All Over the Place: Happy (Chinese) New Year
Issue 26: A College, A Zoo, and a Parade
ADAM: I’m continuing to revisit my time in Hong Kong by sharing some of the posts from the blog I maintained while I was there and adding some updated commentary, but this time I am joined by my friend Alex, a native Hong Konger who I had several classes with during my time in Hong Kong and still keep in touch with. Enjoy!
ALEX: It’s Chinese New Year these days! You can imagine it being a Chinese version of Christmas, visiting relatives and families for a few days and having big feasts. Hong Kong is a weird place for festivals. We have both Chinese and Western festivals. Generally, our Chinese festivals are more about spending time with our families like having gatherings and worshiping our ancestors. Western festivals are more like partying or dating festivals for us, especially for people without formal religions. We’re just happy that we get long holidays during Easter and Christmas to meet friends or families.
There’s Studying Involved, Right? (originally published February 1, 2019)
With how little I have mentioned it, readers would be forgiven if they forgot that I was actually enrolled in college classes right now and was not exclusively trying foreign foods and taking pictures.
Iʼm studying abroad at Lingnan University, located in the Tuen Mun District of the New Territories in northwestern Hong Kong. From what Iʼve seen, Tuen Mun could be seen as a suburban district, which in Hong Kong means that the skyscrapers are mostly housing estates instead of business headquarters. But like American suburbs, Tuen Mun is quieter, less frequented by foreigners, mostly ignored in tourism brochures, and more ethnically homogeneous (the 2011 census found that 97% of residents are ethnically Chinese) than the more urbanized areas of Hong Kong.
Iʼm staying in one of the dorms (or hostels, as they are called here) on the north edge of campus, an 18-story residence hall dwarfed by the 42-story public housing buildings two hundred feet away. Itʼs a good location, adjacent to the Fu Tai Shopping Centre and the bus station and a short walk to the MTR station for trips to, well, nearly anywhere in Hong Kong.
The campus itself is quite pretty, with a nice layout and lots of vegetation, as in much of Hong Kong. It also has a lot of layering and use of vertical space. That, along with the numerous balconies, covered walkways that would be a parkour enthusiastʼs dream, and interlinked buildings gives the campus a video game level feel. Lingnanʼs campus would not be out of place as a level in a Mario platformer. It would also make a fantastic paintball field.
As for classes, I have three sociology classes, a class about the politics of Hong Kong, and a class about museums. The best part about these classes? The fact that they all fit onto three days of the week, giving me a semester of four day weekends. If I donʼt finish my thesis on time, itʼll be because Iʼve been too pampered by this schedule.
ADAM: While Lingnan University and Carthage College are both liberal arts colleges, the classes felt very different. Generally, most classes I took at Carthage had more teacher-student interaction, with students asking questions and generally being more engaged, although classes were primarily in English at Lingnan and it’s probably a lot easier to be curious in your native language (which, for most Hong Kongers, is Cantonese). My favorite class at Lingnan was a course on how gross human rights violations are addressed and the benefits and drawbacks of different approaches. Are violators put on trial or offered amnesty in exchange for the facts? Are there formal apologies from the perpetrators or financial compensation for the victims? It’s a very interesting subject.
I did finish my thesis on time (all 120 pages of it), but I never got to the top of that hill.
ALEX: It also amazed me that Adam’s favourite class was Historical Justice. Most students in my major hated that class, mainly because it’s really theoretical. I was not particularly interested in it at first. However, with what Adam said, I learned to appreciate the class more afterwards. It’s a rare field in sociology. You would really learn a lot during that class. Without attending the class, I don’t think I’d have had the chance to come across the subject at all. It’s also satisfying to see how sociologists proactively study the past and present methodologically and scientifically for the good of society. To me, it feels like really learning from the past.
HKZBG in HKSAR (originally published February 5, 2019)
After going shopping in a thrift shop in Central on Hong Kong Island with a friend, we realized that we were a short walk away from the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens – and that the zoo was free.
The HKZBG was initially built in 1860, the same year that the Kowloon peninsula just to the north was obtained by the British Empire after the Second Opium War.
If itʼs strictly animals that youʼre interested in, you might not be all that impressed. Assuming that I saw most of the zoo portion, (and I think I did) Milwaukeeʼs zoo easily outclasses it. While there is a decent number of birds, primates, and a few reptiles, the largest animal in the park that we saw was a good-sized tortoise, although apparently there are orangutans somewhere. Lions, tigers, and bears, not here.
But when youʼre looking at the whole picture, the zoo is still an interesting visit. While the zoo has been criticized for being outdated in how it houses animals, its non-animal features have some interesting historical perspectives.
At one entrance, a memorial arch for the Chinese soldiers who died fighting for the Allies in World War I and II shows respect for the people of Hong Kong, but a statue of King George VI gives off a much different vibe.
The coolest thing about this zoo (and one that is reflective of Hong Kong in general) is the juxtaposition of concrete jungle with actual jungle. The city with the most skyscrapers in the world and the fourth most densely populated territory in the world also happens to have sizeable expanses of lush jungle and mountainous terrain, especially in the New Territories and Hong Kong Island. While some districts are incredibly urban (like Sham Shui Po), many have enough greenery to liven things up and support an urban ecosystem vibrant enough to support a large number of predatory black kites.
Like the food, the landscape has a fun syncretism to it.
ADAM: Looking at these photos today, I wish I had a better quality camera when I studied abroad (at the time I was using a point and shoot camera I purchased in Mong Kok), but when thinking about travellers in the past, I’m just glad I had a (portable) camera. I hope Marco Polo and Zheng He were good artists (or had good artists with them).
ALEX: Funnily enough, Hong Kongers consider this zoo more like a small park, at least for me. If we really want to see animals, our go-to place is actually a theme park called Ocean Park. It is a theme park, but it also involves animals. There are pandas and dolphins in Ocean Park, noticeably.
Kung Hei Fat Choi! (originally published February 10, 2019)
Luckily for me, I am here in Hong Kong in time for Chinaʼs premier holiday, the Chinese New Year, which in Hong Kong features a parade, fireworks, and horse races.
The Chinese New Year (commonly abbreviated as CNY) has been described as vaguely similar to Christmas, being a winter festival that involves gift giving, dinners with family, a lot of the color red, and has its own season of sorts.
Typically, lai see (the Cantonese term for those little red envelopes with money inside) are given out, and a whole host of things are traditionally done because of homophonic similarities, meaning if a word has both a positive intangible meaning and a literal meaning, youʼd want to associate yourself with the literal meaning in an attempt to bring forth the intangible meaning. As a CNY example, fish are eaten because the word for fish sounds like the word for abundance. Many things, however, are recommended to be avoided at this time of year as they are believed to bring bad luck, like sweeping your house and wearing old clothes.
Most chain stores stayed open, but no classes were held the entire week, and many of the small businesses at the wet market where I buy a variety of tasty fried foods were closed.
Itʼs also the time of the largest annual human migration event in the world, with around 3 billion trips expected, driving up travel costs significantly. For instance, airfare to South Korea from Hong Kong was about $100 USD more expensive around Chinese New Year. So while I didnʼt travel very far on my schoolʼs New Year vacation, I did get to see a lot of the festivities in Hong Kong.
Prior to the New Year, markets selling holiday goods spring up throughout Hong Kong. I went to a flower market on Hong Kong Island that really lived up to its name. While I didnʼt buy any flowers, I did get some tasty fried chicken and some free holiday decorations for my room.
On Chinese New Yearʼs Day, several of the usually bustling streets in Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon were closed off for the Cathay Pacific International Chinese New Year Night Parade (uncommonly abbreviated as CPICNYNP). It didnʼt have giant balloons, but keeping with the general trend of my time here, it was a quirky mix of what youʼd expect from a CNY parade (dragons, lion dogs) and what you would not expect at all (people in African savannah animal costumes, the Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders). I saw most of the parade from a distance in Kowloon Park.
Fireworks, a Chinese invention, were the next day, and were visible from both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. I watched the 25 minute spectacle with a group in Centralʼs Tamar Park. They were nice, although in some ways I expected more for a city as large as Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club offers the only (legal) gambling in Hong Kong, with a lottery and wagers on horse races and soccer games.
Admission to Sha Tin, as usual, was $10 HKD, but this day came with a free pen and instant win game (or in my case, instant lose). I didnʼt have much success in gambling, losing $56 HKD, but it was still fun, with crowds shouting out numbers at horses with weird names. If only Flying Tiger Hero and Mr. Darthvegar had won. You can bet on the races in almost any fashion youʼd like, just as long as your bet is at least $20 HKD ($2.55 USD).
Hereʼs wishing you and yours kung hei fat choi, whatever time of year it may be.
ADAM: Hong Kong has two racetracks: Sha Tin, filled with middle aged Chinese men that are serious about gambling, and Happy Valley, a track on Hong Kong Island with more tourists and more, well, happy people. I lost money at Sha Tin, but I won at Happy Valley with a bet on a horse named Giant Turtle.
I reread some of the emails I sent to my family, and the evening of the flower market was one of the delightfully serendipitous things I experienced while abroad. I went to the wet market next to my dorm to get fried bamboo to go and ended up on an adventure with lots of people on Hong Kong Island. This year, Chinese New Year is on February 10. Kung hei fat choi!
ALEX: I’m glad that I had the chance to take some exchange students, including Adam, to the CNY market. I think now you all are able to guess what I’ll mention. Think of it as a Christmas market but with a CNY atmosphere. Trust me, that’s the idea. You mainly go for the festive atmosphere instead of buying stuff. Of course, people do buy flowers and gimmicky CNY products there. And again, kung hei fat choi!