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Chinese new year

Year in, year out

Fireworks explode over Victoria Harbour during Lunar New Year celebrations in Hong Kong on February 9, 2016.

As Chinese New Year begins, Kat Tancock reflects on seeing last year's celebrations up close in Hong Kong. Love it or hate it, the entire city goes all-out for the ancient festival

The glow sticks are synchronized, I realize belatedly.

I'm in the stands at the 2016 Chinese New Year parade in Hong Kong, taking in the commotion as revellers find their places and performers prepare to show off for the crowds – and the TV cameras. Behind me, vividly coloured holiday decorations flash on skyscrapers overlooking Victoria Harbour. Here, at the parade's starting point in Kowloon, the lights are no less bright, accompanied by pounding pop tunes aimed to get us in the mood to celebrate the start of the year of the monkey. At every seat, a tote bag is stuffed with paraphernalia, including battery-operated glow sticks, which many in the crowd are already waving in time with the music – and whose changing colour is controlled by some remote hand offstage.

Before long, the diverse slate of dancers, acrobats and corporate floats starts to move across the stage, a surreal mix of international invitees and local troupes. Each group pauses to perform for the audience in the stands before exiting toward the crowds lining the streets of the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district. The scene segues from a floating blow-up Hello Kitty to dancing kids in fuzzy brown monkey suits to jump-rope masters doing flips and tricks in shiny metallic jackets; skimpily attired Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders shimmy past, then stilt walkers from the Netherlands dressed as fantastical dinosaurs. It's a sensory overload of light, colour and movement, and to my surprise, I'm completely enthralled.

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The Chinese Lunar New Year also known as the Spring Festival, which is based on the Lunisolar Chinese calendar, is celebrated from the first day of the first month of the lunar year and ends with Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day.

A curmudgeon when it comes to forced cheer, I was skeptical about attending the parade, which on paper looks like a manufactured event to keep wintertime tourists occupied. In fact, I was skeptical about travelling to Hong Kong at this time of year at all. Like Christmas in Canada, Chinese New Year (abbreviated by everyone here to CNY) is a family holiday, many of its traditions as unattainable to outsiders as the pleasure of sipping rum-laced eggnog on Boxing Day morning in your pyjamas. My research online had led to two camps: those who believe it's an inconvenient time to visit, and those who think it's worth it for even the partial immersion in local customs.

And the customs are everywhere. All over the city, buildings and street-side businesses are decked out in seasonal finery: red paper lanterns, monkey decorations and the ubiquitous potted mandarin orange trees, symbolic of good fortune and prosperity. One day, walking back to my hotel from a restaurant, I hear the telltale drumming of a lion dance. Sure enough, looking closer, I see costumed performers acting out the stylistic movements, their (paid) presence meant to bring fortune to businesses.

People watch as a lion dance team performs on a street during Lunar New Year celebrations in Hong Kong on February 12, 2016.

Restaurants of all types offer special menus featuring traditional and auspicious foods – I even spot a "raw artisanal CNY candy box" at vegetarian Grassroots Pantry. Many of these customary foods, I learn, are based around the robust creative use of homophones in Chinese languages – that is, words and syllables that sound the same, but have different meanings. The word for glutinous rice cake, for instance, sounds similar to the phrase "higher year" – thus symbolizing a move upward with the turn of the calendar.

Karisa Lui, who works in Toronto for the Hong Kong Tourism Board, has fond memories of Chinese New Year while growing up in Hong Kong. She recalls big shopping trips so the whole household could be outfitted in new clothing, shoes and haircuts, and top-to-bottom cleaning of the home.

Older family members would write auspicious sayings on red paper, to decorate the walls, and homes would be adorned with cut flowers, tangerines and potted plants. Like many in the city, her father would always attend the horse races during the season, and the night before the New Year would pack up the family to visit a temple and pray for good blessings.

A man sells Chinese calligraphy with words of blessings on red papers for the upcoming Chinese New Year on a street in Hong Kong February 5, 2016.

I see first-hand how enduring this Taoist tradition is when I drop by Man Mo Temple in Sheung Wan one afternoon. Built in the mid-19th century, it is among the oldest temples in the city and the largest of those dedicated to the god of war (Mo) and the god of literature (Man), the latter especially important to scholars and, in the past, future imperial bureaucrats hoping to pass their exams. Several days before the New Year, it's a hive of activity. Worshipers congregate in the courtyard and line up to purchase joss sticks. Inside the intricate carved doors, massive conical coils of incense slowly burn overhead, pieces of red paper inscribed with wishes hanging in the centre. These are said to go for weeks before dying out, their smoke carrying prayers to the heavens.

Farther inside the dim space, stacks of fruit and food rest on altars and tables, mostly oranges still bearing their grocery-store stickers. I try to stay respectfully out of the way as I watch people lighting thick bundles of incense from clusters of red candles, bowing several times before placing them in bronze urns. The air is stifling from the smoke and the mood serene, only an occasional drumbeat or ring of a gong breaking the silence.

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On the eve of the New Year, I meet guide Fred Cheng at my Kowloon hotel for an outing to the Victoria Park Flower Market, the biggest in the city. I've never seen such large crowds so perfectly organized. At a traffic light next to the park, police officers use yellow rope to keep pedestrians off the road until it's their turn to cross. Inside the market, wide lanes are marked as one-way only; with this density of people, it's the only way to ensure anyone can move.

People pray and burn joss sticks at Wong Tai Sin temple to welcome in the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong early on February 8, 2016.

As Lui says, bringing fresh flowers and plants into the home is a CNY essential, unsurprising for a festival that's linked with the advent of spring. Judging by the masses flooding into the park, not a few locals have left this purchase to the last minute. It's a cool day, but the temperature is many degrees higher inside the compound, thanks to the masses of bodies as well as the afternoon sun radiating off the concrete.

Cheng and I zigzag through the aisles as he points out some of the highlights: Like any big fair, the main event is accessorized by food stalls, vendors hawking stuffed animals (this year, mostly monkeys) and, of course, a few religious groups and a political opposition party. I size up then dismiss a gold piggy bank, unable to imagine cramming it into my luggage. As I follow the flow of traffic, sellers try to direct my attention toward their bundles of pussy-willow branches, decorative pots of forced bulbs and pyramid-like arrangements of pointy yellow Solanum mammosum fruit. A man selling an enormous bouquet catches my eye and smiles, and I smile in return. He knows I'm a tourist, but he doesn't seem to care. He thought I might buy his flowers anyway.


If you go

Performers participate in a Chinese New Year Parade on February 9, 2016 in Hong Kong.

Chinese New Year is calculated on a lunar calendar and begins on a new moon, thus roaming around Western-style Gregorian dates. Years rotate through the 12 animal signs of the Chinese zodiac. This year, the year of the rooster begins Jan. 28; Feb. 16, 2018, will mark the beginning of the year of the dog. Book early if you can.

In Hong Kong, many businesses stay open through the holiday season, while others do close, especially on the first three days of the roughly two-week-long celebration period.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board's website discoverhongkong.com is extremely useful for finding information, directions and contact details for many city events, businesses and attractions.

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Where to stay

The Kowloon Shangri-La celebrates Chinese New Year with special offers and events for guests; sample traditional seasonal puddings, buffet meals or set-course dinners featuring auspicious foods. Centrally located near the parade route, the hotel's south-facing rooms are also at a prime angle to view the fireworks over Victoria Harbour. Rooms from $530. shangri-la.com.

What to do

The busy commerce at city flower markets is interesting to observe – and you might even want to pick up some blooms to bring good fortune to your hotel room. Besides the one in Victoria Park, the Prince Edward Market in Kowloon is a hub of activity; be sure to stop by the nearby Yuen Po Street Bird Garden as well.

The annual Night Parade is a riotous extravaganza worth attending as much for the people-watching as the performers. Splurge on seats in the bleachers for a more comfortable experience, or stake out a spot on the street to be a part of the crowds.

On the third day of CNY, herds of horse-racing afficionados congregate at the Sha Tin Racecourse in the New Territories for the annual Chinese New Year Race Day. In addition to the main event, often featuring internationally renowned competitors, spectators are treated to a variety show encompassing lion dances, singing performances and even hot tips from feng shui masters.

Man Mo is far from the only temple worth visiting during the Lunar New Year season.

The Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple is renowned for making every wish true upon request, a promise surely worth testing out. The Che Kung Temple at Sha Tin, named for a revered military commander of centuries past, hosts a festival in his name on the second day of the New Year that sees tens of thousands of visitors.

Some of the writer's accommodations were provided by the Kowloon Shangri-La. It did not review or approve this article.

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