The end of the lunar year

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I have lots of luck . . . and it's all bad. It's the end of the Chinese lunar year, and your thoughts may be wandering. Yes, they're definitely wandering!

Expats new to HK love CNY. At least three -- maybe up to five -- days off [depending on the moon and your contract to work Saturdays] where it's perfectly excusable to not do anything at all. It's the only time of the year when HK shuts down and takes a break from making money, noise and plastic figurines with which to litter the World. The few days preceding CNY are so non-productive that I think they allow for this in the annual budget. My co-workers only have thoughts of buying new clothes, preferably red ones, laisee packets [red], crisp new banknotes [although it's very rare to receive HK$100 laisees, which are red] and fei chun, which are those red banners with good luck tidings and wishes for prosperity. HK is a blaze of red and gold. Suddenly red lanterns, faux red and gold firecrackers, and even red underwear are displayed in shops, corner stands and CNY markets. The chatter on buses and bank queues is about how many Chinese puddings to buy, the best recipe for making white turnip pudding, where to get the best melon seeds [Tsuen Wan] and, if it's all too much, which is the best country to disappear to over the festive season. [Taiwan].

There have been so many comparisons of CNY with Xmas in Western countries, but it's true. All of a sudden, people are smiling, thinking good thoughts and generally opening up their inscrutable façades to perfect strangers. OK, so it's not all hugs and kisses. Get in the way of a housewife buying her yearly tonne of CNY candy or choosing the best pudding to give to grandma, and you're asking for trouble. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned etc, etc, etc.

This reaches manic proportions when buying the boxes of candy and biscuits, which must be wrapped, in red, red and gold, or red, gold and lucky ribbon. When visiting relatives, the very least you must bring [apart from laisee -- this topic has been covered by Mr T] is a wrapped box of candy, chocolate or cookies. How many Chinese do you know without at least 10 sets of extended relatives? Well, each set needs a box of chocs, and each one needs to be wrapped.

So take your average supermarket -- this doesn't mean the expat emporiums you find in Admiralty and Times Square -- I mean our average, 15 aisles in 800 sq.feet with two cashiers and more displays on the floor than on the shelves type supermarket. There is usually a table set up outside the supermarket where two girls surrounded by various offcuts of red wrapping paper and an impressive mileage of sellotape are armed and ready for speed wrapping every box of chocolate, candy and cookie sold in the supermarket.

Where do these girls come from? Their productivity and efficiency are remarkable. There's no wastage, they can wrap any shape given to them and, most remarkable of all, they remember which dozen boxes belong to whom. I live out in the New Territories and one of things you quickly learn is that you do not want to annoy a NT housewife on a mission. The queue was horrendous, people were looking restless, the table was set next to a traffic light so it was very crowded and noisy, plus there were agents were handing out flyers to buy property, lose weight etc. -- but these two girls wrapped and bagged everything in front of them without ever looking up in 45 minutes!

I love Chinese New Year. I really do. I get totally immersed into the traditional village life thing. I do all the necessary preparations for the Buddha table and the house, I make the vegetarian dishes for the first meal of the year, and am constantly making tea for visitors. I smile a lot, although after two days I look a little too much like Jack Nicholson. I even enjoy the dragon dancing and constant barrage of noise from the firecrackers. The village dragon [boom boom -- oh that's funny!] goes from house to house to bless the residents. It's customary to suspend a laisee and a green vegetable, e.g. cos lettuce [sang choi], for the dragon. If you want to be really fancy, you tie banknotes along the string like a kites tail. Normally the green HK$10 notes will do, but if you want to show off then you use HK$100 notes.

After the dragon takes his laisee, a string of firecrackers is set off. Let's be perfectly clear here. Firecrackers are banned in HK as they are incredibly unpredictable and dangerous. I am too chicken to light them myself. There is some leniency shown to indigenous villages, but it is harder and harder to buy firecrackers, so CNY is a lot quieter now. When I first came to HK nearly 14 years ago -- I looked like Lulu the Panda at CNY as the firecrackers started at midnight and seemed to go on for two days.

One thing I haven't mastered is the litany of Chinese good tidings required to extract laisee from senior relatives. This is the one time you need to dance for your dinner. I used to get away with knowing three different good wishes [may all your dreams come true, good health forever, may fortune shine on you, etc.] and would juggle them appropriately. Now I have to say five or six before they're satisfied. Also I am getting on in years, so much so that some of them have given up that I shall ever get married! In the past it was always 'Next year you'll be handing out laisee" now its 'Well, good health!"

The festivities in our village last around 10 days -- all the pettiness and minor squabbles are forgotten or at least are put on hold. The competitiveness is still there, but in a good-natured way, so for a few days there is a tiny glimpse into the past. The nostalgia doesn't last long, but for a little while it's there.

Each year I think about going on vacation, but Chinese New Year in Hong Kong is too good to miss.

Kung Hei Fat Choi!