Hong Kong puts on a fascinating seasonal show for Anna Harrison.
February is an odd time of year to visit Hong Kong. Everyone has gone home for the holidays and with office towers closed for a few days, the beating financial heart of the city is stilled. You find yourself enjoying a more relaxed version of the famous city. At the same time though, everything is decked out in red and gold and lion dancers are out blessing hotels and shops, culminating in a huge street parade and fireworks filling Victoria Harbour. Celebrating Chinese New Year here feels like you're in the centre of the world.
For millions of people around the globe, New Year begins on the first day of the lunar calendar and lasts 15 days until the lantern festival. It's the biggest annual migration in the world as people return to their hometowns to celebrate with family.
Obviously travelling at this time can be a nightmare. Public transport is crowded to say the least. But once you're in Hong Kong, it's impossible not to be swept up in the excitement.
The best thing to do is to throw yourself into the festivities by visiting the flower markets at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. They're open for a week in the lead-up to new year, with vendors enthusiastically selling their bouquets into the wee small hours. Join the throngs of people and you'll find yourself pulled about in the sweet-smelling nighttime air as you make your way around the peonies, bowls of narcissus and walls of pink and purple orchids. Spindly peach and plum trees and squat mandarin and kumquat trees, laden with fruit, are very popular. You'll find both all around the city too, at shops and restaurants — the citrus fruits represent gold while the delicate pink blossoms are for romance and those hoping to find love.
As for me I'm tempted to buy the oddest looking thing I see — a miniature tree made of the aptly-named nipplefruit. But the pointy pyramid represents the blessing of having five generations in one household and that's one thing I don't think I could handle. I stick to the safer option of red gladioli, for career advancement, and hold them high above my head as I move through the crowds to prevent them being crushed. Like buying a tree at Christmas, everyone comes to the market to deck out their homes with foliage for the new year. On the last night you'll get some bargains too as the stallholders are keen to sell the last of their blooms before they're left with only the bruised and wilted ones and a carpet of leaves stripped off before sale.
When the noise and crowds become too much, we slip away to Second Draft, a quiet bar nearby popular with expats and those who don't have a family home to get to for the holidays. The minty green decor and wooden horseshoe bar are homey and animated young Kevin talks us through the local craft beers with such brilliant names as Cereusly?!
and The Big Bad Baptist. The Rye on Wood by Young Master is excellent but it's best to order a tasting paddle, so you can try a few, and we do. The celebrated May Chow is the chef behind the kitchen and I am surprised by how simple and tasty her quirky gastropub fusion fare is.
New Year is also the time of the Che Kung Festival — the second day of the lunar calendar is his birthday. So over the next few days people flock to the Taoist temple at Sha Tin to pray for the wheel of fortune to turn in their favour. Upon arrival we are greeted by rows upon rows of foil pinwheels, blinding in the sun, while in the courtyard roiling smoke makes my eyes water and the smell of sandalwood gets stuck in my throat. I get three piddly thin sticks of incense — some are as fat as your arm — and hold them up to avoid burning a small hole in the jacket of the man in front.
Inside the temple the golden statue of Che Kung towers over us, scowling at his worshippers, with deep-set eyes and a firm mouth framed by a sloping moustache. Even the generous flower displays, fruit offerings and thousands of incense sticks seem unable to please him.
He was a Song Dynasty general around 1200, known for his impressive powers in suppressing plagues as well as uprisings. People still come to pray for health and protection but also for peace, money and success. When I finally make it to the front there are so many incense sticks in the sand bowls, a row of men in face masks have to clear them, dunking them in a bucket of dirty water before chucking them out. I plant mine and make a half-hearted wish for world peace in general — I should have thought this through more carefully beforehand — then turn to watch the people at the side drawing lucky chopsticks. Kneeling on one of the cushions, they earnestly shake the container of numbered sticks until one falls out, and take note of its associated poem to give to the fortune teller afterwards.
Outside, I follow the flow to go and flick the brass fortune wheel to bring good luck and hit the drum three times to show gratitude. These New Year rites draw all sorts of people.
Some look like they're badly in need of some fortune. A gaunt older man holds his pinwheel up in front of him as a sort of talisman against unknown fears. But others seem to have all the luck they could need — one woman juggles her incense and her Louis Vuitton handbag while a young guy saunters along with three huge incense sticks hoisted on his shoulder. Even in worship it's about the size of your offering, it seems.
But New Year is not just about the ritual of worship. As with any major celebration, the best bit is enjoying festive treats. In the area of Wan Chai we find sanctuary in the quiet shop of tea master May Chan. There she runs classes pairing different teas with the sweets, seeds and nuts, dried fruits and sesame balls of the New Year candy box. Her Homeland Tea Garden is like an apothecary's shop with herbs and leaves to remedy different ailments. Holding her black teapot up high, she pours the hot water into the gaiwan at just the right angle, opening up the leaves to release their fragance and getting just the right swirling movement in the water. She even tells us how a slightly different porcelain cup — one a little wider, the other taller with more of an out-turned lip — changes the taste of the tea. I'm pretty sceptical at first, until I try it and even I can tell that one tastes lighter while the second is more floral.
We try all sorts: an aromatic jasmine tea, a rare white tea, glowing amber-coloured oolong tea and the dark, earthy pu'er tea, which is good for digestion. The art of cultivating and drinking tea seems to be even more complex than that of wine and it would take a lifetime to master it.
Chan, in fact, is one of only five tea masters in Hong Kong at Grade 2 — she is preparing to apply to be Grade 1. She says you have to respect the life in the tea. Brewing helps you to slow down, she says, and you cannot make tea when you are angry or it will taste bitter. I shudder to think what she would make of my hurried habits at home, splashing water on to a bag of Earl Grey in a chipped mug. Unlike my supermarket-bought brew, the teas in May's shop are of such a high quality, you can brew some of them 15 or 20 times and still enjoy their rich depth of flavour.
As well as tea and sweets, there are plenty of other New Year delicacies to try. Top of the list is the ubiquitous nian gao. These sticky cakes made from glutinous rice are popular because the name sounds like the Mandarin for "higher year". The one I have is sweet with brown sugar, and pan-fried so it is crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
You can also get savoury taro cake and turnip cake, often made with shiitake mushrooms and dried shrimp or sausages, from dim sum restaurants at this time of year.
Many restaurants add lo hei, or yu sheng, the prosperity toss salad, to their menu as well. It's a dish popular in Malaysia and Singapore and it comes as a colourful mountain of food, with layers of raw fish, shredded vegetables, golden crackers, scallops and abalone if you're lucky, all topped with crushed peanuts and dressings. The idea is your whole table works together to toss the salad, drawing it up into the air with your chopsticks to mix it, saying New Year wishes as you go and bringing more riches for everyone. If it sounds messy, it is. But it's also really fun and makes me feel like a kid again, about to be told off for playing with my food. Yum Cha in Tsim Sha Tsui does a salmon one or if you're on Lantau Island, go to the Heritage Hotel down the end of Tai O village and have a really fishy-flavoured one — the area is known for its shrimp paste and salted fish.
Afterwards, you can wander back through the streets and buy homemade snacks from locals selling out of their back door.
Places like Tai O give you a taste of what it must be like to have everyone home for the holidays on the Chinese mainland. The fishing village built on stilts over the tidal flats of Lantau is bustling. Families gather in restaurants, homes and backyards for reunion dinners and barbecues, and games of mahjong are played in earnest along the back streets — curious onlookers are shooed away as we might bring bad luck.
New Year is a time to reconnect with family but it can also bring its own pressures, especially for young professionals making their way in the big city. You can hire a fake girlfriend or boyfriend to take home to your family for the holidays to avoid all those awkward questions about your love life. Might not be a half bad idea actually. But everyone here is in a festive mood and greets each other with a Kung Hei Fat Choi, (Gong Hey Phut Choy when I say it in my Kiwinglish accent) wishing more wealth and blessings on you in the year ahead.
Back in the city on new year's night, the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui are teeming with people, jostling for position along the route of the big parade. And it feels like all the world has gathered here to celebrate. It's a spectacle that ranges from the impressive to the bizarre with ballerinas in poodle costumes and LED dresses, extreme pogo stuntmen and belly dancers alongside traditional cultural performances, floats and humungous balloon characters.
The international section is well represented with American cheerleaders in barely there outfits, a French cabaret swanning about with feathers, a street circus from the Netherlands and a bunch of Sanrio characters from Japan, including Hello Kitty, waving along to the crowd.
Two TV star MCs are trying to get people pumped up for the live broadcast. But it's the dancing kids who are the real stars of the show — a group of local youngsters dressed in Chanel-style jackets, fake pearls and boy bags draw the biggest cheers. Then, towards the end, the dragon and lion dancers come out, jumping up and around in time with the ear-splitting drums.
The only thing that could top this is the famous fireworks extravaganza the next night.
The Chinese masters of pyrotechnics know how it's done with almost half an hour of sparkle, shimmer and big bang explosions planned to light up the night sky over Victoria Harbour. But sadly this year's show is cancelled after a tragic bus crash in the city only a few days earlier. Several people were killed in the accident so the Government has called off the display out of respect for the victims. It's a laudable step but I can't help feeling a little disappointed.
With the evening freed up, we decide to take the gentle old Star Ferry across to the Kowloon side of the city instead. If you go through the huge Harbour City mall there and out to the Ocean Terminal Deck, you'll find the perfect vantage point for a sunset with stunning views over the water.
So we find a spot to sit and watch as the sun sinks into the sea, turning the sky golden. And as dusk finally settles, the skyscrapers of the city light up, and happy New Year messages glitter across the skyline, wishing us long life and prosperity.
Cathay Pacific flies daily from Auckland direct to Hong Kong, with Economy Class return flights available from $1439, on sale until November 30.
The Murray is centrally located, at 22 Cotton Tree Dr.
Chinese New Year falls on February 5, 2019. For further information on events, go to discoverhongkong.com.