Thursday, 3 February 2011

Notes from Hong Kong 7 - Kung Hei Fat Choi

The Chinese lunar new year is now being celebrated here in Hong Kong, and the sound of "Kung Hei Fat Choi" rings out everywhere you go.  This is the Chinese phrase for "Happy New Year" or literally "Wishing you prosperity and wealth".  This is so typically Hong Kong, where wishes for wealth are far more prevelant than wishes for health, happiness, world peace or a cure for cancer.

It has been a fun, but stressful, time leading up to the holiday that rivals Christmas/Thanksgiving/Groundhog Day in its magnitude here.   There are so many traditions to follow; there are so many things to get completely wrong. 

The first thing to worry about is when to start saying Kung Hei Fat Choi. Is it like Christmas, where you can start saying "Merry Christmas" just after Halloween? Or, is it one of those bad luck Chinese things where the world will come to an end if you say it before the actual event?  I'm pretty sure it's the latter, but I slipped up and said it to someone a few days early last week.  That may be the root cause behind the massive winter storm in North America, the Egyptian uprising and Andy Murray's tennis loss.  Really sorry everyone.

The next things to worry about are the traditional Chinese New Year's foods. For several weeks now, the Chinese restaurant in our building complex has been selling hampers chock full of new year specialties.  These include four different types of "delicious puddings":  turnip, taro (a small starchy tuber that is toxic unless well cooked) and glutinous rice, as well as sesame balls (tasty balls of glutinous rice flour filled with red bean paste and rolled in sesame seeds and fried). It's a long way from the stilton, port and shortbread in my familiar holiday hamper. I had the opportunity to try some of the turnip pudding recently, and it was surprisingly delicious, once I got past the textural issues.  Here is how you could make something similar at home (well, at least if home is in the southern United States).  Cook some grits. Add tiny chopped up pieces of ham. Spread it in a pan. Put it in a fridge until it is completely gummy and congealed. Eat it. No turnips, but I swear the taste and texture is the same.  Other traditional foods include oranges or tangerines with the leaves still on (entire trees are often given as gifts), jai (a combination of food that allegedly represents good forune which includes ginko nut, black moss, dried bean curd, bamboo shoots, noodles and green onions) and whole chicken and fish to represent prosperity.  When I say whole, I do mean that quite literally.  Chickens, ducks and geese are all served comlete with head, tail and feet. MmmmMmmm.

I manage a large team of people in Hong Kong, and I am expected to sponsor (i.e. pay for) regular social events.  We try to give these events a cultural theme, so last week I hosted a holiday party in the staff restaurant. We all took part in a traditional new year activity, using Chinese caligraphy to make small banners with four word new year wishes. It was great fun, sort of like being in Kindergarten again as all the tables were covered with newspaper and we were warned of the perils of indelible ink. First you take a red piece of paper that is about eight inches wide and 15 inches long.  You then take a special paint brush and dip it in a glass that has some cotton in it that has been soaked in black ink.  You hold the brush sort of like a chopstick and then paint your Chinese characters. These characters can be incredibly complex, and there are strict rules about the order in which you draw the different brush strokes. It is painstaking, but very relaxing work. We were given a choice of "sayings" to draw.  Most of these, as I have come to expect in Hong Kong, have to do with wealth and professional success.  They include: "May you have great wealth", "May you be promoted", and "May you be very successful".  Actually they could have all said "Lisa is a complete idiot". I would have been none the wiser. 

Every social event in Hong Kong includes prize giving, raffles and other things focussed on winning stuff. The new years party was no different.  The caligraphy teacher had to award prizes for the best work.  As always in these events, I won. I assure you this had nothing to do with the quality of my painting and everything to do with kissing up to the boss. The HK$50 voucher for a local supermarket went some way towards compensating for the HK$2000 I had to shell out for the party in the first place.  After the prize giving, everyone lines up for a group photo and then several people ask to have their picture taken with me. I am not sure if this is a sign of respect or an opportunity for them to show their families pictures of themselves with that very large western woman and have a good laugh.

The trickiest custom related to Chinese New Year is something called lee see or red envelope.  It is customary to give lee sees stuffed with cash to a wide variety of people during the holiday season. The rules around this custom are a complete minefield. The first group of people to receive lee sees are children.  This is pretty straightforward.  First of all, because I don't know a lot of children here and secondly because they won't refuse to speak/serve/work with me for the rest of the year if I get the amount wrong. I have filled a number of red envelopes with HK$20 (about £1.80 or US$2.50) to keep handly in case I run into any threatening looking children. The second category of people to receive lee sees are people who provide a regular service to you. This includes the Uni-Barry doormen (now also known as Dominic, William, Philip and the one who doesn't wear a nametag).  It also includes our various shuttle bus drivers as well as Fong, my favourite supermarket check out lady.  You have to love anyone named Fong. These people all provide excellent service, and I am very happy to reward them for it. But how much? Do we give the same amount to all the Barrys even though some are around a lot more than others? Do they compare notes?  Will we be causing grave offence? If I give to Fong, but she has the longest queue to check out in the future, will the other check out ladies spurn me if I haven't given them a red envelope? It is so challenging.

The final dangerous category of lee see recepient is people at work. I have over 50 people who work for me in Hong Kong alone.  I am expected to give them all red envelopes.  Even with the minimum spend of HK$20, this is going to get very expensive.  I need to give even more to certain people. My PA will require at least HK$100 if she is to continue providing the excellent support that she has historically. I don't really have an issue with the money per se. I am far more worried about the logistics.  The problem is that I don't actually know the names of everyone on my team or recognise them by sight. This means that when I greet people at work next week, I will have a very hard time knowing to whom I should hand the envelopes.  Even worse, I am very likely to forget that I have already given someone an envelope and I will then end up giving them two. I have solved one problem by asking my PA to print out a list of the people who work for me. I have now labled 54 red envelopes.  The problem remains, however, of knowing who is who. I am in a complete panic over this, but I'll let you know how it goes.

Kung Hei Fat Choi!


  1. How did this go? I sooooo love your blog btw, absolutely fascinating.

  2. PS, appropriately, my word verification question for that last comment was 'spend'