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Friday, 03 February 2012

Dragon Fever

Written by Holly Urquhart
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Inside, outside, everyone, everywhere was in a flurry of movement. The year of the Dragon was upon us. Row upon row of dragon-like flowers peered down from the shelves, mouths wide open in determination to display their wealth of colors and tantalizing petals while screaming seductions at shoppers as they bustled past. Everywhere you looked red and gold dominated the landscape, with every stall a mirror image of the other, all of them selling wine, flowers and boxes of finger foods. The air was filled with the sound of children screeching happily, dashing here and there in the delight of knowing full well what these symptoms meant – the arrival of the Chinese New Year.


In the weeks succeeding Christmas, the red and gold shops of the Lunar New Year plague the downtown malls of Hong Kong, bringing with them gifts of food, sweets and red laisee packets containing money that send all children into an excited frenzy. The whirlwind of Chinese New Year had captured the immense population and spun them into a mad trance of stocking up on gifts for every eventuality. ‘Another box of cookies?’ I asked my friend, Yi Ai, as she was queued to buy what seemed like the tenth box. ‘What if uncle eleven comes visiting?’ she responded with an anxious look on her face, before dashing out of line to grab an additional box of goodies as she remembered yet another member of her hyper-extended family who may or may not come calling during the three days of celebrations and visitations. In a city of extreme wealth and excess, not having a gift to present visitors (or to give hosts) was deemed unacceptable. And this was on top of the laisee packets that married couples and parents were expected to give children, employees and even the cashier lady.

 
Hk1Nothing is considered too much for the longest and most important festivity of the Chinese calendar, especially in honor the Year of the Dragon, the only legendary animal of the Chinese zodiac. In the weeks preceding the festival, a country-wide mission to find the most beautiful plum blossoms and the kumquat tree bearing the most fruit dominates the minds of the competitors, all too eager to outdo their relations by surrounding themselves with the biggest and best symbols of luck and prosperity.  Doors, windows and even ceilings become dotted with red paper, with the characters for good fortune, happiness, wealth and longevity decorating them in shining gold calligraphy. Red lanterns hung from the roofs of restaurants and street stalls, lighting up the atmosphere with their warm light and letting good fortune rain down on all those touched.  



Dsc 0372The reach of Chinese New Year extends even to the buzzing seaside town of Sai Kung, where an outdoor flower market lights up what usually is a basketball court with hundreds of flowers, each spreading their range of colors over the vista while their perfume overpowers the throng of restaurants and bakeries surrounding the area. Red tinsel adorned with shining gold emblems curl across the front of shops and restaurants as carefully cut paper dragons slink and entwine themselves around shelves. Every surface, it seemed, was covered by this vivid redness. Don’t get me wrong – I love red, it’s my favorite color – but having it envelope you for the majority of the day can be somewhat hard-wearing. ‘To the Chinese, red means good luck and joy,’ Yi Ai explained in hushed tones, as if she didn't want to call attention to my ignorance when I asked. ‘Red is happiness – but it is also very strong. Only red can scare away the bad spirits.’ I nodded slowly, my eyes still trying to grasp the assault of color, at last comprehending how the bad spirits felt.

 
The desire for an auspicious start to the lunar year seems to be the driving force behind the celebrations. Everything is orientated towards luck or scaring the wicked spirits away. Dragon and lion dances parade through the streets with their ensemble trailing behind them, banging away at drums and clashing symbols – in other words, making as much noise as possible to frighten the evil away. Fake firecrackers dangle outside doorways in the hope that they will fool Misfortune into thinking they’re real, now that the government have made fireworks illegal. The most superstitious of the population even discourage washing your hair during the three-day celebration in fear of washing the good luck away. The same can’t be said for everything though – the day before the celebration starts, there’s a mad rush to rid ones household of every particle of misfortune-laden dust. ‘It’s just as much to impress the relatives,’ confides Yi Ai. ‘Who doesn’t tidy up a bit before the in-laws come calling?’

 
Dsc 0407Yet for all the flowers, decorations and colorful displays, there’s one that trumps them all in terms of beauty. Dragons of all shapes and sizes are displayed more prominently than anything else, including the plum blossoms that inspire so many poets and artists. In Chinese culture, dragons encompass all aspects of Chinese New Year, meaning everything from good luck, prosperity and power to wisdom, intelligence, enlightenment, leadership, success, strength, energy... the list goes on. They have a deep-rooted history throughout Hong Kong, including being the namesake of Kowloon. As the story goes, a young emperor came to the area - then nameless - and looked about, taking inspiration from the eight mountains, 'dragons' as he called them, surrounding the area. A servant then pointed out that the emperor should be considered a dragon too, making nine. When said together, 'gau' meaning 'nine', and 'lung' meaning 'dragon' becomes 'Kowloon'. Throughout history and all through the myriad of paintings and drawings, the respect and appreciation that the Chinese culture has for dragons manifests in the most beautiful and exquisite ways. With manes and delicate scales of rainbows, these ornate creatures come to life as they clamber about their frames and stare down at you in an imposing yet nonthreatening manner, guardians of the year to come.


(c)Holly Urquhart
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012