Chinese New Year activities in Hong Kong

Another Chinese New Year has come around in Hong Kong, and it’s left me yet again with some mixed feelings. In that spirit, I’ve assembled a ‘thumbs-up/thumbs-down’ list of Hong Kong Chinese New Year stuff.

The flower markets. Perhaps the single most famous attraction in HK at CNY are its massive ‘Lunar New Year Fairs’, which everyone calls ‘flower markets’. The main event is held in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, but there are about a dozen smaller flower markets scattered around the rest of Hong Kong. You can find a list of where they’ve been held in recent years at this Wikipedia page. All CNY flower markets will have hundreds of stalls selling fresh flowers, of course, but also lots of other CNY knick-knacks, foods, and so forth. I’m not a huge fan of the flower markets myself – I find them simply too crowded and claustrophobic – but obviously many other people think they’re great. If you’re looking to mainline your CNY holiday spirit, a flower market is definitely the way to go.

The fireworks. Hong Kong puts on a huge, 20-25 minute-long fireworks extravaganza on the evening of the second day of every CNY. They shot out right over the harbor, and if the weather’s reasonably clear it’s quite a sight (unfortunately many years it’s misty at CNY, so the effects are muted a bit). If you try to go up to the harborfront to see the show, you’ll definitely run into huge crowds, but I would recommend giving it a go if you’re new to Hong Kong. If you have a flat or office with a harbor view, or connections to someone who does, all the better!

The temples. If you’re interested in Chinese traditional religion, or are simply up for quite a spectacle, CNY is an excellent time to visit one of Hong Kong’s many Taoist or Buddhist temples. They are heaving with people looking to prepare themselves for the new year’s events and eventualities.

The CNY parade in Tsim Sha Tsui. I’ve never been to this myself, but I’ve seen highlights on TV, of course. This year’s parade clips featured a series of gyrating young females in a variety of no-doubt wholly authentic, but never the less skimpy, national styles of dress. I started thinking the whole event was crying out for a determined, extensive Batgung investigation next year. But then I talked to one of my colleagues, who has tried to see the parade both of the past couple years. She said people start lining up ridiculously early to try to get a view, so it’s nearly impossible to find a space on the street from which one can actually see anything. Both years she and her family left out of frustration and boredom long before the parade had ended.

The food. Oddly enough, given Hong Kong's well-deserved reputation as a gourmand's paradise, I find that Chinese New Year in Hong Kong is just not a great time for eating. For one thing, several of the traditional CNY dishes, such as the turnip and taro cakes (i.e. lou baat gou and lin gou, respectively) get pretty tiresome after just a couple servings, and if you're on the family-visitation circuit like me, you see them plenty. Also, since most families are busy moving around trying to carry out their official CNY visits (i.e. bai lin) mealtimes are often a bit chaotic, and you end up eating catch-as-catch-can. The only really good, serious meal is the CNY's eve dinner.

Visiting Hong Kong during CNY as a tourist. In the past, when asked if CNY was a good time to come to Hong Kong as a tourist, I’d answer with a fairly emphatic ‘No!’ Shops and restaurants were closed for at least three solid days, and the city felt strange and empty – everybody was illegally parked out in the public housing estates visiting Grandma (see above).

Well, these days nearly everybody’s still out in the estates during the CNY holidays, but quite a few people (unfortunately for them, perhaps) are stuck at work. The number of restaurants and shops that now open right off on the first day of the new year is quite amazing compared to the complete shutdown of just a decade or so ago. The common explanation for this is that the Asian financial crisis/overall HK economic meltdown of the late '90s/early 00's motivated many restaurant and shop owners to try to boost revenues through the reckless, desperate act of staying open for 364 or 365 days a year, instead of just 363. The bad economic times might indeed have been a catalyst, but I suspect there may have been quite a reservoir of pent-up demand, too. If you've done the rounds of bai lin to relatives’ overcrowded homes year after year, the prospect of getting out to a decent restaurant by dinnertime sounds like a kind of salvation. In any event, given the combination of at least decent things to do, and the more general availability of the usual services and amenities Hong Kong has to offer, CNY now seems like a quite interesting time to show up and have a look.

If you're interested in reading more about one of Hong Kong's CNY customs -- giving out red pockets -- you can do so here and here.


A good way to see the CNY fireworks

The Family Tall tried out a different approach to seeing the Chinese New Year fireworks this month. Instead of either trying to squeeze into one of the public areas around the harbor, watching through the window of an office building, or just 'experiencing' the festivities via TV broadcast, Mrs Tall booked us into one of the Hong Kong Convention Centre's restaurants on a combined buffet dinner/fireworks viewing ticket.

We went for the cheapo package, which meant our buffet, served in the Harbour Kitchen, i.e. the coffee shop right in the main lobby of the Convention Centre, was pretty basic and, umm, inelegant. But really, it was good enough -- you're not there for the food.

At about 7:30, everyone in the restaurant lined up like a kindergarten outing, and we were walked over to the plaza immediately outside the new part of the Convention Centre, i.e. right out on the harbor. We were confined to a demarcated area, but this was plenty big enough -- we could actually wander around -- and the view was very good. We could see the fireworks set off by three of the four barges, and they were right up in our faces -- and in our ears! Daughter Tall had a fabulous time.

The price tag? HKD388/head. There are also buffet/fireworks packages available at other Convention Centre restaurants, but these were at least HKD200/person more costly. We figured it wasn't worth it.

Overall verdict: excellent value, and we'll likely do this again in the future. The only downside is that, as you might imagine, booking early is crucial.

The rundown of this year's packages is here. I assume you can call any of the restaurants listed there to enquire about future bookings.