Rite or Wrong? The Grip of Rituals (Chinese New Year in Hong Kong)

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Festivals, Temples

Beyond the routines of hygiene, twice-daily coffee jolts, less-regular-than-they-should-be workouts, and a roughly once-monthly massage (I consider the latter more functional than indulgent, and thankfully they’re inexpensive in HK) – I am a woman of relatively few rituals. Truth is, I don’t generally give rituals much consideration. I suppose I don’t think they amount to much – just my personal belief. But even those who don’t ‘believe’ in rituals, like myself, likely still participate in them to some degree.

Consider the wedding ceremony (even mine, which was designed to be quite non-traditional – but it still would count as a ritual of sorts). Or memorials and funerals. Even the mundane, nearly sub-conscious superstitions or routines we perpetuate, even if we don’t mean to. Ever worn a ‘lucky’ shirt? Light a candle or play a certain song to honor someone’s memory? Recite a particular motivational quote in your head before a big day? Kiss at the break of a new year? Place your textbook under your pillow to soak up its contents before a big exam? [No on the latter? Guess that was just me – when I was in high school. I’m not proud. And no, it didn’t work.]

Rituals indeed abound everywhere, in all cultures, and I have become hyper-aware of them especially now that I reside in Asia. From the (seemingly dozens of) annual festivals that are held in Hong Kong, to the tributes at temples that many of a more religious bend pay on a regular basis, symbolic behaviors and practices permeate the culture here.

Why do people engage in rituals? The reasons vary, of course. Some perform them in the hope of improving their luck or fortune (or warding off bad luck or evil) – as is often the case around Chinese New Year, recently celebrated in this region.

For example, why does everyone ‘see red’ everywhere, especially during these festivities? Apparently a mythical, village-ravaging, lion-like monster known as Nian (whose successful eradication is the core of the Chinese New Year tradition) feared the color red (and loud noises such as drums).

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Chinese New Year (CNY) at Man Mo Temple in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong is a festive and incense-smoke-filled affair

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A young CNY celebrant wards off evil by striking a large drum

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Mom indulges in the drum ritual (but more just to make some noise!)

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Burning joss paper or ‘ghost money’ in a furnace outside Man Mo Temple – an offering to venerate ancestors

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One of the more absurd rituals of CNY? Why, tossing plastic fruit with red wish tags onto a…similarly plastic-y wishing tree. It’s challenging to decide which part of this whole process is most bizarre. The wish tags? They are mostly multiple-choice. Desire a good husband? Go ahead, check that box. Crave a rewarding career? There’s a box for that, too! Don’t see your preferred wish? Plenty of open space for a free-write! Why limit yourself? Now toss the contraption (plastic tangerine or orange included – symbolizing luck and wealth, of course) into the tree. Sound easy? It’s not – yes, I tried and succeeded after about 6 attempts. I fear I may have actually lost luck along the way.

And why the faux tree? Sadly, the original real tree was so burdened with wishes from prior years, it is quite literally now propped up by rods and such and sequestered off, a safe distance from overeager wishers. As we passed the sad, droopy real tree on our way out, I couldn’t help but draw the quite obvious symbolic conclusion. Best to consider the new version just a silly game.

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Tossing one’s hope and dreams onto a (faux) wishing tree in Lam Tsuen, New Territories

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Clearly symbols play a key role in many rituals.

Chinese sacred lilies (symbolizing purity and sacred knowledge) perfume the air of the Causeway Bay Flower Market - absolutely heavenly

Chinese sacred lilies (symbolizing purity and sacred knowledge) perfume the air of the Causeway Bay Flower Market – absolutely heavenly

Another familiar visual of CNY is the ubiquitous lantern. These too bear specific meaning, often based on color. Red represents good fortune. Pink – romance, orange – money, yellow – success.

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An inside look at the elaborate but temporary West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre

An inside look at the intricate (but temporary) West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre

The ICC skyscraper (replete with its own CNY-specific light facade) punctuates the skyline near the West Kowloon Bamboo Promenade

The ICC skyscraper (replete with its own CNY-specific animated light facade) punctuates the skyline near the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre

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A CNY twist on the Hong Kong Island skyline

A CNY twist on the Hong Kong Island skyline

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Colorful lanterns light up the sky near the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre

Sycees are also seen frequently. These faux gold ‘boats’, reminiscent of a gold currency used in China centuries ago, symbolize prosperity.

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Sycees (faux gold ‘boats’) symbolize prosperity

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Fat and happy revelers bask in the good fortune of gold coins and sycees

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Gin mimics, in the hope of similar good fortune!

And let’s not forget the fish – another important symbol of fortune, often prepared and served whole. In one of its most elegant and creative (and non-edible) incarnations, the humble fish was elevated to art in the form of a beautiful, ethereal installation entitled ‘Shoals of Prosperity’ inside Pacific Place. Artist Jacqui Symons (and her assistants) painstakingly hand-folded almost 5000 miniature origami fish to create one large, dramatic, paper sculpture.

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‘Shoals of Prosperity’ origami fish sculpture captivates at Pacific Place

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Yet other rituals are meant to bring comfort or alleviate grief, or to reduce anxiety. And while ‘non-believers’ may largely consider these a waste of time, recent psychological research indicates otherwise. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to prove (and it’s often illogical to suggest) a direct, causal relationship between performing a ritual and a desired outcome. However, it has been found that rituals designed to alleviate grief actually do so. Rituals performed prior to a high-pressure event reduce anxiety, improve focus, and increase confidence – which may translate to improved performance. Why? Likely because rituals do impact people’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors – which can then impact outcome.

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A CNY Night Parade performer takes a private moment to prepare

All that being said, knocking on wood or performing some ‘magical spell’ before jumping into, let’s say, a tank of piranhas, are both unlikely to guarantee your safe swim. So I suggest caution before engaging in such a sequence of activities.

On a slightly more serious note, I would also recommend caution against attributing a positive outcome to a ritual that was performed. People love to close the loop on things like this – it makes us feel better about ourselves, I suppose. Brings us comfort. But it is more likely that the positive outcome is attributed to – you. Or someone else. So take (or give) credit where credit is due. Or consider the element of pure chance. And if the outcome is less than what you hoped – well, little drives me crazier than saying something was just ‘meant to be’. There may be have been a very good reason (or at least an explanation) for what happened. Or maybe it was out of your control, in which case, there was really nothing you could have done about it to begin with. Ritual or no ritual.

Of course, there may be far simpler reasons for participating in a ritual – sometimes it’s just an excuse to celebrate and have a good time. Nothing wrong with that – as evidenced by all the (mostly) smiling faces I observed and captured during the recent CNY events. All 15 days of them (and yes, it seems I was out-and-about for part of almost all of them).

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Pre-Night Parade interview of visitors, just before the show’s start

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Professional Chinese opera performers at the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre

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Impressive lion dancers wow the crowd beneath the ‘Shoals of Prosperity’ origami fish installation at Pacific Place

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Scores of finds at the CNY Flower Market at Causeway Bay

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Mark takes in the elaborate set-up of the CNY Night Parade

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CNY fireworks, observed directly by boat on Victoria Harbour

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Young peddlers showcase their red envelope wares (‘laisee’ for token monetary gifts)

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Hong Kongers love their stuffed..bananas?

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Orange garlands surround serious customers at the Flower Market in Causeway Bay

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Whimsical, oversized ‘lanterns’ fill the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade

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Hong Kongers LOVE their flowers – especially at the Causeway Bay Flower Market

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Children frolic among bubbles at the Flower Market in Causeway Bay (clearly offering much more than just flowers)

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An unexpected moment of tender loving care for delicate orchids at the Flower Market in Causeway Bay

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Pride doesn’t get in the way of a good time at the Causeway Bay Flower Market

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Artificial? Yes. Colorful? Absolutely

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Taking in the world through a rose-colored…ball

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A more candid moment for Chinese opera singers, overwhelmed by enthusiastic fans, after a performance at the West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre

May this new year bring you good fortune luck. How about happiness, in whatever form that may take for you..

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

2 thoughts on “Rite or Wrong? The Grip of Rituals (Chinese New Year in Hong Kong)”

  1. Ann says:

    It was a blast sharing all those precious moments with you….and…hoping for more good fortune to come this way!

    Like

    • Likewise, Mama Fong! As for fortune, well, I think we need to make good things happen for ourselves. We have a headstart already, though..

      Like

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