The biggest celebration in the calendar, Chinese New Year, is a joyous time of year in Hong Kong. The city is adorned in splashes of red and gold and there is a feeling of festivity everywhere. Read on to find out about all things Chinese New Year – why we celebrate, traditions, how to say Happy New Year in Chinese, what foods are popular and much more
The origin of Chinese New Year: Story of “Nian”
There are many tales chronicling the origin story of Chinese New Year or Guo Nian, but the most well known is the story of the defeat of the demon Nian.
Nian was the name given to a monster who terrorized a village in China on the first day of every new year. He would come out of the mountains and eat livestock, grain and anyone who was outside. Relief from his terror only came when a God, disguised as an old man, taught the villagers that Nian was afraid of the colour red, strange creatures and loud noises. This gave way to the Chinese traditions of hanging red signs in doorways, making loud noises with drums and fireworks. and the use of face masks, lanterns and dragon and lion dances.
When is Chinese New Year 2023?
The date of Chinese New Year is determined by the Chinese lunar calendar. It changes each year but generally falls between the dates of January 21st and February 20th and the day of the new year is new moon day. Celebrations typically last for 16 days, starting from Chinese New Year’s Eve to the Lantern Festival. In 2023, that is from January 14th to February 5th, 2023. Chinese New Year falls on 22 January, 2023 and it will be Year of the Rabbit, which is one of the Chinese zodiac signs that cycles every 12 years.
What is the Chinese Zodiac?
The Chinese zodiac is a 12-year cycle used in ancient China to date years and to make predictions for the coming year. Each year in the 12-year cycle is represented by one of 12 animals: the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the goat, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and the pig. Each of these animals also represents certain personality traits that Chinese folklore suggest can be found in the people born in the corresponding years.
The five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) also tie in with the years. This year will be year of the Water Rabbit. The sign of Rabbit is a symbol of longevity, peace, and prosperity in Chinese culture. 2023 is predicted to be a year of hope. People born in a year of the Rabbit are believed to be vigilant, witty, quick-minded, and ingenious. Rabbit years include 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, 2023.
Not sure what your Chinese Zodiac sign is? Check HERE
What traditional foods are eaten during Chinese New Year?
During Chinese New Year certain foods are eaten for their symbolic meaning. Lucky food is served during the festival, and the symbolism of traditional Chinese New Year foods is based on their pronunciations, appearance, preparation, and how they are served. Traditional Chinese foods eaten during the Chinese new year include:
- Fish 鱼yu – As the Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for surplus, and its good to have a surplus at the end of the year, symbolising that you have managed to save. The fish dish is always served last with some ‘surplus’ left over.
- Chinese dumplings 饺子 jiǎozi – As they look like Chinese silver ingots and are a symbol of wealth. The more dumplings you eat during Chinese New Year celebrations, the more money you can make in the New Year some say!
- Spring rolls 春卷 chūnjuǎn – As they look like gold bars, signifying wealth and abundance.
- Niángāo (a glutinous rice cake) 年糕 – As the word niangao sounds like the phrase nian-nian gao which means “Getting higher year-after-year by year”. The ‘higher’ you are, the more prosperous your life will be.
- Sweet Rice balls 汤圆 tāngyuán – Pronounced “tong yuen” and they are associated with unity and family togetherness.
See our guide to the Best Dim Sum in Hong Kong
During Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, there are some foods that are specific to the city, these include:
- Poon Choi (盆菜) – Is a Cantonese dish served in a giant basin, traditionally eaten by a whole village together and is unique to Hong Kong. The ingredients can range from pork, chicken, prawns, to oysters and abalone, it symbolises auspiciousness, prosperity and unity.
- Fat Choy 发菜 (Sea Moss) – Is an algae that is thought of as a vegetable, it is often served as an alternative to cellophane noodles along with dried oysters and dried mushrooms which symbolise good fortune. Sea moss can be found in the dried seafood shops along Des Voeux Road West and Wing Lok Street in Sheung Wan.
- Oranges – If you’re going to eat any fruit over the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong make sure its oranges, kumquats, tangerines and pomelos. The Chinese words for “orange” and “tangerine” closely resemble the words for “luck” and “wealth.” The gold colour of these fruits also symbolises prosperity and resembles gold ingots.
- Fried Dumplings yau gok – These dumplings are are unique to Cantonese regions during Chinese New Year, and are thought to bring wealth and good fortune. They are made from glutinous rice dough and filled with either savoury fillings like pork, mushrooms or sweet fillings like peanut or coconut. The dumplings are shaped to resemble ancient Chinese currency and deep-fried.
- Turnip Cake 蘿蔔糕 lok bak go – Chinese turnip cake is a very popular dim sum dish in Hong Kong, and is made from white radish and is a staple New Years dish.
- Nin gou (年糕) – Is a sweet and sticky treat that translates to “new year cake”.
- Candy Box – Is a traditional box used during Chinese New Year for storing candy and other yummy treats. It is typically red or black, and symbolises good fortune and joy.
See our guide to What’s Happening for Chinese New Year in Hong Kong (2023): Dining & Events
What is Lai See?
‘Good fortune’ red envelopes are given out among communities and some say this tradition dates back as far as the Sung Dynasty. These red envelopes, “hong bao” in Mandarin and “lai see” in Cantonese, are used as a channel for sending good wishes and luck, with the red packaging thought to bring prosperity. Most commonly, red envelopes are handed out from the first day of the Lunar New Year to the 15th day and best given upon the first greeting during that time.
Lai See etiquette
Lai see is given in a particular cultural fashion – from a higher position to a lesser position such as boss to employee, parent to child, married to single. If you live in a residential complex with staff, you should give lai see to your security guard, cleaners, and doorman. The amount you put in the red packets is your choice.
These rules may help you avoid making a faux pas:
- Try to use a single, crisp or new bank note with an even amount. Plan ahead by getting new notes from your local bank. Do not give coins.
- Avoid putting two $20 bills into a lai see packet because it equals $40 and “four” sounds similar to “die” in Cantonese.
- Lai see is given as an individual gift so it’s impolite to open in front of the person who gave you it to you.
- Use both hands when giving and receiving lai see and say a Happy New Year greeting.
- There is an order to lai see giving, i.e. older to younger, therefore children should never be the ones giving lai see as it is considered insulting
Read our detailed guide on how to give and receive lai see HERE
Chinese New Year celebrations
Chinese New Year is a time for family gatherings full of traditional foods, firecrackers, lion and dragon dances, lanterns and lai see. It’s all about seeing out the old year and welcoming in the luck and prosperity of a new year. During this time you’ll see neighbour’s doors decorated with red Chinese characters for fortune or happiness along with large images of bunnies in shopping malls, public squares and on the streets.
Chinese New Year Fireworks
Traditionally, bamboo stems filled with gunpowder were used as noisy fireworks designed to drive evil spirits away. This practice evolved into the use of hundreds of firecrackers, each rolled up in red paper, strung on a long-fused string and hung.
The clock at midnight on New Year’s Eve triggers the release of many of the firecrackers and fireworks. Firecrackers will be set off first, after which, fireworks are released. A smaller firecracker is usually lit first followed by three larger firecrackers. The explosions of the firecrackers are “sounding out” the old year and “sounding in” the new year and the louder the firecrackers explode, the more luck they are said to bring for the coming year. It is thought that the first person to launch their fireworks will gain good luck.
Lion and dragon dances
The lion and dragon dances are central to New Year celebrations as they are believed to bring good fortune and usher in prosperity whilst keeping evil spirits away. The lion is meant to symbolise power, wisdom, and superiority. The Chinese dragon is a symbol of China, and it is an important part of Chinese culture. Along with the colourful costumes, the loud drumming, symbols and gongs help keep bad spirits away and bring good luck. Lion and Dragon Dances are performed just about everywhere so you’re sure to catch one.
The last day of Chinese New Year, 5 February this year, is the Lantern Festival Yuan Xiao Jie or Yuanxiao (元宵节). This is when the first full moon of the new lunar year starts.
How to wish someone a Happy New Year in Chinese
You can’t live in Hong Kong without being caught up in the merriment, and it’s imperative to be able to wish someone a Happy New Year!
In Cantonese, the most common way to say ‘Happy Lunar New Year’ is “Gong hei fat choy” (恭喜发财), which means“wishing you happiness and prosperity”. In Mandarin, the same greeting is “gong xi fa cai” (pronounced gong she fa tsai). In Mandarin, The most common greeting used during Chinese New Year is a simple Happy New Year “xīn nián kuài lè” (新年快乐).
All photos courtesy of Shutterstock
- Five movies to watch over Chinese New Year
- Our Picks of the Best Chinese New Year Camps in 2023
- Cook Your Own Chinese New Year Meal
- Clean your Home in time for CNY with the help of these top cleaning companies