10 Surprising Facts About Chinese New Year I Learnt Living in Hong Kong

Chinese New Year decorations in a shop window in Hong Kong

Red lanterns are up, the banks are packed and preparations are well underway for Spring Festival! Before I started living in Hong Kong, I thought CNY was all firecrackers, dumplings and fun animal horoscopes (and those are definitely a fun part of it). But there’s so much more! So, here are 10 surprising facts about Chinese New Year that I’ve learnt during my time in HK:

Kung Hei Fat Choy! (Happy Chinese New Year!)

Surprising Facts About Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is not “Chinese Christmas”

I hear this phrase a lot from fellow westerners, but did you know that the history of Spring Festival goes back 4,500 years? When you remember that JC has only recently celebrated his 2,000th birthday, he pales as a moody teenager in comparison.

If anything, that makes Christmas is a Western Chinese New Year! Except of course that it isn’t because they are completely different things.

Po Lin Monastery with Chinese New Year decorations in Nong Ping Lantau Island Hong Kong
Po Lin Monastery with Chinese New Year decorations in Ngong Ping, Lantau Island, Hong Kong

Chinese New Year moves every year

The Chinese lunar calendar follows the moon’s cycles, so Spring Festival always falls in a different place between 21st January and 20th February each year.

This means that when you get back from Christmas break and you’re looking miserably out at the cold January weather, sighing, “I really need a holiday…” BANG! You’re in one!

Chinese New Year fortune wheel at The Peak in Hong Kong
Chinese New Year fortune wheel at The Peak in Hong Kong

Chinese New Year is super-long

Think CNY is just a countdown from ten to one followed by a fireworks display? Think again. Chinese New Year seems to go on forever! There are celebrations and parts of the festival that traditionally continue up until the 15th day of the first lunar month.

There are also certain days when you should visit one side of your family, and then other days when you visit the other side, and days when you should just stay at home… find out more about significant CNY days here.

Chinese New Year lai see red envelopes
Chinese New Year lai see red envelopes – great haul this year!

People give out lai see envelopes filled with money!

People give each other money for CNY rather than gifts, though a box of biscuits or traditional snacks for the family in a “tray of togetherness” doesn’t go amiss. The cash inside lai see must always be crisp, new notes (hence the queues at the banks) and placed inside in a red envelope.

If someone gives you a lai see, you should receive it with both hands, say thank you (doh je) and definitely not open it in front of the person giving it to you.

You should only give out lai see if you are married, if you are an employer, or if you are a person of seniority. As an expat, it’s not always expected of you, but it’s still polite to give out lai see to your doorman, cleaner etc.

The amount of money you give is up to you, but obviously you don’t want to look cheap. A good starting point is 20 HK dollars. (Tip: if you are working as a English teacher, you get all the lai see and this will be your yearly bonus!)

Chinese New Year yellow fruit at the flower market in Hong Kong
Chinese New Year yellow fruit at the flower market in Hong Kong – also know as “nipple fruit” or even “titty fruit”. I’m not even kidding.

No one goes and sees the parade

If you want to see what three million tonnes of glitter and shameless marketing looks like, by all means go and see the big televised Chinese New Year parade in town. But you won’t catch me waiting in the cold and rain to watch the “Sponsored by HSBC!” and “Visit Ocean Park today!” floats.

Instead, I’ve found that there are plenty more traditional and authentic dragon and lion dances (you can hear the drumming a mile off) that pop up around town during the festive period.

Chinese New Year dragon statue in Causeway Bay Hong Kong
Chinese New Year dragon statue in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

There are no firecrackers

Contrary to all the cute pictures of kids playing with firecrackers that you see in many depictions of Spring Festival, firecrackers are super-illegal because they are super-dangerous.

They are banned in Hong Kong, Taiwan, urban areas of Mainland China, and many other places (though I hear that those rules don’t always stop people setting them off). I’ve personally never seen any during Lunar New Year celebrations.

Chinese New Year decorations at shopping mall Causeway Bay Hong Kong
Chinese New Year decorations at a shopping mall in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

It’s not just China

China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore obviously celebrate Chinese New Year, but many other countries celebrate Lunar New Year during this period too (Korea, Vietnam and Japan to name but a few).

Not to mention the huge Chinese communities that live all over the globe. I hear that San Francisco has one of the biggest CNY celebrations in the world!

Chinese New Year dragon in Sheung Wan Hong Kong
Chinese New Year dragon in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

It’s the best time of year to get a haircut

It’s Spring Festival, so it’s only fitting that a spring clean is in order! Houses are thoroughly cleaned, people get their hair cut and nails done, and buy a new set of clothes (and red underwear) to wear on New Year’s Day.

Then, they leave it as long as possible after the festival before they throw out rubbish, get a hair cut or have a shower. Even though it’s gross, the point is to keep hold of your New Year luck! So this means all the expats get free reign over their hairdresser’s empty schedule for a few weeks!

Chinese New Year decorations at a temple in Hong Kong
Chinese New Year decorations at a temple in Hong Kong

If it’s your zodiac year, you’re in for a surprise

But if you’re going, “Hey! I was born in the Year of the [current zodiac animal]! Does that mean this is my lucky year?” then hold your horses/dragons/snakes…, because it actually means that this year will be much harder for you and “full of surprises”… whatever that means…

10 Things You Didn't Know About Chinese New Year

There are a million other things to get your head around

Don’t cut your noodles because the Chinese word for noodles sort of sounds like the word for “life”. You should definitely go to the flower market and get one of those trees with the weird-shaped yellow things on. Wear red. Here’s an orange, eat it!

There’s a guy dressed up in a costume with a long droopy moustache and he brings good fortune. Why? Because Chinese New Year.

Even after five years in Hong Kong, I’m still just a gwei mui (ghost girl) with a foreigner’s perspective, barely scratching the surface of Lunar New Year (and usually wondering where best to travel in Asia to spend the public holiday dates!).

Yet, with each passing Spring Festival, I’m learning more and more about CNY and Chinese culture in general, so there’s always next year to learn just a little bit more. Plus, now I know the best time of year to get an appointment at the hairdresser’s…

Wishing you all a happy and prosperous Lunar New Year!

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