A Bigger Deal Than Christmas

Happy Chinese New Year everyone! This holiday is always great to celebrate in Hong Kong. Sure, there’s a huge presence of the Chinese community in Vancouver, but you’re still not going to get a 3-day public holiday unless you’re in Hong Kong or China. Schools are off for two weeks, and some businesses take a few more days off as well. It’s always nice to get some time to yourself and rest up.

Since I’m the foreigner here in Hong Kong, I just do what people tell me to do. 入鄉隨俗 (or in English: When in Rome, do as the Romans do). On the evening before Chinese New Year, our family came together to have a nice feast for dinner. I’m sure it’s not just our family – probably every family in Hong Kong is just as busy, and any sort of family gathering is always rare. Sadly, if it weren’t for these kinds of family dinners, I don’t even know when we would all see each other together. The chances of bumping into each other on the street are higher than seeing each other at home.

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We had a coffee gathering after dinner, and at 11 PM I went over to Victoria Park (in Causeway Bay) for the annual Chinese New Year market – aka 年宵. There are actually a bunch of these markets all over Hong Kong, but the one in CWB is undoubtedly the biggest and it has the most things to see. The market has been on for the past few days already – unfortunately, I just had to choose to go at midnight on the eve of the Lunar New Year (it was open until 6 AM this morning, for the record, and only on CNY eve). I have never been to a more crowded place. Fireworks on December 31st weren’t even that bad (but then again, I wasn’t in Tsim Sha Tsui that night). But the CNY market – man, you can’t even walk. There were many times where the crowd literally stopped, and you couldn’t move in any direction. There’s lots to see, but it’s a pain to go over to a specific booth to buy something. It’s ridiculous.

If there weren’t so many people, I wouldn’t mind a market like that though. The first row were all booths for flowers and and plants to put at home. Chinese people really like to do that during the Lunar New Year. I like the idea, mainly because you’re not buying a bouquet – you’re actually buying the whole pot, and they’ll last a lot longer (of course, maybe not if I’m the one taking care of them). The thing is though, the plants were all in the first row, so if you wanted to get one, you’d have to carry it for the rest of the night. And trust me, there is no way you can just ‘go back later’, because the crowd only goes one way. We saw tons of people carrying around huge plants the entire night.

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The rest of the booths were mostly toys and decorations. Stuffed animals, cushions, keychains… things that you don’t really need at home, but when you see it, you’ll want to buy it. Food was surprisingly not so big there – probably only 10-20% of the stalls sold snacks. So that got me thinking: It must really suck to work at one of those booths. It’s already hard to get out and walk around, and you can’t even find a snack easily nearby!

I tried a few interesting snacks that aren’t exactly new to me, but just that I’ve never tasted them before. For example, malkist crackers (麥芽餅)! I’ve tried the packaged ones from Garden, and they’re one of my favourite snacks, but I’ve never seen it in this form – literally just two biscuits with some sweet syrup in between. They’re a lot more sticky than I would have guessed! It’s really hard to eat it, simply because the syrup isn’t exactly easily chewable. But it’s quite interesting, and definitely worth a try.

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Another one is 冰糖葫蘆, which is another kind of sugar coated snack. I had no idea that the ingredients used is the same kind of fruit used to make 山楂餅 until I bit into it, so that was a surprise for me. I’m guessing most people don’t like the taste of 山楂 though, because I see a lot of places switching to sugar coated strawberries and pineapples and other fruits rather than the original fruit, although it is still being sold here and there. I thought the sweet and sour/bitter taste were too distinct, with the sweetness all concentrated on the outside, and plain bitter once you get to the heart of it. Kind of like caramel apples from Rocky Mountain, you know?

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There was also some stuff actually related to Chinese New Year (aside from flowers), like envelopes for red pockets, caligraphy, and paper cutout decorations for the festival. Lots of people went around selling helium balloons, and so naturally I also saw a lot of balloons floating into the air. For the most part, all I remember is people! I mean, it took 3 hours to walk the entire place. Not that it was big – don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t exactly small – but if there wasn’t such a huge crowd, I’d be done within an hour for sure.

(And just so you guys know, as the time creeps closer to 6AM, more and more deals appear… but in my opinion, it’s just not worth it to fight for breathing space with so many people.)

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I got home at 4 AM, but the best part is, there’s not work today! Just the traditions of going around to send our Chinese New Year greetings to each other. You can’t even go shopping if you wanted to. The city is more dead than Vancouver on Christmas Day. That’s Chinese New Year for you!

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P.S. Apparently nobody gives out parking tickets on the first few days of the Lunar calendar, because I’ve seen tons of cars parked where you’d normally get ticketed immediately. It’s an unofficial rule here.

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