Well, that’s easy: in fact everyone does and especially at this time of year. You’ll notice them all over the place. Of course, I’m talking about the Chinese Fu character, newly purchased prints of which will be meaningfully plastered upon doors, lintels, jambs, walls, household goods and countless seasonal displays. No doubt you’ve realised, Chinese New Year is imminent and by the time you read this article it will be here and we’ll all be celebrating like mad.Importantly of course, in typing Fu I’m using the Romanised written Mandarin form and not what you’ll actually see which is the character: 福, by simple virtue of its omnipresence this is probably the first Chinese character foreigners with an interest in these things will learn by recognition alone, there’s just no getting away from it! Fu symbolises, as you might have guessed, happiness, good fortune and good luck; apt sentiments you’ll agree as we welcome in the New Year. So wherever you cast your eyes in any country with a historical Chinese influence, or even a western Chinatown or simply the local Chinese takeaway, you’d be hard-pressed not to find yourself staring directly at a red, diamond-shaped decoration depicting Fu, or, if we adopt our more emphatic Cantonese dialect, Fuk; yes, that well-used butt of Chinese humour but I’m not going there, and anyway, it’s what you might well end up uttering should you receive, courtesy of that kindly God of Fortune, riches beyond your wildest dreams.
This year however, February 16th to be exact, will mark the New Year of the dog taking over from 2017’s feathery rooster, of which I am one. So did I have a particularly fortunate or auspicious time of it all? Well, not too bad really. I end the year both happy and healthy and in my book that’s the best anyone can hope for; therefore yes, I remain extremely fortunate.
As with any major festival here in Asia there’s a lot going on, most of it steeped in centuries of tradition and superstition. In China, Chinese New Year is more popularly known as the Spring Festival, heralding the end of winter and the start of spring. It’s a significant date on the local calendar which is based on the lunar system; hence this year’s celebration falling in February though it sometimes occurs in January, it all depends on the phase of the moon.
The celebrations are a lot more involved than you might at first think, certainly more than just a never-ending series of loud, fire cracker explosions and special food. As with the Western nativity it all drags on a bit long, for 15 days in fact. Similar to many western festivals a lot of tradition has been lost in the mists of time, perhaps younger generations are just too busy, have grown less fussed with spirits and bangs or maybe such ancient reverence doesn’t sit too well in a modern, city environment. Nonetheless, I will attempt here to briefly demystify a few of the more crucial festival activities still faithfully observed today, I say briefly as you could effortlessly dedicate an entire book to the whole event. As with Christmas there are decorations to be hung and customs to be strictly observed. So here’s a few of the more popular dos and don’ts.
There’s an auspicious routine as what and when to buy, eat, wear, clean, wash, not wash, have a haircut, hang decorations, offer incense to various gods, pay debts or seemingly explode half the neighbourhood – the list is endless. Things like the haircut, buying of new clothes and spring-cleaning the house incidentally are symbols of self-purification and therefore not a bad thing at all. Decorative adornments around town and festive foods on sale will be evident weeks before New Year’s Eve.
A brief stroll through any shopping centre, housing estate or village will easily educate visitors as to what’s coming up and of course, just to confirm, there’ll be umpteen Fuks hanging all over the place, seems you can stick them almost anywhere. In the home people will hang red lanterns and slogans expressing the usual luck, fortune and longevity wherever they can.
On a wall, beside a main door, you’ll often see a pair of couplets expressing favourable sentiments. It’s a common sight in the villages. One of our neighbours has the meaningful characters bamboo-sound-peace running down one side, coupled with flower-open-wealth-position down the other – you get the idea. New couplets are traditionally put up on New Year’s Eve to renew the previous ones which, 12 months later, may be faded, tatty or no longer there at all. And that reminds me I must dash out to the temple now and buy ours.
For those intent on a more modest celebration, things only really get going on New Year’s Eve with a visit to one of several flower markets. One soon learns that in China the purchase of flowers, decorations and food is closely linked by symbolism and the use of homophones to the attainment of good luck, fortune and longevity; homophones being words of a similar sound but different meaning. For example, at this time of year one’s house should be filled with gladioli to earn promotion, peony to amass wealth, kumquat to gain luck and fortune, and peach blossom to defeat any lurking evil spirits and also act as a symbol of longevity. Fabulously fragrant narcissi are also a good use of one’s money as they cover all eventualities: fortune, prosperity and good luck.
Of course, on the couplet’s open-flowers theme it’s important that blooms are doing exactly that on the big day, signifying openness to all the good of the New Year. Unfortunately, ours are usually days late – typical! Another homophonic depiction evident in many homes, including ours, matches fish with the idea of plenty, both Yu in Chinese. Hence the slogan Nin Nin Yau Yu (every year have plenty) decorated with an abundance of elaborately illustrated koi of course.
So, decorations up? Family and home cleaned, washed and paid for? Now to enjoy the New Year proper, let’s go!
After that New Year’s Eve flower market perambulation and maybe a god-of-your-choice worship at a local temple, revellers return home for a family dinner. Even the deceased are considered present in spirit and a place is set for them. After this, parents give red Lai Si envelopes containing lucky money to their children. Also that evening there’ll be a quiet, private moment in which offerings will be made to any ancestors and guardian spirits.
For this purpose our neighbour sets up a small, fold-up Formica table in their yard replete with food offerings and richly fragrant incense. The nonagenarian elder of the house is lovingly guided out by her devoted daughter and son-in-law to perform a simple obeisance of three bows, withered hands offering a bunch of smouldering joss sticks in the process. Having clearly out-lived most friends and relatives we often wonder what goes through her mind, doubtless overrun by numerous memories but still there’s heartfelt wishes to communicate; it’s a ceremony we find very moving. Although equal to Christmas in that many New Year decorations border on tawdry, the sincerity of this minor act is in no way assumed. And so with those wandering ancestors and good spirits honoured, the door is bolted at midnight to keep the bad ones out.
Next morning, New Year’s Day, the front door is opened to a fresh start and similar ancestor worship conducted. This time of year is also about renewal so no housework should be done (great!!) for two days and neither should one wash oneself or use knives, after all, mustn’t cut that enticing New Year fortune. Food should therefore be prepared days earlier and is usually vegetarian, good for longevity they say.
This day is also a very noisy one. In the villages, ours certainly, you’ll be roused dawn-time by what you might be forgiven for thinking is the start of an armed revolution; but is in fact a festive abundance of deafening fire crackers. Think of bonfire night bangers, about twenty in succession, but with the volume cranked up high – very high! And no sooner does this ear-splitting report end, and one manages to jump back into one’s skin, than it happens all over again. Our proximity to the local temple, the favoured place for such detonations, doesn’t help either.
The idea is that such loud eruptions will frighten away those dastardly evil spirits, of which there’s clearly quite a few judging by the frequency of blasts and the swathes of red debris which continually carpet the area. Does it work? Well, I’d be surprised if it didn’t! Funnily enough firecrackers were banned in UK in 1997 and here in the 60s at the time of the pro-communist, leftist riots – not that that would bother our villagers too deeply as sticking two fingers up to authority still offers quite a thrill and from that point of view I’m on their side.
Also on this day and most others onward, if out and about you’re likely to stumble across the propitiously vibrant clatter of a lion dance. A bit like a pantomime horse on speed as both ends skilfully transform a flashy assemblage of sequined paper, cloth and wool in to a creature of endearingly cocky gait and breath-taking acrobatics. Good business for the martial arts troupes who get booked by myriad companies, associations and households to do the honours. For them youth is an advantage as they jump from pole to pole. Hot work too under all that clobber! Not sure if they do the elevated pole dancing bit in UK, even here it can be something of a safety issue nowadays.
Where I used to work, New Year Leo was grounded by health and safety. Proud of its accident-free-days tally the company wasn’t overly keen on having the back half of a lion stretchered out with broken limbs or mild concussion; as if bringing up the rear, cheek to cheek so to speak, wasn’t bad enough. The beating cacophony is also terrific; I once joked with a practising colleague that the rhythmic drumming was simply a case of hammering hell out of a taut animal skin with little apparent skill. Oh no came the miffed reply it really is skilful and it is artistry – I now stand happily corrected, it certainly is. When drum and dancers combine the combo effortlessly assumes a swaggeringly leonine personality all of its own, you can almost believe it’s real.
The second day is known as Hoi Nin (open year), a day with yet more offerings and a chance to greet people with, amongst other poetic seasonal wishes, the familiar phrase of Gong Xi Fa Cai in Mandarin or Gung Hei Fat Choi in Cantonese, literally congratulations and good fortune – and why not?
The third day has more offerings at home and is generally regarded as unlucky, so one shouldn’t visit or receive guests – best stay home, watch telly and be safe! I quite like this day, it’s said to be bad for meeting or visiting people and you’re destined to have a blazing row – not unlike our average Christmas Day I shouldn’t wonder when fall outs erupt before the turkey’s even served!
The fourth day kicks-off an endless round of spring dinners not only between family and friends but also in the business world. Consequently, this marks the first day back at work for some and what better way to welcome a new business year than with a sumptuous, multi-course, Chinese meal in some swanky establishment!
The seventh day I also like, it’s known as Yan Yat, the common man’s birthday. According to custom we all become a year older on this day and can treat ourselves accordingly – so, in case I forgot to message you, happy unofficial birthday to you all! Actually the first ten days of the Chinese New Year mark a birthday for something or other. It works in the order: chickens, dogs, pigs, ducks, oxen, horses, humans, rice, fruit and veg and, finally, wheat and barley. Now isn’t that a lovely concept?
On the eighth day those not already at it head back to work, though not before that essential company lunch of course. And as if that wasn’t nosh enough there’ll be yet another family feast later that evening to celebrate the birth of the Jade Emperor, the boss in heaven; and now you know why Chinese restaurants around the world do so well at this time of year!!
The festivities all end on the fifteenth day with the Lantern Festival (Yuen Siu Jit – literally first night festival) in which all shapes and sizes are spectacularly displayed throughout the city. Meanwhile at home people will hang more modest examples preferably in red, gold or yellow for good luck. We always light a few of the old-fashioned paper ones and hang them on our roof garden, after all, every little helps! This day is also known informally as Chinese Valentine’s Day, slightly different to our western version but nonetheless dedicated to couples looking for love or celebrating the love they’ve already found; either or, it’s worth another box of chocolates if not another slap-up dinner with a decent drop of champers ! Otherwise you can swooningly admire many a romantic lantern and of course the first full moon of the year.
And that’s your lot, it’s over and all that remains is to take down those hopeful decorations and the seasonal lights. As this is the final day in all likelihood there’ll be a few more cursory fire crackers just to see off any evil spirits who hadn’t by this time taken the hint, you know the sort, they get everywhere. And the next day there’s silence, and golden it certainly is as everything gets back to normal, or as normal as things can be in Hong Kong!
So, returning to the start of this article and our deeply auspicious Fu (or Fuk) character, what happens next is also quite intriguing. Indeed, after the holiday the pictured character is turned upside down and displayed thus for the remainder of the year, indicating that one’s luck has indeed arrived. Why? Because the Chinese word Dou, meaning to turn upside down, is the same sound, but a different written form, as another Dou meaning to arrive! Get it? Interestingly, the bat, the creature that is, constitutes yet another good-fortune homophone often featured on Chinese ornaments; see if you can spot one!
Anyway, this month we’ll certainly be giving a Fu, or dare I say a Fuk, how about you? Happy Chinese New Year to all and do let me know how you celebrated, until then think luck, fortune and longevity and, because of that, I have it on good authority, you’ll be doing all right for this year at least!