Starting a few weeks before Lunar New Year, age-old habits and customs heavily imbued with symbolism crop up all over the modern metropolis of Hong Kong: The neon decorations of Santa Claus and Rudolph that adorn the skyscrapers during Christmas transform into the bearded God of Longevity and his deer—a symbol for a long, illustrious career. Malls are decked with scrolls of calligraphy, peach blossoms (symbolizing luck), kumquats (luck and wealth), and red lanterns (prosperity). Even the impressive pyrotechnics that set the sky ablaze above Victoria Harbour are rooted in ritual—the ancient Chinese set bamboo stalks on fire, believing that the crackling sounds would frighten away demons. Roughly a thousand years ago, a monk decided to fill bamboo tubes with gunpowder to get more bang for his buck, and the tradition stuck.
If you think getting ready for Thanksgiving is stressful, preparations for Chinese New Year are even more intense, often beginning a month in advance with a whirlwind of activity. There’s the hubbub of cleaning the whole house, especially the family altar; buying dried seafood and cakes for ritual gifts; getting a haircut and new clothes (from outer to underwear); purchasing plants to spruce up the feng shui; lining up for crisp new banknotes at the ATM to fill the red packets given to children, unmarried relatives, and employees.
This year, the festivities run from February 13 to March 3, with the first three days of the Lunar New Year (Feb 19–21) observed as public holidays. Visitors should note that smaller, independent establishments may be closed, but bigger businesses remain open. If you’re in town for the festivities, here are the events you can’t miss:
The traditional markets (pictured below) start a week before Chinese New Year’s Eve, with stalls of festive decorations, seasonal snacks, flowers, and kumquats for miles. Hong Kongers will come for the bustling ambience and to stock up on auspicious plants for their home. With the Year of the Ram coming, expect a cute overload of sheep-themed toys and accoutrements. The two biggest and most carnivalesque of markets—Victoria Park and Fa Hui Park—make for a mirthful albeit maddening experience, especially on the night before the New Year; a post-midnight crowd steps out for bargain blooms after the highly important New Year’s Eve dinner spent with the whole family.
February 11–18; 14 public parks and fairgrounds throughout the city, including Victoria Park (Causeway Bay station), Hong Kong Island, and Fa Hui Park, Mongkok, Kowloon.
The spectacle that is the annual Night Parade by the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront is a must-see, with dragon dances, fantastic floats, and a kaleidoscope of international performing groups that includes high-kicking Shaolin monks, K-pop dancers, European acrobats, and even American cheerleaders. The streets get seriously packed (around 150,000 people), so come early to claim your territory. The best vantage points can be found along Canton Road, Haiphong Road, or the junction of Nathan and Peking Road outside Chungking Mansions. If elbowing through the crowds isn’t your thing, you can purchase tickets to watch from the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Piazza—or you can catch the entire event on the local channel TVB Jade from the comfort of your hotel room.
February 19, 8–9:45 PM; free or $40-50 for spectator seats at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Piazza; parade starts at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Piazza in Tsim Sha Tsui, proceeding to Canton, Haiphong and Nathan Road, ending near Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel.
Wishing Trees of Lam Tsuen
The elaborate floats used in the night parade will be on display at Lam Tsuen village for a whole week after the event, and are worth a closer look. Lam Tsuen is also home to two famous wishing trees, which locals visit to help amp up the New Year’s resolutions. Write out your hopes and dreams on joss paper, tie it to an orange and hoist them onto the sacred banyans’ branches. Some of the international groups from the Night Parade will also be doing repeat performances, so if you miss the night parade, make sure you head to Lam Tsuen.
February 19–26; Lam Tsuen Wishing Square, Lam Tsuen, Tai Po, New Territories.
Hong Kong Pulse 3D Night Show
A new event this year is an incandescent 3D light show with special audiovisual effects at the Cultural Centre and Clock Tower. Four times per night, a scintillatingly psychedelic Chinese New Year-themed 3D animated projection will be featured on the façade of the Cultural Centre—worth stopping to see, if you’re in the area.
February 14–March 5, blackout date on February 19; Hong Kong Cultural Centre and Clock Tower, Tsim Sha Tsui.
Firecrackers have been banned in densely populated, urban Hong Kong, but the fine tradition of blowing things up to keep the evil spirits away continues: The second day of the Lunar New Year features a 25-minute pyrotechnic extravaganza above Victoria Harbour. Boat companies will offer junk trips out into the water, while roof top bars (Aqua, Hutong, Sevva, Wooloomooloo) and the big hotels by the waterfront (Four Seasons, InterContinental, Mandarin Oriental, Ritz-Carlton) will offer jaw-dropping views of the dazzling light show against the vivid backdrop of towering skyscrapers. Make sure to book early for a table; you’ll be competing with thousands.
February 20, 8:00PM; Victoria Harbour, between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui.
New Year Races
The third day of the Lunar New Year is known as Tsek Hau (literally “red mouth”) and is considered a likely time to get into spats and shouting matches. Hence, visits to family and friends stop on this day, and locals head to the temples for some divine help. Gamblers also hit the track today for some horseracing action. There, you can yell at the top of your lungs at the jockeys.
February 21, 11AM–6PM; Members' Enclosure with Tourist Badge can be purchased for $15; Sha Tin Racecourse, Sha Tin, New Territories.