It feels like a life-time ago when I last visited Hong Kong for Chinese New Year in February this year, the year of the Rooster. I didn’t think that on this special occasion, it would be the last time I would see my grandpa alive, he passed away 4 weeks later after I returned to London. He died from respiratory failure caused by smoking. RIP grandpa.
I haven’t posted about CNY on the blog before, yes it’s 5 months too late and out of date, thought I’d share these visuals with you first whilst I’m trying to accumulate amass of HK photos and video clips for the next posts later.
So, I recently spent my CNY in Hong Kong for the third year running, with or without my siblings (they’re scattered all over the place), nor with or without my parents (they’re separated). I was really excited about being able to witness the traditional festivities at my ancestral village again, catching up with close relatives, spending time with loved ones, and of course, the star of the show, it’s the mouthwatering Hakka food! Celebrating CNY at the ancestral village is always busy and erratic, older Hakka people pay great attention to their traditional ways of celebrating the new year and certainly not the easiest customs to remember, new year celebrations last up to 15 days, with each day carry its own special meaning. I have to admit, I’m suck at remembering it. My job was to help my family with chores and follow the customs; clean the house, buy flowers and plants at a flower market, decorate the house with red cut-out papers, prepare food for the family reunion dinner, giving and receiving red envelopes, greet relatives with new year wishes, and eat, eat, eat!
Setting off fireworks and firecrackers in a residential neighbourhood, private land and in public space have been banned since the 1960s. Mainly for general health and safety reasons, but rules are allowed for fireworks to set off during specific times, such as Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year. However, some of the New Territories villages of Indigenous residents, have the traditional and customary right to set off firecrackers. We set off firecrackers three times a day during CNY, early morning, afternoon and evening, making a deafening sound for good luck, happiness and wealth for the coming year.
This is the Lee Ancestral Hall. It’s an ancestral hall dedicated to our Lee ancestors, and to an ancestor who established this sleepy village in Tai Po over 300 years ago, also dedicated to the original founder of the Lee clan in China around 1,400 years ago. Not as grandeur as it looks compared to the reputable Tang Ancestral Hall in Yuen Long. According to one of the relatives, the original hall was destroyed by the Japanese army during the Japanese Occupation, the ancestral hall was rebuilt in the late 60s or early 70s. It is a small hall with minimal decor, a standing main altar with ritual objects such as porcelain deity statues and incense burner. I was forbidden to take photos inside the hall but managed to capture some sneaky snap shots for Instagram and IG Stories.
During CNY, the Lee clan would gather altogether at the ancestral hall to burn incense and give food offerings to the ancestors, we do this every day and night without fail, if you missed it, you probably get a telling off from elders for not turning up which I often do sometimes. I’m not a religious person, nor do I worship, I burn incense to show my respect and honour my ancestors. I think veneration is a better word to describe honouring a person or ancestor in a non-culty, idolatry way.
Shuen Wan Temple – The stunning taoist temple belongs to 11 indigenous villages in Shuen Wan area (Plover Cove) in Tai Po East (North Territories), it consists of three temples; Confucius temple, Guan Yu temple, and Heavenly Mother temple. The original 17th Century temple was built in Qing Dynasty more than 300 years ago, it was destroyed by a typhoon in the mid 1930s, it became an abandoned derelict site completely taken over by nature for the next 70 years. Until 2002, the villages managed to raised funds to rebuild the temple. It took a staggering 10 years to construct all three temples, all opulent features, murals, wood carvings were handcrafted by artisans. Look how exquisite the architecture look from the inside and outside. The temple is a couple minutes walk from home, I would come here for a quiet moment to myself, reflecting and contemplating.
The Qilin dance at the blessing ceremony at the Shuen Wan temple. The Qilin dance is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a lion dance, not the lion dance I used to think it was, I know right? No wonder the costume looked different compared to the more elaborate lion dance costume, with its colourful scale patterns, no fur trims, a single horn on its head, fierce eyes, and the structure of the head is slightly slender than the lions. The Qilin dance is mostly commonly performed by the Hakka people and is associated with Hakka martial arts.
What is this mythical beast Qilin? Qilin, or a Chinese unicorn, is a chimera-like beast is said to be one of most sacred animals in ancient China, the mythical beast symbolises good luck and prosperity. I did a quick research online and couldn’t find a correct information to describe a Qilin, it varies from culture to culture, country to country. Lets keep it simple, Qilin had a body of a deer covered in fish scales, a head of a dragon with a single horn on its forehead, hooves of an ox, a tail of a lion, and flames all over the body. Sounds like a messed-up unicorn with body parts from different animals all mashed in together. Next time you see a ritual dance involving the mythical animal (not a common lion dance) with a single horn on its forehead, that’s a Qilin dance.
One of the most exciting things about celebrating CNY in Hong Kong is poon choi feast with a mass gathering of half a thousand Hakka people from 11 neighbouring villages. Poon choi is a ‘Chinese casserole in a basin’, it’s a traditional Hakka delicacy which has been eaten in rural Hong Kong for 6oo years. It is traditionally eaten during CNY, Mid-Autumn Festival and on special occasions. Poon choi consists of layers of different ingredients; taro, lotus roots, green vegetables, abalones, dried oysters, fish balls, roast duck and chicken, king prawns and Chinese mushrooms, all packed in a large steel basin or a claypot for a smaller portion.
Unfortunately, this time, we were quite disappointed that we didn’t have the traditional poon choi feast. We had a western-eastern style buffet feast for the first time, with special fried rice, spaghetti Bolognese, potatoe salad, et al. The hospital-like food tasted like scraps and high in sodium served in aluminium containers, the food went cold really quickly. The guests weren’t impressed. As the time went on, the dark angry clouds overshadowed the New Territories, hammered by heavy downpour all of a sudden, leaving the food soaked to its soggy state, muffled guests left the tables scuttled away home. Some say, it was a punishment from the heavens above. Like wise, a day of disappointment turned into a disastrous day for everyone who attended. Until next year, poon choi will be back!
Stay tuned for more visual diary posts from my trip to Hong Kong 🙂