It was my good fortune to be living in Hong Kong during the winter of 1996/7 when the city-state was preparing for its return to China. Attitudes to this were divided but everybody knew that the coming year heralded massive change. Being a Londoner I assumed that the first of January was the big day, but as ever in Hong Kong I learned a whole new way of seeing things.
The build-up started with an exuberance of pre-Christmas commercialism. I loved the soundtrack of carols and Christmas Hits belting out from shopping centres.
We made unnecessary crossings on the Star Ferry to bathe in the gaudy seasonal light-shows glowing from the harbour skyscrapers. It seemed so incongruous in this majority Buddhist and Taoist multi-faith society.
I did not understand until mid-January that it was merely a precursor to the Big One. The Chinese New Year is a movable feast which falls on the second or third new moon after the winter solstice.
A sense of expectation rustled through streets, markets and buildings. Seasonal lights stayed up and more were added. The symbols for the new year greeting, Kung Hei Fat Choi, appeared everywhere. Red and gold envelopes appeared, filled with Lai Cee money for children and some workers. Department stores sold traditional costume for dressing up children. Beautifully displayed mandarin oranges appeared in markets and buildings. I was delighted when I peeled one and the zesty scent transported me to London winters of the 1960s. A massive cleaning exercise washed over the city. By custom everything was to be pure for the New Year.
Public service announcements urged people to book their transport for going home, and it became clear that Hong Kong’s remorseless commercial machine was going to stop for Chinese New Year.
By New Year’s Eve millions of workers had travelled to their family homes and Kung Hei Fat Choi was the universal greeting. Like the traditional Scottish salutation this roughly equates to wishing a prosperous new year.
For those remaining in Hong Kong the high spot was the annual Firework Display in the Harbour. The best view of the fireworks was from the middle, so a crazy flotilla took to the misty waters. Everything from posh corporate yachts to plain fishing boats joined the organised queue that led us in a great loop along the typhoon shelters of the Island. Then back round to crawl past Kowloon until we lined up facing west to see the great displays.
We nudged past a community of water people (called Tanka by others) who had decorated their floating temple with red banners and yellow chrysanthemums. This happy scene illustrated the all-embracing nature of this celebration.