a massive fireworks display over Victoria Harbor. Few places in the world can boast of such an impressive light show set against the city’s towering skyline. Whether you choose to watch from the harbor or from on high at The Peak, you’re sure to have some of the best seats in the house.

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Hong Kong is much like the city itself – an overwhelming array of sensory pleasures and confusing rituals. But with a little background info from Gadling and a spirit of fun, you’re guaranteed to enjoy all it has to offer. Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Wet Carp Wars in Wessex

Right after Neil’s reminiscing about Christmas carp in Eastern Europe, comes a funny article in the Wall Street Journal today.

The British take their carp fishing pretty seriously, as evidenced by glossy mags like Carp Addict and Carp-Talk. Now, with the “invasion” of Eastern Europeans moving into Western Europe, as a result of the easing of work and travel restrictions because of EU membership, something fishy is going on.

Eastern Europeans are actually, gulp!, eating prized British carp. The Brits think nothing of spending $15 to $40 per day for the rights to test their skills against the wily fish, but they release their catch. Carp are smart, learn their lessons, and get bigger (50+ pounds even!) and more wary of fisherman, thus making fishing even more interesting.

This “tradition,” however, comes square up against traditions of folks like the Poles (and Czechs), who love to actually eat the fish for Christmas. So much for catch-and-release. One lake owner in Essex has gone so far as to ban Eastern Europeans from his property, for fear that they’ll eat his prize stock.

And it’s not that the fishing Poles are there for the sport: they say they’d happily buy the fish if it were sold at markets.

Real Fishermen–Carpe Diem

Neil’s post about goulash reminded me of another controversial Czech specialty – fried carp. Don’t make that disgusted face! Carp can actually taste good, if prepared properly.

Europe has a fascinating history of fish farming, or aquaculture, dating back to the Middle Ages. Historically, monasteries were the centers of the nascent fishing “industry,” and many ponds were created to feed members of the Church.

This tradition dates back to the 11th century, and spread throughout Europe. My home country, the Czech Republic, was one of the biggest fishing centers, sporting as many as 25,000 fish ponds by the 15th century.

The primary meal fish is, and has been, carp, but eel, pike, perch, and trout are also common–and tasty–fish “crops.”

The tradition continues to this day, but you’ll have to travel a little out of the way to see it in action. You’re not going to see these events on a tour bus or just sitting around in the city. No, you’re going to have to get out to the country, to a local fish farmer.

The most common, most efficient, method is to drain the lake to one end, and just scoop up net-fulls of thrashing fish. In Czech, we call it a “vylov” (pronounced “VEE-lof”). The modern method usually goes like this: men from the village are invited to come at 4am, warmly dressed, ready to get drunk, and get wet. Waders or tall waterproof boots are required. Big, burly men catch, separate, and weigh the fish, which are quickly put into holding tanks on big trucks–essentially aquariums on wheels. Water, fish, and body-warming slivovice (90+ proof clear plum brandy–preferably homemade) are sloshed around in a frenzy until the lake is emptied. The pace slows somewhat, as the slivovice kicks in, but it’s still a blur of activity. The day is capped off by a big feast for the participants, with, of course, delicious dishes made of fish: fish soup, smoked fish, and fried fish.

Once a tanker truck is full, it’s bound for markets all over Europe, or, at Christmas time, particularly in Germany and the former Eastern block, the fish end up in big barrels for purchase by families who can’t wait to put their carp in the bathtub, where they swim briefly before being prepared in the Christmas Eve dinner.

Unfortunately, the European Union’s ridiculous, burdensome regulations are killing local agriculture and aquaculture. Better get there soon, or it will all be gone.