Chinese New Year preparations
Photograph: Shutterstock

An intro to Chinese New Year traditions in Hong Kong

History, practices, and dos and don’ts for CNY

Catharina Cheung

Chinese New Year is one of the most important festivities in Chinese culture. Since it marks the beginning of the year according to the lunisolar calendar (as opposed to the Gregorian one that we mostly go by now), it is called the Lunar New Year (農曆新年) in Cantonese. In Mandarin Chinese, however, the season is referred to as the Spring Festival (春節) because it traditionally marks the end of winter. Whatever name you choose to call it by, there’s no denying that this major celebration is vibrant, heart-warming, and filled with moreish food, so here’s a guide on the history of Chinese New Year, the traditions upheld by Hongkongers, and how to take part in the festivities yourself. 

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History and stories behind Chinese New Year

It is not entirely sure when the idea of celebrating Chinese New Year first started, but ancient Chinese texts such as Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals and Simin Yueling reveal that very early versions of these rituals could have begun as far back as the Han Dynasty or even the Warring States era. 

According to folklore, people were once terrorised by a mythical beast called the Nian, who would appear during the time of the new year and make off with villagers. One year, an old man volunteered to stay and keep watch through the night while the villagers hid. He set off fireworks during his long wait, and when the village survived unscathed in the morning, people realised that the Nian disliked the colour red and loud noises. This is why every Chinese New Year, people started to put up red decorations, wear red clothes, light firecrackers, and bang on drums – all to frighten the Nian and keep it away.

Chinese New Year traditions

Dressing in new clothes

As with most Chinese cultural activities, this festival is steeped in tradition and practices that carry meaningful connotations. One would buy new clothes specifically to wear over the Chinese New Year as it symbolises a fresh start. Red is, of course, the favoured colour but the most important thing here is that they are brand-new items. This is a fantastically easy way to participate in the traditions, as you don’t need to buy a whole new wardrobe – even some new pairs of underwear will do. But do note that Chinese people avoid buying shoes during this celebration, as the Cantonese word for shoes sounds like a sigh, which would mean an ominous start to the year.

Bai neen

CNY is like the Chinese version of Christmas in that it’s all about friends, family, and food. Traditionally, people would return home to greet their parents and family, and to give them well wishes for the year ahead. After family have all been visited, one would also go round to their close friends’. The format of these visits don’t differ much – you arrive, exchange New Year’s greetings, give or receive lai see, and are offered a range of CNY foods. This act of visiting family and loved ones during the festivities is called ‘bai neen’ (拜年). Because of how big Chinese families can get, and therefore the amount of time it would take to individually visit each family, it is now more common to do group bai neen, called ‘tuen bai’ (團拜) , where all extended family members conveniently gather in one location. 


Dau lai see

Arguably the best part of Chinese New Year is receiving red packets containing money, which are called ‘lai see’ (利事; lucky happenings) in Cantonese. Elder and married Chinese people will give lai see, while younger, unmarried relatives – typically children – will have to ask for their lai see by reciting idiomatic Chinese New Year greetings. This is called ‘dau lai see’ (逗利是), and is likely the sole reason generations of Chinese people have all memorised an arsenal of CNY well wishes. It is believed that the tradition of giving lai see stems from an ancient Han practice of giving children coins to ward off evil and illness.

Lion and dragon dances

If you suddenly hear drums and cymbals during the Chinese New Year period, it’s usually worth following the sounds because there’s probably a lion dance troupe performing nearby. A highly skilled art form, lion dancers incorporate kung fu stances and moves into their routines and have to undergo extensive training before being able to perform. The dance, which mimics a lion’s movements, is believed to herald good luck, and is usually performed in public squares, shopping mall atriums, or even some larger restaurants during CNY.

Look out for the part of the performance called ‘choi cheng’ (採青), which literally means ‘plucking the greens’ and involves the lions snapping up a head of green lettuce tied to a red packet. The Chinese words for ‘pluck’ and ‘vegetables’ both sound similar to ‘fortune’, and so the dance carries auspicious meanings.

Guide to giving lai see red packets

The general rule of thumb is the more familiar you are to the giftee, the greater the amount you should put in the red packet. If you’re unsure how much you should be giving to someone, here’s a quick guide you can refer to:

For family
Immediate family members are the closest in relation to you, and therefore usually receive red packets containing a minimum of $100 – we’ve seen them ranging up to the thousands. For extended family whom you only see semi-regularly on special occasions, the norm is usually between $20 to $50.

For friends
There’s no set amount for friends around your own age, but in general, the closer you feel towards a mate, the more you would stuff in their red packet. Something in the vicinity of $50 to $100 would be acceptable.

For the friendly faces
Remember to show your appreciation to the everyday heroes in your life: your doorman, security guard, cleaning staff, and the like. A $20 lai see is usually the way to go.

For the regulars
Got a favourite hairdresser or manicurist? A go-to waiter at your regular restaurant or a barista that does your coffee every morning? A $50 packet should do the trick.

For the lackeys
If you’re the boss, gift your dog-tired staff (and even the ones you hate) lai see ranging from $100 to $1,000 depending on the size of the team and how generous you’re feeling. Do it, you frugal bastard.

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