I come from a large family, and back in Australia Christmas was always a big deal. The children would lose sleep from excitement as the big day approached, and all the family would gather round the tree on Christmas Day, sharing gifts and having a massive inappropriately hot meal before collapsing on the sofa to watch The Sound of Music.
My first visit to Hong Kong was Christmas 1984. I’d never been outside Australia before, and being the novice that I was, I expected something very similar from my new husband’s family. I was staying with them and would be in their apartment for Christmas Day, so I broached the subject of Christmas shopping with him the week before.
‘Christmas shopping for what?’ he said.
‘Gifts?’ he was thoroughly confused. ‘What on earth for?’
‘For Christmas, silly.’
‘Oh, we don’t do that. Don’t worry about it.’
It took some explaining, but he finally convinced me that it wouldn’t be a major social blunder not to present his family with gifts. It didn’t feel right, but I went along – especially when he said that giving them Christmas gifts would be a major social blunder.
My mother had given me a tinned Christmas cake to take with me and present to my husband’s mother. I gave it to her and she was nonplussed. She’d never seen anything like it before, and what was this black stuff in it? Through my husband (she didn’t understand English) I explained dried fruit and Christmas cake. They opened the tin and tried it, made appropriate noises and hysterically restrained faces, and quietly threw it away when they thought I wasn’t watching.
On Christmas Eve, he took me out to Tsim Sha Tsui and Admiralty to take photos of the Christmas lights; all of the Hong Kong multi-storey buildings were decked out in colourful designs depicting Santa and his reindeer. What seemed to be millions of people milled around, taking photographs and eating stinky tofu from sidewalk cart-based vendors. We went back to their apartment, had a normal family dinner, and that was that.
Christmas Day came and went and was a completely ordinary day. It was a public holiday, but everybody just went shopping anyway. The hotels (and there are a lot of hotels in a tourist-centred place like Hong Kong) put on ‘Christmas Dinner buffet with Santa, balloons and free toys for children’ but that was the extent of the Christmas cheer in Hong Kong. They didn’t even show Sound of Music on the television.
It wasn’t until I went to live there some ten years later that I experienced the excitement and wonder that is Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. This is their equivalent of our Christmas – the entire city closes for five days (if you’re a tourist, I don’t recommend going during Chinese New Year, because, seriously, everything is shut). People wear shiny new clothes and go around visiting all their friends and relatives, carrying good-luck gifts of oranges, chocolates, and biscuits. The family gathers together – even if it means travelling halfway across the globe – and shares banquets and candy and dishes specially made for the holiday for the whole week.
We have our Christmas tree, but if a Hong Kong family has the space, it’s traditional to go to the special New Year flower markets and buy a small plum or cherry tree, covered in blossoms to represent the growth of the new year. If they don’t have as much space (like my in-laws), they can buy a blossom-covered branch off a tree, or a branch of a pussywillow with its feathery buds. Cumquat bushes, covered in the small golden globes of the fruit, are also popular. The jonquils and daffodils have just started to flower, and my father-in-law always made a display of the bulbs in a specially-made ceramic dish with the flowers sprouting out of them. He’d carve and join them together with toothpicks in a complicated pyramid to make a miniature floral sculpture.
He looks quite severe here between his cumquat bush and the red-bound daffodils, but he had a huge grin on his face and was immensely jolly when he brought that cumquat home with triumph – it was just the right size to fit on his tea table.
The Christmas lights are subtly changed to New Year lights – Santa becomes the god of fortune, his sleigh changes to a giant boat-shaped gold bar, and his reindeer change to the animal of the New Year. The way these lights are changed is sometimes breathtakingly clever in the way that they use an economy of changes to show a completely new picture.
The kids spend many sleepless nights waiting for Chinese New Year to come around, because during the five day holiday every adult they know is obliged to give them cash in red envelopes – for every dollar you give away, ten will return to you during the year. My father-in-law filled his pockets with the red packets – lai see – and loved handing them out to every child he saw. At the end of each day my children would open their red packets and discuss what they’d buy with the money. The toy shops brought in special stock just for this time. It’s a time of sharing with the family, eating way too much fatty food, and children plotting about what they’re going to buy with their shopping money and comparing their New Year purchases.
When I returned to Australia with my children, they already appreciated the wonders of Chinese New Year and have since gained an appreciation for Christmas as well. When it comes down to it, the two festivals are similar where it counts – spending time with the family and celebrating another year together.