Your Guide to Celebrating Chinese New Year in Hong Kong

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Chinese New Year in Hong Kong is a joyous time of the year. The city is adorned in splash’s of red and gold and it is the biggest celebration in the city’s calendar. Read on to find out more about why we celebrate Chinese New Year, Chinese New Year traditions, how to wish someone a happy New Year in Chinese, what foods are popular over the festival period and much more.

little girl holding orange during chinese new year

The 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 generally falls between the dates of January 21st and February 20th. In 2023, Chinese New Year falls on 22 January. 

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 its 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).

Chinese Zodiac animals

What is the Zodiac Cycle?

The Chinese zodiac cycle is a twelve year cycle that was used in ancient China to date years. Each year in the 12 year cycle is represented by one of twelve 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 represents certain personality traits that Chinese folklore suggest can be found in the people born in the corresponding years. And five element years, wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

2023 is the Year of the Rabbit. 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. The recent zodiac years of Tiger sign are: 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011 and 2023. People born under the sign of the rabbit are gentle, sensitive, compassionate, amiable, modest and merciful, and have strong memory. Ironically the year of your zodiac is actually considered bad luck, so if you were born in the year of the rabbit you should take extra care! 

Not sure what your Chinese Zodiac sign is? Check HERE

Dumplings eaten during Chinese New Year

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! 

See our guide to the Best Dim Sum in Hong Kong

  • 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.

Kumquats with Chinese calligraphy saying good luck

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

Lai See given during Chinese New Year

What is Lai See?

For decades Chinese people have been handing out these ‘good fortune’ red envelopes 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 rather than the money inside. The tradition of giving out money during Lunar New Year is similar to giving Christmas gifts in western culture.

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. 

There are a couple rules to keep in mind to avoid making a faux pas.

  • Try to use a single, crisp or new bank note. It should be a single bill 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.
  • Due to the fact Lai see is given as an individual gift; it is impolite to open in front of the person who gave you it to you.
  • When giving out lai see it is a courtesy to use both hands
  • 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

Red Firecrackers

Why are fireworks synonymous with Chinese New Year?

Traditionally, bamboo stems filled with gunpowder were used in order 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. In major cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, these firecrackers have been banned by the government due to the danger and the noise disturbances they make. For smaller cities and the rural areas of China, firecrackers have maintained their popularity, and are not generally seen as being dangerous.

The clock at 12:00 pm on New Year’s Eve triggers the release of many of the firecrackers and fireworks. Traditionally, 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. 

All photos courtesy of Shutterstock

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Roopal Popat
Roopal Popat
Roopal Popat is a content writer, editor, and copywriter with a focus on all aspects of health, parenting, education, families, and lifestyle. She also edits in the global real estate and finance sectors. Roopal holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature and American Studies. Her career spans across Project Management, Business Analysis, Finance recruitment and Training and Development, having worked in the UK, New York, and Hong Kong. Born in the UK, and bought up in Tanzania, Roopal enjoys traveling and spending time with her 2 children and husband.

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