February 8

Welcoming the Year of the Rat


Samantha Culp


“DA da DA da da DA da DA…” intones the familiar muzak, accompanied by the synthesized sounds of cymbals crashing. Over the loudspeakers in my neighborhood grocery store, the elevator music equivalent of Cantonese Opera is blaring out to prepare shoppers for the coming New Year. As if they could ignore it.

In early January, shops traded in their Christmas carols and grinning snowmen for cardboard fire-crackers, gold plastic lanterns, and posters of chubby-cheeked babies. The green pines of Xmas have been replaced with miniature kumquat trees (as they need to be produced so rapidly and in such great numbers for the season, the tiny orange fruits are mostly tied onto the branches, further enhancing the Christmas-ornament effect). Local advertising has been taken over by the animal zodiac symbol of the coming year—as 2008 is the Year of the Rat, the promotional tie-ins are a little bit more difficult than usual[1].

And then, just as the hyper-commercialism reaches a crescendo, everything goes quiet. The roaring city fades to a hush as shops close their shutters, postal service suspends, and traffic thins to a barely-perceptible trickle. Hong Kong families sequester themselves into their flats for several days, to cook, eat, make baai nihn[2] visits to relatives’ and friends’ homes, give and receive lai see[3], watch cheesy television, gamble on cards or mah jong, and just sort of relax in a bubble of domesticity.

The American New Year, by contrast, is relentlessly public, and must be commemorated with friends, loud parties, intoxication, and sexual tension (the New Year’s kiss when the “ball drops”). Followed only by a hangover, and the eventual breaking of New Year’s resolutions.

When I first moved here, I found the Lunar New Year a bit anticlimactic, compared to the Western model. But almost four years later (Monkey to Rooster to Dog to Pig, and now onto Rat), I’ve grown to love the hypnotic lull of the holiday. I’ve even come to see the consumer frenzy that precedes it as a necessary prelude, to give a contrast to the stillness that follows.

This year on Lunar New Year’s Eve, my boyfriend A. and I retreated to our flat like all Hong Kongers. We may have forgotten to open the window exactly at the stroke of midnight to let the old year out and the new one in, but we did avoid showering, sweeping, using knives or throwing away trash (symbolic of destroying good luck for the coming year). Last year, A. decided to break all of these superstitions for an art video, and had a run of very bad luck over the coming months. Better not to risk it, now that we’re older and wiser.

We bundled up in blankets and scarves (Hong Kong apartment buildings have no heat) and watched downloaded TV shows until we fell asleep, then woke up late the next morning to do the exact same thing. Later on New Year’s day (Choh-yat), A. went out to buy an elaborately-wrapped box of chocolates, a gift to bring to his great-uncle’s home in the Prince Edward district of Kowloon. With barely any cars on the roads, we got through the cross-harbor tunnel in record time.

At A.’s uncle’s flat, the TV flickered in the background as we helped make dumplings from a bowl of sticky pink raw pork mixture, and little rounds of dough, helpfully rolled flat by an aunt. Still, I was unable to make mine stick together with the elegant pinching motion that most Chinese learn as children. Trays of dumplings were taken away to be fried, and empty ones brought back to be filled. Family gossip looped around the small table in Cantonese and Mandarin, as a little shih-tzu dog aptly named Fluffy celebrated by showing his affections for my leg.

Finally the trays came back with cooked dumplings, and we sat down on small stools to properly eat the fruits of our labor. A.’s great-uncle cranked the TV volume, which was broadcasting the annual New Year’s parade starting at the Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Centre. Pop stars shivered in parkas and chirped through their microphones, introducing various performing troupes from around the world (including, for some reason, my hometown’s UCLA cheerleaders) who sashayed in bright spandex through their routines, then moved on down Nathan Road. Several groups featured small children dressed as mice or rats, invariably fleeing from sexy “cats” while in pursuit of enormous foam cheese wedges. A.’s family mocked the program in a good-natured way, but we were all rapt as we ate copious dumplings. Every once in a while one of us would discover a dumpling that tasted particularly sweet—due to A.’s uncle mischievously putting lotus seeds[4] in some of the dumplings he filled.

At some point A. was called away by his great-uncle and uncle to go into the other room. I continued to watch TV with the non-blood relatives and domestic helpers, just as a troupe of fantastic Thai ladyboys took to the screen to vamp it up on a Thai Airways-sponsored float. When A. returned, I asked him what he was doing. “Just paying respect to our ancestors,” he replied. I was charmed that A., whose parents are from Hong Kong but who was born and raised a real American boy, was thrilling his great-uncle by joining this traditional New Year’s custom. And it made me remember that the New Year celebration isn’t only for the people in the room, but also for those who peer down from strategically placed black-and-white photos on the walls.

The past pops up in unexpected ways in Hong Kong, a city dedicated to its continued eradication. Though Disneyland commercials on TV that night shrieked about the “Year of the Mouse” (Mickey seizing a perfect advertising opportunity for their failing HK theme-park), the Lunar New Year is still one of the most traditional things in this city. At its core, it’s a celebration of the hope for prosperity, shaped over centuries by a shared cultural memory of endemic poverty. But like all New Year’s, it’s also about the symbolic rebirth of time.

The Rat is the first animal of the zodiac, and with him begins a new 12-year cycle. In some ways, 2008 is the New Year’s New Year. Unfortunately Hong Kong astrologers say that the Rat ushers in a period of more chaos, more change, more danger than any other year. So all we can do is wait to wash our hair for one more day. Give and receive red lai see filled with crisp new bills and small coins, to show that there is always something left over. Hibernate with family and friends; eat our own weight in dumplings. A.’s great-uncle’s flat was a bit chilly that night, but it was worth it. Leave a window open, to let the past float out as the future floats in. Just like breathing.



[1] Luckily this year McDonald’s has designed a French-fry box that looks like a rat, instead of trying to sell rat-themed burgers. Their 2007 Year of the Pig pork sandwich was just sort of depressing.

[2] Baai nihn is the practice of visiting relatives and friends in the days following New Year to celebrate together.

[3] Lai see or hung bao are the red pockets of cash traditionally given to children, young people and service workers during the Lunar New Year.

[4] Lotus seeds are traditionally eaten during the New Year as a symbol of virility and long life.