Festivals and events

Spreading Joy Through the Chinese New Year Custom of Fai Chun

Michelle Lam traces the evolution of fai chun, traditional Chinese New Year calligraphy that's taken on a distinctly Hong Kong style of comedy

In Hong Kong, chilly temperatures, peach blossoms ready for sale and big family reunions send a clear signal: Chinese New Year is here. But if you want an extra clue, there’s also fai chun, the ubiquitous strips of red paper with auspicious four-character sayings: ‘success in all things’, ‘good health’ or simply ‘happy new year’.

You might also notice ones with interesting slang sayings, however, a popular one being ‘smoother than a stick of sugarcane’. It gets lost in translation, but in Cantonese it’s a breezy phrase meaning things going as planned. These fai chun show how tradition changes to fit modern culture – but also how old practices are upheld through their evolution.

I still remember the traditional messages. As a child, I once came upon a wooden stall where an old man sat quietly, painting beautiful words on red paper in black and gold ink, with lines like dancing ribbons. He then handed me one of his sheets of paper without asking for anything in return. Later I learned that the lines were a calligraphy wish for me to grow up strong, and it became a cherished possession.

The tradition of fai chun started about 1,400 years ago, when they were charms carved out of peach wood in the shape of the gods guarding the gates to the underworld to ward off evil. The charms then evolved into red pieces of paper with new year’s wishes, which are taped onto doors. The most popular one of all is probably fook, meaning ‘good fortune’, emblazoned on a diamond-shaped paper, which is often hung upside down to symbolise pouring the luck.

But calligraphers writing fai chun on the street are a rare sight these days. Today’s fai chun are usually mass-printed with cartoons and 3D words. They are pretty and flawless decorations, but no longer intimate gifts for others. Some Hongkongers embrace them around Chinese New Year, either seriously for good luck or, with the comedic fai chun, for ironic effect. Apart from ‘smoother than a stick of sugarcane’, you might also see these modern fai chun around Hong Kong: ‘eat a lot without getting fat’ and ‘reward without effort’ (an idiom connoting laziness). It’s fun seeing these fai chun around.

In turn, traditional handwritten fai chun have become something special. If you ever receive one, or better yet, write one as a gift, cherish it as more than decoration: they are beautiful objects spreading something good in life among loved ones, or even among strangers.

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