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, Chinese New Year is known as Lunar New Year and the Spring Festival in China and takes place sometime between late January and early February, ushering in days-long festivities that centre around family and auspiciousness.
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, greet each other with ‘lucky’ expressions and also carry out rituals that – you guessed it – are considered auspicious.
There’s an emphasis on spending time with loved ones, and home visits among relatives take place throughout the New Year period. One of the most famous Chinese New Year traditions, of course, 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 Chinese New Year lasts about 15 days from the first day of the lunar month, in Hong Kong it is chiefly celebrated during the first three days, which are public holidays.
Each day has a different significance. Families gather to enjoy a ‘reunion dinner’ together on New Year’s Eve. During the first three days of the New Year holiday, cleaning of any kind is believed to be unlucky because it will ‘sweep away’ good fortune – so many families will do their spring cleaning two days beforehand.
For families, the first day of the New Year is usually spent with relatives on the father’s side. On the second day, married daughters visit their parents. And on the third day – when disagreements between people are traditionally believed to be a risk – many in Hong Kong opt to visit temples to pray for good fortune.
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, offering bowl feasts for a minimum of six people.
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. For something trendier, John Anthony prioritises sustainability in sourcing dishes like slow-cooked Canadian salmon and poached giant grouper.
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 – in 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.
Major Chinese New Year Events in Hong Kong
New for 2020, a four-day carnival will take place in lieu of the traditional night parade in Tsim Sha Tsui (25-28 January). Expect performances by local and international acts as well as food stalls, booth games and an exuberant atmosphere. To feel the New Year spirit in full force, this is the place to be.
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 Lunar New Year’s day, thousands flock to the New Territories village of Lam Tsuen. Today joss wishes are attached to wooden racks instead. The wishful spirit, however, is very much alive.
On the second day of Chinese New Year, Hong Kong puts on a spectacular firework display over Victoria Harbour (save the date for 26 January 2020). To get the best views, stand with the crowds on either side of the harbour – or book ahead to snag a table at sky-high bars and restaurants with unparalleled harbour views, like northern Chinese restaurant Hutong in Tsim Sha Tsui or Café Gray Deluxe at The Upper House hotel in Admiralty. Get even closer to the action with a fireworks cruise on the Aqua Luna.
Come Chinese New Year, floral decorations appear at just about every corner in Hong Kong. Blooms are believed to bring luck and prosperity. Numerous flower markets spring up across the city – one of the largest and most popular is held at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay.
Wong Tai Sin Temple, an important site for Buddhists, Taoists and Confucianists, is especially popular on the third day of Chinese New Year, with many worshippers presenting their prayers in the kau cim tradition of shaking a cylinder full of fortune-telling sticks, something that many visitors find fascinating to witness.
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.