For the 1.35 billion residents of China and many of the 50 million who make up the country’s diaspora, today is one of the most important days in the calendar and it’s a date I’ve spent time prepping for during the last week. As the first day of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, today marks the new year and beginning of the two-week long Spring Festival. Having moved to Hong Kong last April, it’s my first real experience of the holiday and it’s already growing on me.
Over the past two weeks the colour of the city has become increasingly red. Symbolic of luck and joy, it adorns shop doors in the form of Chinese firecrackers; school children wear red silk jackets and flower markets are bursting with red plants. Some women even head to the nail salon to get a bright vermillion manicure just in time for the weekend. The whole notion of the holiday is to spread luck and good fortune to everyone you know and see.
Key to this is the giving of lai see: small (often red) envelopes containing sums of money that can range from HK$20 (€2) to an amount in the hundreds. Handed out to children, friends, colleagues and even your local barista, they’re a token of wishing good fortune to anyone and everyone you have a relationship with.
While cards and gifts are given out during many traditional western holidays, the custom normally only exists within families and existing social structures. Unlike Christmas or Easter or even the Gregorian calendar’s new year, today marks a holiday and traditions that really encourage everyone to celebrate together. I’ll prepare my lai see this weekend to hand out not only to friends and colleagues but also to the smiling team that makes my coffee every morning at Coco Espresso in Wanchai – and the grumpy old doorman at my apartment building out of whom I’m determined to get a smile. Valued by most for their symbolism far more than their monetary content, a tradition of extensive and public well wishing is something that I think all cultures could learn from.
Entirely secular, there are no religious barriers to getting into the spirit of Chinese New Year. Based on the notion of having a fresh start, last night –Chinese New Year’s eve – was not one filled with overpriced drinks and drunken revellers in the streets but instead a night when families reunited over a big meal. And no matter how little you care for such traditions, the custom of cleaning your house thoroughly in the preceding days is a surefire way to kick off the new year with a good start. Having celebrated New Year’s Day as 1 January every year thus far, few annual beginnings have felt as fresh as this one.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.