Note: Remember to keep an eye on the latest COVID-19 regulations and confirm any details before you head out.
Among all Hong Kong’s holidays, Chinese New Year is the most important for locals and the Chinese diaspora. Celebrating the beginning of a new year according to the lunar calendar, it takes place sometime between late January and mid-February, ushering in days-long festivities that centre around family and fortune.
The origins are unclear; one story says that people began offering animals to the gods at the beginning of spring, hoping for a prosperous year ahead. During Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, people enjoy special dishes believed to bring good fortune, fill their homes with fresh flowers and carry out other auspicious rituals.
Visits among relatives typically take place throughout the New Year period, although plans will be different in 2021 given social distancing measures. One of the most famous Chinese New Year traditions is lai see – red packets containing money, which married people are meant to give to younger, unmarried family, friends and acquaintances. It’s believed to bring good luck to the giver and the recipient.
While the holiday lasts about 15 days from the first day of the lunar month, Chinese New Year in Hong Kong is chiefly celebrated during the first three days, which are public holidays. Here are some foods and activities to set yourself up for good luck in 2021, the Year of the Ox.
Classic Chinese New Year Foods
A family-style southern Chinese dish that is heavily associated with the walled villages of the New Territories in Hong Kong, poon choi has become a go-to option for many families during Chinese New Year. Translating as ‘bowl feast’, it’s typically served inside a large metal basin containing a long list of ingredients, including seafood, meat and vegetables. Ping Shan Traditional Poon Choi in Yuen Long in the New Territories specialises in this delicacy.
No Chinese New Year meal is complete without fish, which symbolises surplus and fortune, and the majority of Cantonese restaurants – especially those with seafood tanks – will have steamed or braised fish on the menu. For a taste of casual, homestyle cooking, try Ho Choi Seafood Restaurant, a chain that’s popular with local families.
A Chinese New Year dish originating from Southeast Asia, lo hei – literally ‘toss high’ and also known as ‘prosperity toss’ – has gained popularity in Hong Kong in recent years. A raw fish salad, it consists of shredded vegetables and raw salmon. Diners toss it with their chopsticks, aiming as high as possible – an act that symbolises prosperity. In Hong Kong, several restaurants offer their own spin: try Ho Lee Fook’s version, which uses hamachi sashimi and sweet and sour yuzu and plum dressing.
The Cantonese name for this delicacy, fat choy, is a homophone of the phrase ‘strike it rich’. A prized ingredient that’s become increasingly hard to come by, sea moss is primarily sold in dried seafood shops like those around Des Voeux Road West and Wing Lok Street in Sheung Wan. Families prepare it at home as part of a Chinese New Year meal.
Glutinous Rice Balls
Symbolising ‘union’ and ‘togetherness’, these sticky, sweet treats are usually stuffed with sweet bean paste or sesame paste. One of Hong Kong’s most famous spots for them is Kai Kai, where Ningbo-style glutinous rice balls with sesame filling, served in ginger broth, are a signature. Expect to wait in line: Kai Kai has a Bib Gourmand recommendation in the Michelin guide.
Celebrating Chinese New Year in Hong Kong
Malls around town are getting in the spirit with elaborate themed displays and promotional offers. Langham Place, for instance, features Disney Tsum Tsum characters dressed up as the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, while K11 has pop-up shops with Chinese New Year gifts. Hotels, too, are embracing the Year of the Ox with special decor, menus and staycations. The Peninsula is even hosting a lion dance performance on its famed helipad that will be broadcast on its social media channels on 12 February 2021.
Come Chinese New Year, floral decorations appear at just about every corner in Hong Kong. Orchids, peach blossoms and pussy willows are among the blooms believed to bring luck and prosperity. Numerous flower markets spring up across the city – one of the largest and most popular is normally held at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. These markets are going ahead in 2021, with some crowd-control measures and a reduced numbers of stalls.
For many, the third day of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong calls for visiting a temple. At Wong Tai Sin Temple, an important site for Buddhists, Taoists and Confucianists, worshippers present their prayers in the kau cim tradition of shaking a cylinder full of fortune-telling sticks, something that visitors may find fascinating to witness. At Che Kung Temple in Sha Tin, locals wait their turn to spin the fan-bladed wheel of fortune.
Hongkongers often hit the hiking trails during public holidays and Chinese New Year is no exception. The weather is usually cool and crisp, and many trails require heading up a mountain – in other words, aiming high in the New Year. Take your pick among these easy and more challenging Hong Kong hikes.
Horse racing is a passion in Hong Kong, and crowds normally flock to Sha Tin for the annual Chinese New Year Race Day. The action returns 14 February 2021 on television – there are no spectators this year, given the ongoing pandemic.
Write a wish on joss paper and tie it to one of these banyans, and your wish will come true – so goes the legend. That’s why, on a typical Lunar New Year’s day, thousands flock to the New Territories village of Lam Tsuen and attach joss wishes to wooden racks. While the wishful spirit is very much alive, the site will be temporarily closed to the public from 12 to 26 February 2021 as a COVID-19 precaution.
Other traditions that we’ll miss in 2021 include the Chinese New Year parade in Tsim Sha Tsui and the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour, both of which are cancelled. Check the Hong Kong Tourism Board for details about possible virtual celebrations and the launch of an online marketplace of festive treats.
Chinese New Year Etiquette
Don the colour red, which is believed to bring good luck.
Give out red lai see packets to those who provide you with service, such as door and security staff and office cleaners, as a gesture of goodwill.
Be gracious in accepting red packets, or servings of food, from elders.
Avoid discussing bad news or using words associated with misfortune, such as death.
Don’t clean or cut your hair on the first day of the new year – this is believed to wash your good fortune away.
Don’t clean your home during the first three days, as it will similarly ‘sweep away’ your fortune. Instead many locals do their spring cleaning two days beforehand.