Chinese New Year 2013

Chinese New Year 2013 has started. Bad spirits have been expelled, wishes have been made, and fortunes have been told. After four days of festivities and preparations to the Year of the Snake everybody in Hong Kong has gone back to their normal daily activities, hoping that the coming year will bring them all the things they hope for.

I have celebrated Chinese New Year with the Hong Kong people. I visited the temples, saw the great fireworks show, cheered during the New Year’s Parade and made my own personal wishes – all to experience the way the New Year starts in this Chinese society. It were some very tiring days, full of activities. And full of interesting observations with regard to religion in Hong Kong.

Wishes for wealth and wellbeing
During the days shortly after the Chinese New Year, people in Hong Kong went to different temples to pray for an auspicious start of the Year of the Snake. They went to Man Mo Temple to light incense and pray to their personal Taoist jaizi deity (of which there are 60, each connected to certain birth years; my personal deity is General Jin Bian). They went to Che Kung Temple, to turn the large metal windmills in the hope of turning bad fortune into good fortune. And they went to Wong Tai Sin Temple on New Year’s Eve to try to be one of the first persons to burn incense for the god in the new year (I was the first foreigner to burn incense – one of the advantages of knowing the right people who can take you into back entrances, to avoid waiting in line for over three hours in the middle of the night). What people wish for is of course a secret, but most wishes are for suitable marriage partners (mainly prayed for by the parents of single persons), good health, and – since we still live in Hong Kong – as much wealth as possible.

During the first fifteen days of Chinese New Year, people also go to the Wishing Trees in Tai Po. People either write down their wishes on papers and hang these under their animal sign on a large wooden board (in my case: under the Rat, since I’m born in 1984). Or they write their wishes on a paper which is attached to a small orange plastic ball which they throw in a fake tree (the real Chinese banyan Wishing Tree is standing next to the fake one, but it has been cordoned off since one of its branches, laden with paper and fruits, collapsed in 2005; the fake version is filling in until it revives). Some of the wishes made at the fake tree are:

‘I hope to receive a fortune’
‘May there be perfect harmony between my partner and me’
‘May I give birth to a son’
‘May my country prosper and may the people be at peace’

According to the South China Morning Post, the most common wish that went up the fake banyan tree was ‘Buying a flat soon’ – a difficult thing in Hong Kong, where, due to shortage of space and more and more people coming to build a living here, housing prices are rising every year.

Politics getting involved
But the Chinese New Year is not only a time in which ordinary Hong Kong people seek to know their fortune for the year, and pray to better their prospects. Local politicians also get involved, under a lot of media attention. Unfortunately for them, the people of Hong Kong attach much importance to the specific New Year’s outlook the politicians are receiving.

Last Tuesday (the third day of Chinese New Year) important Hong Kong politicians went to Che Kung Temple to join a Taoist ceremony. During the ceremony, the chairman of Heung Yee Kuk (the rural council of the New Territories) drew stick number 95, which predicted the following:

In a splendid carriage you embarked on your journey.
Today, you came home barefoot.
Is it that you failed the imperial exam?
Or did you lose all your gold in business?

The horse carriage in the verse refers, according to trained fortune tellers, to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, who is born in the Year of the Horse.

According to a famous feng shui master in Hong Kong, the omen reminds people “to be aware of wicked people”, and that the policies put forward by the government of Hong Kong could fail this year, although they sounded glamorous in the beginning. According to the South China Morning Post “this is the third bad-luck stick to be selected in a decade; following one in 2003, when Hong Kong was hit by the severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS] outbreak, and another in 2009, when it was hit by the global financial turmoil”. A fortune teller at Che Kung Temple said the stick meant that certain uncertainties would trouble the economy, and that there would be political turmoil in 2013, especially towards the end of the year.

The Chief Executive of Hong Kong is already under a lot of pressure, which was amongst others visible during the January 1st demonstrations this year. Prospects for his policies and for Hong Kong’s economic situation do not look good for 2013.

The Catholic response to Chinese New Year
For the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, Chinese New Year 2013 had the worst timing ever. The first day of the lunar year fell on a regular Sunday (the fifth Sunday in the Ordinary Time). And the fourth day of Chinese New Year – the last public holiday in Hong Kong for this festival – falls on Ash Wednesday: in the Catholic tradition a day of fasting and confessing sins, in the Hong Kong calendar a day of more family visits and celebrations. A very bad timing indeed for the Catholic Church!

But the Catholic Church in Hong Kong wouldn’t be the Catholic Church in Hong Kong if it hadn’t been able to slightly adjust itself to local Chinese traditions and customs. And thus a notice from the Chancery of the Hong Kong Diocese said:

Since Ash Wednesday falls on the fourth day of the Lunar New Year, the faithful are dispensed from fast and abstinence on that day. [Also] the Diocesan Liturgy Commission has produced a special liturgy for use on Lunar New Year’s Day, […] so parishes have the option of either using this special liturgy or that of the day, the fifth Sunday of the Year.

The church where I went to on the first day of the Lunar New Year used the specially produced liturgy. I found it good to see that the Catholic Church in Hong Kong is every now and then living up to the ideas of the Second Vatican, which emphasis the idea of ‘inculturalisation’.

All in all, Chinese New Year has been a great time for me – both personally as with regards to research. I have once again been able to get extra insight into the spiritual side of Hong Kong. Of course, I will immediately admit that most people that were present at the Wishing Trees were tourists; and I do assume most people at the temples were there partly out of curiosity. But the fact is that all these people did make wishes, burned incense, and tried to appease the Snake, perhaps thinking – just like me – that at least it couldn’t hurt to try…


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