Tolo Harbour, from Tai Po Waterfront Park
Tolo Harbour, from Tai Po Waterfront Park
A bit belated, I suppose, but still worth a mention: my very first Chinese New Year! The shops shut, fireworks went off, everything turned red and shiny and we got a five day weekend! Not much happened, in the way that not much happens in the UK for a few days over Christmas, as people get together with their families and eat themselves in to oblivion. I was lucky enough to spend some time with an actual, real-life Chinese family and so here is my five point guide to CNY 2013: The Year of the Snake.
1: Causeway Bay New Year’s Market. The busiest place on earth, probably, when I visited. Although there were three long passageways lined with stalls you couldn’t get near to buying anything without wielding a baseball bat. You just went with the human flow until you got spat out at one end, before turning back and having another go. People seemed to be having fun, though.
2: Lai-See. Little red packets of money that are exchanged as gifts over the course of the New Year. Even I got some! As a general rule, married couples give to unmarried couples, relatives give to kids, employers to employees. If you ever happen to get a lai-see don’t open it in front of the giver – terribly bad form as far as the Chinese are concerned.
3: Turnip Cake. Pretty much the mince pie of Chinese New Year. It is a cake, made from turnip and (although my photography may not be doing it justice) it isn’t bad at all.
4: Hot Pot, or Big Bowl Feast. The roast turkey dinner of Chinese New Year. Basically a pot of boiling stock in to which one chucks, well, whatever one fancies eating. It’s not just for CNY, it’s a kind of winter-warmer (which in temperatures of 15 degrees Celsius seems a tad unnecessary…). I do like it, and it’s a very sociable way of eating, but there comes a point after two hours when you fish a well-boiled blob out from the depths and wonder whether it’s chicken, mushroom or a duck’s tongue. That’s when you should call it a day.
5: Pumpkin and Melon Seeds. The Chinese New Year snack. Very tasty; but not really worth the effort of cracking and peeling and eventually losing half of it on the floor anyway. After a while I resorted to Pistachios…
I’m sure that this doesn’t cover half that stuff that I should mention, but they are the lasting memories I’ll have of this Chinese New Year. As I mentioned earlier, we are now in the Year of the Snake (capital letters for dramatic effect) – and I wish you all the best for it. I recently discovered that I’m an Ox – the least glamorous animal in the Chinese Zodiac – and to rub salt in the wound I was born a mere week away from being a Tiger.
I’ll end with something else I just found out: the third day of Chinese New Year is known as Chek Hau – the day of squabbles. After several days of traipsing round visiting relatives, Chek Hau is seen as an unlucky day to visit or receive guests as you will likely end up arguing, so people are advised to stay at home and watch the telly. What a brilliant idea…
Lamma Island, New Year’s Day 2013
Now, I asked for it by signing up and paying for the classes, and as an English teacher I should know a bit about contrary and irregular languages, but learning Cantonese is a slog and a half…
For those who don’t know, Cantonese is the official language of Hong Kong, southern China (Guangdong) and around. It’s also, apparently, the third most common language in the USA. It’s a tonal language i.e. the meaning of a sound changes depending on whether it’s a rising tone, or falling tone, or a falling then rising tone – there are nine of them…
So, for a few months now I’ve been going to class once or twice a week and getting on OK – I can say where I come from and negotiate my way successfully off a minibus – but during my last lesson I realised just how willfully odd this language is. It’s either twistedly awkward or laughably simple. Two examples:
1) The Cantonese for ‘buy’ is maaih, with a rising tone. The Cantonese for ‘sell’ is maaih, with a flat tone. They had all the sounds in the world to choose for two opposing verbs, yet chose the same one. Still, it must make the Hong Kong stock-exchange a lively place to work.
2) But, if that’s over-complicating things, then you can take comfort in the fact that the Cantonese for ‘university’ is dai hohk, literally ‘big school’, and the Cantonese for ‘camera’ is seung gei: ‘photograph machine’…
And, on that note, I’m hitting the syu as I’ve got a haauh si in this bizarre language on Wednesday.