Chinese New Year is the most significant festival of the year in Hong Kong. Learn all about the festival and how to celebrate it by reading this article. Use the contents table below to navigate directly to the area of your interest.
Chinese New Year (CNY) aka lunar new year is one of the most celebrated festivals in Hong Kong. The first three days of the first month in the lunar calendar are public holidays in Hong Kong. For the year 2019, it falls on Tuesday 5th of February 2019 on the regular calendar. In the Chinese zodiac cycle, this will be the Year of the Pig or 亥, pronounced roughly as for the English word “jew” but without the final ‘w’ sound.
This is such a big festival that most offices and many shops and small restaurants will be closed on those three days. In some industries, it is common to remain closed for much longer, even up to 8, 10 or 15 days. The bigger but more traditional Dim Sum or seafood restaurants tend to stay open but may have restricted menus and add substantial additional 20% service charges. Even restaurants that don’t usually charge 10% will add-on an additional fee during this period.
Hotels, fast food chains and coffee shops will not be affected though they may simply be busier as so many other things are closed.
The industries which tend to close for longer periods, including most things to do with building and construction as well as the publishing and printing companies, do so for a combination of practical and traditional reasons. Historically many of the workers in these businesses came directly from the Mainland of China and would take this once-a-year chance to go back and visit their families for the important near year family gathering. These long-distance trips back to their hometowns mean that for a long period they would be away from their jobs in Hong Kong anyway so the businesses here might as well close.
When it comes to eating out in Hong Kong during Chinese New Year also watch out for the day or the weekend before Chinese New Year because families will have a get-together-dinner in Chinese restaurants. You either reserve a table or try a different cuisine, though increasingly families go to buffets or other celebratory restaurants rather than sticking to the traditional Cantonese style.
In this article you will find information that will help :
- Visitors to Hong Kong who will be here during the CNY period, including those considering whether or not to plan a vacation to coincide with celebration.
- Expatriates in Hong Kong who would like to know more about the CNY practices that they can see around them but maybe don’t fully understand.
- Those researching CNY in Hong Kong or in general, quite possibly for their homework. You know who you are! Make sure you quote and reference your primary sources correctly!
In the sections below you will find:
- Dates of the Lunar New Year and how it is calculated
- The effect on daily life in HK of the run-up to the new year and the subsequent days
- Things that are closed or hard to do around the New Year
- Traditional foods and practises
- Superstitions and cultural customs including what is “lucky” and unlucky to do around the new year
- Hong Kong specific events at the new year including the Flower Markets and Fireworks.
- Etiquette including greetings and red packets
- Dates For The Chinese New Year
- How The New Year Date Is Calculated
- Before The New Year: What Happens
- What Is Closed During The Chinese New Year
- Days Of The Chinese New Year Holiday
- Traditional Foods Eaten at Chinese New Year
- Traditions, Customs and Practises At CNY
- Lucky Things Around CNY
- What To Avoid: Lunar New Year Unlucky Things
- Chinese New Year Flower Markets
- The Lunar New Year Fireworks Display Over Victoria Harbour
- Lai See; Chinese Red Packets For New Year
- Greetings And Good Wishes For The New Year
- Fai Chun: Lucky Charms And Calligraphy
- Closures And Gettings Things Done
- Things you mustn’t miss
- The story of Chinese New Year
- Chinese New Year greeting cards
- New vs Old traditions
Dates For The Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is a lunar calendar festival, and so it falls on a different day of the ordinary or Gregorian Calendar each year but is always between January 21 and February 21 according to the western calendar.
Each year is associated with one animal of the Chinese Zodiac, a cycle of 12 animals which then repeats.
- 2018 – Friday 16th of February 2018 – Year of the Dog
- 2019 – Tuesday 5th of February 2019 – Year of the Pig
- 2020 – Saturday 25th of January 2020 – Year of the Rat or Mouse
- 2021 – Friday 12th of February 2021 – Year of the Ox
- 2022 – Tuesday 1st of February 20202 – Year of the Tiger
- 2023 – Sunday 22nd January 2023 – Year of the Rabbit
- 2024 – Saturday 10th February 2024 – Year of the Dragon
- 2025 – Wednesday 29th January 2025 – Year of the Snake
- 2026 – Tuesday 17th February – Year of the Horse
How the New Year Date is Calculated
The calculations are of the Lunar Calendar are complex indeed, but by using a few rules of thumbs, it is possible to calculate with reasonable accuracy.
Lunar New Year Day is the first day of the first month of the calendar and occurs when there is a full moon. This full moon should be the full moon that is closest to the beginning of the Chinese spring. Notice that all of these dates are relative to their appearance in China at the official observatory which is close, but not precisely lined up with Hong Kong.
The connection with Spring also explains why the festival is sometimes known as the “Spring Festival” even though it is rarely “spring weather” at the time, in fact, it is commonly one of the coldest times for weather in Hong Kong.
Each Chinese new year day is 11 days earlier than the previous one unless it goes before January 21 in which case one lunar month of 29.5 days is added, so it ends up jumping 18 days ahead. The half days, of course, can add up to “rounding errors” that makes things one day forwards or backwards.
For a more accurate prediction, it is safe to rely upon the calendar in your phone or Google; these are all loaded with lunar calendar dates well in advance.
If you would like a lot more detail, then read this fascinating academic article about the topic http://www.math.nus.edu.sg/aslaksen/calendar/chinese.shtml
Before the New Year: What Happens
In the run-up to the New Year, there are a lot of preparations made for the festive period. Foods are prepared or ordered, decorations purchased and plans made for the time. Busy shoe-shops and hairdressers vie with the Flower Markets as symbols of this time.
- Buy and fill Lai See packets to give to children, close friends or employees
- Buy or write your own lucky sayings on Fai Chun, the red or square strips of paper hang on doors
- Visit one of the Flower Markets, probably the largest one which is in Victoria Park
- Buy new clothes, particularly shoes
- Order New Year cakes, or make your own
- Clean the house, very important this one as during the new year period it is unlucky to do any cleaning, even touching a broom might bring catastrophe by “sweeping good luck away”. And then hang up the Fai Chun, put some
- Prepare the Chuen Hup snack box with roasted melon seeds and sweeties for good luck and happiness
- Wash your hair, as washing it on the first few days of the NY would be unlucky
- Pay off debts, as entering the new year with a clean slate will bring luck
- A big cleaning of the house
New Year’s Eve
On Lunar New Year’s Eve, most people will gather together with their closest family for dinner. To allow for this the majority of offices let their employees leave early, though early is competitive given that in many industries people often work unpaid overtime into the evening. On the day before Chinese New Year though everybody will be promptly out of the office door by 5 if not earlier.
This free time gives people the chance to buy a few last minute items, perhaps pick up a luxury turnip cake to give to your family, and then travel across the city to be with family to eat together.
What Is Closed During The Chinese New Year
The first three days of the Chinese New Year are official public holidays, they are “Gazzetted Holidays” and so all official offices such as government departments, banks, schools and general business are closed. However, customer-service oriented establishments such as hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions are generally open.
In the past, almost everything, even restaurants and cafes, closed for at least the first day of the new year. This is no longer the case even in residential and outlying parts of the city and so old articles that talk about this should be disregarded.
We asked a few example shops, attractions and eateries what their plans for opening hours during the holiday period are.
- Toys R Us – Open even on the First Day but stores may have different hours
- Hong Kong Wetlands Park – Open as normal
- Pacific Coffee – Varies store-by-store so check their announcements
- Madame Tussauds HK – Opens with their normal schedule every day
- McDonald’s – Open as usual during the CNY.
- Ikea – May run different service hours but will be open each day of the Chinese New Year.
- MX (Maxim’s fast food) – Most branches open on CNY
- Starbucks – Didn’t answer us!
First three days
- Banks, Government offices, Libraries, schools and offices are all closed as are typical offices
- Most doctors clinics, but not hospitals which remain open
- Museums all close on the first day and the second day but open on the third
- While street markets like Ladies Market and Temple Street Night Market are open visitors will find many individual shops or stalls close for the first day and many on the second day but by the third day they will be back to normal
Still open on the first three days
- Ocean Park, Disneyland, the Peak Tram, Star Ferry and other major tourist attractions are always open unless there is a typhoon signal no. 8 or higher.
- Hotels, including their restaurants, are open and often quite busy on the first day
- Fastfood restaurants such as “Maxim’s MX”, Starbucks and Pacific Coffe are open
Fourth day and after
Only a few industries continue to be closed, mostly those involving general labour such as building and construction.
If you are a local HK resident and decide to do a little DIY on your flat during the public holiday then you will be out of luck if you go to any of the normal places to get supplies. The shops in Sham Shui Po and Wanchai and
Days of The Chinese New Year Holiday
Chinese people are very conscious of the New Year holiday being a sequence of days. Each day is referred to by an individual name. During this period people will give dates based on the holiday. For example, rather than saying “I’ll go back to the office on Wednesday,” they might say “I’ll go back to the office on the 4th day of the new year”.
The first three days are 初一、初二 and 初三, which are pronounced phonetically as “Choor yat, choor yee, choor sarm”. The first word indicates it is a new year day, and the second is a number counting 1, 2 and 3 and so on.
Some people will include this up to eight or even 15. The 15th day is also the Spring Lantern festival, often considered to be the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s day as “let’s go and see the pretty lanterns” is always a good excuse to ask someone out on a date!
First Day of the Lunar New Year
The first day is, of course, New Year’s Day itself and a cause of great excitement in the house as all the preparations now come to fruition. While many things may be closed in public places the activities in private houses are happy and joyous.
- The traditional breakfast is the first order of business and people would enjoy eating fried slices of turnip cake, new year cake, and tea.
- Children are keen to receive their Lai See packets and look forward to spending it on toys. Or at least as much as their parents will allow!
- Opening the snack box which has been put on the table is also popular with kids as it contains tasty sweets and crispy savoury snacks.
The first day is the day for visiting family on your father’s side. Lots of people will be seen on the MTR and in the streets wearing their new best clothes, often bright incorporating some red, gold or shiny element particularly for children.
No proper meals are cooked on this day as everybody is busy talking, and nobody wants to do washing up. Not just for the normal reasons but because any cleaning is considered to be bad luck. Instead, people eat a lot of snacks, including a lot more of the fried turnip cake. This is not a day for diets!
On the second day of the Chinese New Year the tradition is to visit the family of your mother’s side.
The structure of the day, visiting and eating snacks is the same.
People eat more turnip cake and new year cake for breakfast then go out visiting.
The people who do not go out are those who are the most senior in their branch of the family. They stay home and prepare yet more snacks and traditional dishes for their visiting family and friends.
Children who have been collecting Lai See on the first day may wish to open some to have pocket money to spend on toys or sweets. A few toy shops will remain open to cater for these eager customers! Toy’s’R us is still popular even on the first day of the new year.
This day is when the Fireworks Display is held in Victoria Harbour, and watching this on TV or live is a tradition for the family.
Third Day and beyond
The third day of the New year is the day for visiting friends outside the family.
While visiting and feasting continues the days gradually return to a normal schedule.
That is particularly true of course for the working population for whom the days of holiday last only three days.
Many people take some additional vacation or annual leave days to extend their holiday but generally Hongkongers of the working population return to their office jobs on the fourth day of the new year.
Schools tend to have much longer vacations. Classes often continue up until just a day or two before the new year, then last for usually another two weeks. The details depend on how the holidays line up with the weekends during that particular year.
Traditional Foods Eaten at Chinese New Year
Any festival is a time for feasting and Chinese New Year is no different in this regard, but with the big family meal being the New Year’s eve the foods eaten during the festival period itself are more snacky.
Most of the foods have some associations with lucky or various types of good fortune. In the Chinese tradition foods that have names that sound like auspicious terms are preferred during festivals.
The new year’s eve dinner will always include Chicken, typically deep fried, a Buddhist vegetarian dish which includes oysters (Buddha apparently didn’t realize they were animals) and Fat Choi or 髮菜, a black hair-like moss. The pronunciation of the words for this moss is almost the same as “becoming rich” as in the traditional greeting which goes 恭喜發財, phonetically “Gung Hey Fat Choi” which loosely translates to “may you become rich”.
Vegetables such as carrots and lettuce are often sold in markets at this time of year whole, without any cutting or trimming, and cooks will endeavour to include this in their dishes to avoid “cutting” any good fortune for the coming year.
On New Year’s Day, the Chuen Hup or snack box is opened and all the kids vie for the best sweets! Bowls of crispy fried snacks are also put out for everyone to share. The individual items in the Chuen Hup and the fried items have individual names and many have specific meanings.
Turnip Cake or Lo Bak Go or 蘿蔔糕 is a particular favourite. Although this can be found in most Dim Sum restaurants throughout the year it is particularly significant during the new year. The round, or sometimes rectangular, cakes are made of diced or shredded Chinese Daikon turnip which is mixed with a rice flour mixture and steamed until set. A variety of flavourings are added to the cakes to give them a savoury flavour. It is typical to include dried shrimp, dried mushrooms and preserved meats in the cake. Extra luxurious ones will also have scallops, XO Sauce and other things that are both precious and in keeping with the season. The tradition of eating turnip cake on the new year may originate from the similarity in the sound of the word for radish with “good fortune”, but only in the Hokkien dialect, therefore a connection that is lost in Hong Kong where that language is rare.
The second “cake” eaten at New Year and sometimes called Chinese New Year Cake is nin gou or 粘糕 and this one is a sweet dish which is similarly steamed in advance, then fried to serve on the day. Made of sticky rice flour and flavoured with red date sugar the cakes are very solid and inedible in their steamed state. Thin slices are dipped in beaten egg yolk and then very gently warmed in a pan until the egg is cooked and the cake has become soft and sticky. The name of this cake is another pun and refers to the new year becoming “higher” or better than the previous. Like other sticky rice dishes eaten at this time there is also a suggestion that the sticky food be served to the household “Kitchen God” 灶君 so that his mouth will be stuck shut and he can’t spread any bad news about the family!
Traditions, Customs and Practises at CNY
Being the start of a new year there are a lot of different activities at Chinese New Year that are all about making sure the next year will be good. Everybody wants to have good luck and good health for themselves as well as their children. According to tradition, those goals can be achieved if you do just the right things.
Most important is avoiding various unlucky things, and second to that would be doing those specific things that bring luck.
On the things to avoid side, there is a large number of things which either involve cutting or words that sound negative in any way. Therefore nobody has a haircut during the first days of the new year, nor sweeps the floor. Even touching a broom is way too risky. Washing hair is supposed to be off-limits, but thankfully most people quietly ignore this injunction. These are all to do with the idea of cutting or washing away one’s chances for good luck.
For the same reason, vegetables are often sold in the markets with roots still attached during the run-up to the new year. Vegetable shops are closed during the festival itself so any greens you want to buy had better be ones that last a while. The long Chinese Nappa cabbage which is in season in winter is popular for this reason.
Sharp things like scissors and needles should be avoided, as should any kind of breakages like dropping a bowl or a glass. Obvious bad omens such as pricking a finger with a needle or cutting oneself on a something are sure-fire ways to have a bad start to the year so avoid them entirely.
Nobody eats Chinese rice porridge, Congee, during the Lunar New Year period either as this is a poor people’s food and you don’t want to start any trends for the year!
On the positive side of the equation, there are lots of lucky foods to be eaten and decorations to be hung around the house.
Visiting friends and family during the first few days of the year is a great social part of the festival and something everybody looks forward to. Many people travel great distances across China to be with their families during this time, and so the borders post in and out of Hong Kong are often packed. If you are travelling to China or Macau from Hong Kong during this period this then you should allow for long delays at immigration and a general packed atmosphere at airports and transit places.
Small gifts of biscuits, sweets and fruit are presented to people who are you are visiting. For some reason “Danish Butter Cookies” have become quite a standard gift, and large piles are in supermarkets at this time of year. Gifts are always wrapped and never opened when the giver is still present. Hosts will return a Lai See packet to the giver in an exchange of luck.
When people meet up with the family who they see only once per year a lot of the time is spent catching up and talk about how these different relations are related to one another. Unlikely English the Chinese languages include a lot of specific words to describe different relationships that go into much more detail than simply “Aunt” or “Cousin”. Particular words describe relationships differently for mother’s vs father’s side of the family, and different levels of connection.
Even these Chinese often can’t work out which words are the correct one for which relation. Therefore the topic always seems to come up during the new year gatherings! It’s a bit like talking about the weather for English people, the Chinese at a family gathering can always talk about family relationship words if there is nothing else to discuss.
The giving and receiving of Lucky Money, Lai See or Red Packets is one of the most famous of the traditions and is still important in Hong Kong. The total amount of packets given out has gone down somewhat since the financial crisis of 2008 made everybody a little more careful about spending money. But the offerings to close family has not changed, and the traditions of offering to employees in the office are still common.
Lucky Things around CNY
While a lot of time and effort is spent avoiding Unlucky things there are also plenty of specially lucky ones that must not be forgotten.
Lucky foods – A range of foods from the red melon seeds to the black “hair moss” are eaten at the new year more for their positive characteristics than their food value.
Lucky banners or Fai Chun – Lucky banners, often handwritten, which have their own traditions.
Lucky offerings – Whether literal offerings to the gods at temples or just Lai See packets given to your friends, family or employees, the act of being generous is seen as something that will more than payback in happiness and prosperity for oneself in the coming year.
What to Avoid: Lunar New Year Unlucky Things
- Don’t use negative words or talk about bad things happenings. You want the new year to have a good start with everything happy and cheerful. This extends to generally not getting into arguments so you won’t find any controversial political discussions over the dinner table during the Chinese New year period.
- Don’t break glass or pottery, fall over or have any accidents. Things that happen during these first few days are considered omens and portents for the coming year so you wouldn’t want to spend that having breakages.
- No touching brooms, which means no sweeping, or cleaning. Chinese people are keen to avoid accidentally “sweeping away” their luck and good fortune, so it is better to simply avoid all brooms as a precaution. There should have been a big “spring clean” before the new year to get everything in the house in perfect condition.
- Avoid knives, scissors and other sharp things. This helps to avoid any cuts which might be bad omens, as well as any symbolic “cutting” of the good luck for the coming year.
- Don’t visit your wife’s family on the first day. Save that visit for the second day, because if you visit out of turn that would imply there are marital problems brewing!
- Don’t ask for repayment of debts. If you have followed tradition, then any debts or repayments should have been cleared before the New Year anyway.
- Crying, fighting and arguments are not a good start to the new year so stick to uncontroversial topics of discussion. You won’t find any political arguments or family feuds being raised in the gatherings at this time of year.
- Don’t eat congee, rice porridge, or any other “poor” foods which might set your new year off to a bad start. Don’t look poor and the fates will prevent you from actually being poor.
Chinese New Year Flower Markets
Decorating the house or office with flowers and plants is a widespread tradition, and to support that demand there are “Flower Markets” held every year in the run-up to the festival. Despite the name, these events cover a lot more activity than flowers, or even plants, and extend into a novelty and decoration fair. Anything you might want to buy for the CNY period, and a lot of things you probably shouldn’t, will be on display at the fair.
The largest and most famous Flower Market is the one held in Victoria Park, it is indeed almost synonymous with the CNY Flower Market. However, there are several other regional markets which while lacking the scale do not miss out on the festive atmosphere. If you’d like to see some of the sights with a bit less of the crowds, then consider visiting a regional lunar new year flower market.
Victoria Park Flower Market In Causeway Bay
Covering the whole concreted pitches of the Victoria Park in Causeway Bay this is the one big Chinese New Year event. About half the area is devoted to flowers and plants, while the other half sells all kinds of novelties, decorations and nicknacks.
Most of the things on sale have some connection to either the New Year celebration in general or to the particular Chinese Zodiac Animal of the coming year.
So for example during the year of the Horse, you will find plenty of horse balloons, horse decorated cushions, “golden” horse statues and anything that people can think of they can associate with or decorate as a horse.
On the approach to the market during the daytime, you will be passed by people clutching all sorts of horse related merchandise which they will now go home with and try to find somewhere to put!
Students at the universities or anybody trying to do business will take the market as an opportunity to try out their entrepreneurial skills and set up stalls to sell things like this.
Big name brands of favoured food-stuffs will also have some stands, as will a few local celebrities offering handwritten Fai Chun or good luck banners. In the unlikely event that people don’t have enough Lai See packets, they will also be able to top up their supply here with a range of individual and unusual designs.
The crowds at the fair, particularly on the last day, are phenomenal and too much for many people to stand. Though standing and very slowly shuffling forward is your only choice at such times, there is no seating or place to rest within the flower market itself. Police are on hand to control traffic flow, and the nearby Causeway Bay and Tin Hau MTR stations will enforce a one-way system to cater to the crowds.
In the flower-selling part of the market, vendors will have racks and racks of the traditional blooms and plants of the season for sale. Prices range enormously and go up to 4 digits for some of the large or prize specimens The number of plants becomes quite repetitive at times and though it makes for some interesting sights and photographs to see masses of Narcissus blooms side-by-side you won’t see that much variety. Quite a few of the plants on offer represent specific things and are not flowers as such.
Narcissus 水仙 – The main staple of any flower decoration. Always alone and not mixed with other things this bulb with white and yellow flowers smell wonderful and bring good fortune to your house. The bulbs themselves, however, will not last as they are all treated in a way to maximize their flowering this year at the expense of any future growth. After the flowers die, the bulbs are discarded.
Orchids – A comparatively recent addition to the pantheon of CNY Flowers the pots of growing orchids now rule in terms of the range of colours and prices. Once seen as an expensive statement, they are now quite reasonably priced for some varieties, though bigger or rare examples may still stretch the budget. Their long life and low maintenance make them a popular choice for office decorations.
Kumquats Trees 金桔 – The second most symbolic plants these mini potted trees should be laden with golden orange fruit to bring fortune to the house or office. Grown in pots these plants can last a long time and would even flower and fruit again if kept another year though in practice most are discarded a month later. The fruit is not edible on their own though they can be made into marmalade by the enterprising who collect them when discarded!
Peach blossom 桃花 – Sold either as potted plants or as cut branches these bare branches have no leaves but are dotted with pink buds that open into small but elegant blossoms. Representing longevity and luck in romance these are a must-have for many people.
The market runs up until midnight on Chinese New Year’s Eve and sadly there are no discounts to move the last few plants but instead, all are destroyed when the market closes. This wasteful practice ensures that there is no expectation of a cheap deal at the end of the day and instead the prices can stay steady.
Other Lunar New Year Markets In Hong Kong
As well as the huge lunar new year flower market held at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay there are smaller regional markets held all over Hong Kong. Try visiting one to see some of the style and traditions of these faires without so much of the crush. Each fair opens around a week before the new year day.
- Tat Tung Road Garden, Tung Chung – Located near the airport on Lantau this has around 40 stalls
- Fa Hui Park, Sham Shui Po – One of the more popular regional markets this one is near the year-round Flower Market Road and so is particularly strong on flowers.
- Cheung Sha Wan Playground, Sham Shui Po – with over 100 stalls split between flowers and novelties located in a very residential part of the city
- Morse Park, Wong Tai Sin
- Kwun Tong Recreation Ground, Kwun Tong
- Kwai Chung Sports Ground, Kwai Tsing
- Sha Tsui Road Playground, Tsuen Wan
- Tin Hau Temple Plaza, Tuen Mun
- Tung Tau Industrial Area Playground, Yuen Long
- Shek Wu Hui Playground, North District
- Tin Hau Temple Fung Shui Square, Tai Po
- Yuen Wo Playground, Sha Tin
- Man Yee Playground, Sai Kung
- Po Hong Park, Tseung Kwan O
These smaller vents are worth a visit only if you happen to be passing the area or strongly object to the crowds of Victoria Park,.
The Lunar New Year Fireworks Display Over Victoria Harbour
Fireworks are banned in Hong Kong except for a few special occasions. This is a hold-over from security restrictions introduced after the riots of the 1960s, and means that Hong Kong is one of the few Asian communities in the world where even simple firecrackers are not permitted.
The city more than makes up for it with the New Year Fireworks display that is held on the evening of the Second Day of the new year. Starting at 8pm it lasts for around 25 minutes and involves millions of dollars of fireworks being launched from floating barges anchored in the middle of Victoria Harbour.
Great views of the display can be had from many places along the waterfront on both sides of the harbour, as well as buildings facing the water including those on Victoria Peak.
Huge crowds gather at the more obvious vantage points including the Tsimshatsui promenade in Kowloon and the elevated walkways to the Central Ferry Piers on Hong Kong island. Police crowd control will be visible in force and barricades will ensure people stay safely back from any dangerous drops. This also means that getting a good place means coming hours before the show starts so many people content themselves with watching on TV where synchronised music and a running commentary add to the show anyway.
Lai See; Chinese Red Packets For New Year
Lai See or red packets, also known as lucky money, is an ancient tradition of giving small gifts of money to represent good fortune. ‘Lai see’ means luck so when one gives out ‘lai see’, that means he has plenty of luck to share with others.
The decorative paper envelopes are brightly coloured and decorated with either lucky words or the names of the family giving them.
The rules about who to give packets can seem complex at first, and for those new to the culture, there are a few pitfalls, however, the basics are clear.
Lai See packets are given to those who are married to those who are not. But it is more about the person who is “senior” in society giving to those who are “junior”. That means older people giving to children. And within families, parents give to their children, nieces and others in the younger generation.
There are some exceptions to these rules though and some grey areas which makes for interesting areas of discussion. For example, managers give Lai See packets to their staff even if the manager is the same age.
Appart from managers it is mostly married people who give out Lai See, and a married person will hand out two packets at a time for themselves and their spouse. Unmarried Maiden aunts may give packets to close nieces but apart from this and sometimes managers, the unmarried do not give Lai See.
The packets are typically handed over during a greeting on the first occasion after the new year when you meet someone who is eligible. The younger or junior person will wish the older or senior one good luck, at least with the basic greeting and often with elaborate, specific and appropriate wishes for that person.
On conclusion of the good wishes the older person hands over the packets using two hands. The younger person must receive them also with two hands and clearly declare their thanks. Lai See packets are then quickly pocketed for later as it is very inappropriate to open them at once.
Only at the end of the day do children get to open all their lai see packets to see what they have received.
As the giving of the Lai See is all about the luck and the money is supposed to be symbolic of good fortune, the amounts involved are small. Any small banknote such as $10 or $20 is suitable, but tradition demands that the notes be perfectly clean and preferably brand new and unused. For this reason, banks hold on to their quota of new banknotes each year and only release them during the pre-new year season to meet this demand. There are waiting lists with the banks to receive these new notes.
Parents who are aware that their children will be wanting to buy toys with their lai see often give much larger amounts, from $100 to $500 in a packet.
When giving Lai See packets to people you don’t know well, such as children of a friend met at a mutual friend’s house, then packets with $20 are perfectly good enough.
Despite the attempts of various companies such as McDonald’s to introduce the custom, it is not common to have coupons in the packets. Cash rules for paper envelopes. This hasn’t stopped electronic Lai See from being developed through and the giving and receiving of virtual Lai See via the WeChat messenger app is a growing trend.
Greetings and Good Wishes for The New Year
The giving and receiving of lucky greetings is a major part of the new year traditions. As well as the basic greeting of Kung Hai Fat Choi there are innumerable special greetings to wish particular things. People also seriously or humorously create special wishes that apply particularly to their friend, such as wishes for a girlfriend for a man without one or withing for children for a newly married young woman.
- Kung Hei Fat Choi – 恭喜發財 – This is the most commonly heard greeting and means “bless happiness, and prosperity”
- Soon Lin Fai Lok – 新年快樂 – Literally “happy new year”
- Soon Lin Jun Bo – 新年進步 – “New Year’s Progress”
- Hok Hip Jun Bo – 學業進步 – Specifically for the students in the family this greet wishes them good luck in their studies
Find more choices including pronunciation examples from this guide.
Fai Chun: Lucky Charms and Calligraphy
Lucky banners or Fai Chun – These handwritten pieces of red paper with calligraphy on them are a very old tradition, and despite a few attempts to modernise them with cartoon characters or commercial printing, it is the handwritten ones that still are most important to people.
Hung on doors or around the house these are also seen in shop windows and various commercial displays. Each one has just a few characters on it, normally with a lucky saying. Sometimes these are puns or humour references but mostly they are just a direct wish for a specific piece of good luck.
There are three different forms which are commonly seen. Square ones holding just one character, sometimes upside down for extra luck. Long ones with two or four characters with a specific good wish. Two or three part ones that go on both sides of a door, and optionally across the top of the door lintel, with a longer poetic reference to good fortune in the future. These are sometimes also unfurled dramatically on two scrolls at the conclusion of a New Year Lion Dance performance.
Closures and Gettings Things Done
While most things are open for Chinese New Year there is a range of things which still do close. And this can cause a problem getting certain things done during the holiday period.
- Government offices, banks and commercial offices are closed for at least the first three days of the new year.
- Public libraries, most sports facilities and public services at beaches are also closed.
- Builders, plumbers, electricians and other people involved in the home decoration industry are unavailable for a week, typically two weeks.
- Printing and publishing companies are similarly closed.
So despite this being a long public holiday, it isn’t a good one to decide to do some renovations to your flat.
Don’t miss out
- Flower markets that set up one week before the Chinese new year. A big and organised one can be found in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay. Lots of new year decoration and plants and cut flowers for new year will be sold.
- The “International Chinese New Year Night Parade“, this is held on the day of the new year. There will be floats and bands and costumed dancers and stuff like that. You can watch from the roadside if you don’t mind getting there a few hours early, or you can buy a ticket for a seat in the spectator stands for the best view.
- On the second night of the Chinese New Year, there is a 20-minute fireworks above the Victoria Harbour. If your hotel room has a sea view, it’s best to watch it there if you want to avoid the crowd.
The story of Chinese New Year
In the old days, there was a monster lived near a village. This monster was called ‘Year Monster’. It doesn’t like red and it doesn’t like noise. So villagers would stick red paper on their doors and red firecrackers were lit to make loud noises so as to scare the monster. When the villagers knew that the monster had gone, they would greet and bless each other. That’s why Chinese people lit firecrackers and stick red blessing note on our door.
Chinese New Year greeting cards
A new tradition now is to send Chinese New Year greeting cards, in the past this was not done but now that families are so spread out around the world people send cards with the good wishes for the New Year. And now that we live in the internet world you can even send Chinese New Year Greeting Cards. Send one to a Chinese friend of yours!
Another site that is dedicated to Chinese New Year, and also has greeting cards, is www.101chinesenewyear.com; you’ll find Chinese New Year Ecards and Year of the Rooster cards.
New vs Old traditions
The celebration of Chinese New Year nowadays is very different from the old days. Click here to see the differences.