Cold at Chinese New Year?

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You’ll hear it this week (if you haven’t heard it already): Chinese New Year is coming up, so it’s going to be cold!

The assumption that Chinese New Year (CNY hereafter) invariably brings a cold snap is deeply-ingrained in Hong Kong culture, among natives and expats alike.

But is it true? Yes, it’s winter, so it’s not going to be in 30s, but is Chinese New Year really likely to be colder than normal? My perceptions seem to run the other way: I remember finding any number of CNY’s unpleasant because of the need to wear dress-up clothes in unseasonably warm weather, and ending up uncomfortable and sweaty.

Well, these days, it’s never hard to find an answer to this kind of question, so that’s what I went ahead and did. I looked up the temperatures for the first three days of Chinese New Year for the past 21 years, since that’s how many years I’ve been here for CNY. I averaged out the daily highs and lows for those 63 days.

I then compared my average with the average winter temperatures for January and February in Hong Kong, which should apply quite neatly to Chinese New Year, which falls between mid-January (January temperatures average 14.5-18.6) and mid- to late February (February averages 14.4-18.6).

Let’s just assume the February average, because the two months’ temperatures are nearly identical, and since CNY is slightly more likely to fall in February than January. A table with my results follows.

  Average low Average high
February normals for Hong Kong 14.4 18.6
Average for first three days of CNY 1991-2011 13.6 17.6

What do you know! I have to admit it: the average temperature for a CNY day over that period really is colder than normal, by a full degree for daily highs, and almost that much for daily lows.

It’s interesting, though, to take a closer look at the actual year-by-year CNY temperatures over that period. A longer table with those follows. Scan through it as you like, but don’t skip down to the next paragraph without having a look at 1996.

Year Dates of first three days of CNY Day 1 temperatues Day 2 temperatures Day 3 temperatues
    Low High Low High Low High
1991 February 15-17 15.8 20.8 15.7 17.9 15.1 18.3
1992 February 4-6 17.8 22.8 15.5 18.0 14.9 16.2
1993 January 23-25 7.9 12.1 7.4 13.2 8.0 15.1
1994 February 10-12 15.4 17.5 16.4 22.3 16.2 20.7
1995 January 31-February 2 9.2 14.3 11.2 15.1 11.9 15.3
1996 February 19-21 6.9 9.3 5.9 8.4 5.8 8.6
1997 February 7-9 12.4 16.8 12.3 16.0 14.1 16.5
1998 January 28-30 13.0 17.8 12.2 14.4 13.9 17.0
1999 February 16-18 18.1 22.5 18.3 21.3 19.1 25.2
2000 February 5-7 14.9 20.6 13.8 18.3 14.3 19.5
2001 January 24-26 17.7 20.2 16.0 21.0 11.4 16.2
2002 February 12-14 15.1 18.6 15.9 20.2 16.7 20.5
2003 February 1-3 17.7 22.2 14.9 17.8 14.7 15.9
2004 January 22-24 9.1 13.7 9.0 13.8 9.0 12.7
2005 February 9-11 17.6 21.2 16.6 24.1 14.8 17.5
2006 January 29-31 15.2 19.9 17.3 21.4 18.3 23.6
2007 February 18-20 21.3 25.3 18.4 21.7 17.9 20.2
2008 February 7-9 8.2 11.2 9.8 14.3 8.1 15.0
2009 January 26-28 12.7 16.3 11.4 13.1 13.1 17.6
2010 February 14-16 14.6 16.3 10.8 15.2 9.1 11.2
2011 February 3-5 13.2 18.6 13.5 20.9 14.6 21.7
  Averages 14.0 18.0 13.4 17.5 13.4 17.4

I remember CNY 1996 with particular clarity. Mrs Tall and I had wed just a couple of months previously, so we were heavily obligated that year to do a full round of bai lin, i.e. the formal visiting of relatives at CNY. So around and around we duly went, in some of the most miserable weather I can ever recall in Hong Kong. Not only was it extremely cold and windy, I recall it being wet as well, with an almost icy-feeling drizzle. My look back at the temperature records confirmed that there was indeed measureable precipitation on all three CNY days that year.

Actually, if you take out 1996, the remaining 20 years in our survey average out at an almost-normal 14.0-18.1. That year really was exceptional, which is ironic since it’s also the latest CNY in the period we surveyed, falling in late February, which is usually when the weather HK starts to warm up a bit.

If you don’t mind, also go back to the table and have a look at the years 2005-2007. I think it’s these years that have fixed in my mind the image of warm CNY weather. Daughter Tall was a kindergartner in that period, and was very excited about wearing her adorable – but also substantial and warm – CNY outfits. I remember her little face all red and sweaty on those days in the 20s, as she begged to keep wearing her quilted jackets while her mother and I tried to pry them off her.

What about this year’s CNY? The forecast from the Hong Kong Observatory is for much cooler-than-normal weather. I guess if I’d just accepted the conventional wisdom, I’d already have known that!

Comments

Not this year

Sure seems like this year's CNY is hotter than any in the above table and it's barely February. Not complaining, it's beautiful outside!