January 15, 2020
It’s a balmy winter day in the village of Pak Sha O, Sai Kung and the convivial buzz of chatter, clinking glasses and the occasional ‘Kung Hei Fat Choy’ filters through the air. Follow your ears and the festivity is to be found in the fragrant garden of Christine Giles, where 20 or so flush-faced merrymakers are gathered for her annual Chinese New Year lunch.
Tucked deep inside Sai Kung Country Park, Pak Sha O is an idyllic enclave that has so far managed to avoid the bulldozers of change. The century-old, traditional stone Hakka village, replete with ceremonial hall and watchtower, is inhabited by a small, close-knit international community of whom Christine is the unofficial matriarch. It is Christine who maintains traditional customs and rituals at Chinese New Year, and who as a fantastic cook, spends several days before the holiday preparing for the lunch which is attended by family and neighbours. “During Chinese New Year, I celebrate with my kids and invite the whole village to a feast at my place,” she says. “I cook chicken, fish, shrimp and dried shiitake mushroom and chestnut soup – I cook dishes that I like, and I enjoy inviting people who like my food to be my guests – my foreign neighbours love it!”
While Christine’s fabulous feast might seem elaborate to the visitor’s eye, it’s a reduced version of the Chinese New Year she celebrated when she was a child. An indigenous inhabitant of Pak Heung (八鄉), Yuen Long, Christine grew up surrounded by a large, established Hakka family and Chinese New Year was the highlight of the year.
“I always longed for Chinese New Year. We would rest for a whole month, there was no school or work – we’d play, there’d be firecrackers and a Qilin dance (a mythical creature also known as a Chinese unicorn), and adults wouldn’t scold us, even when we were naughty!” says the sprightly 70-something. As with today, the Lunar New Year was marked by public holidays and a conveyor belt of eating, drinking and visits from extended family, friends and business contacts. For children, it also meant red packets traditionally tucked under pillows on New Year’s Eve. “And, there was always lots to eat,'' says Christine. “Food would be stored weeks in advance and my aunts and helpers would prepare auspicious dishes like Niangao (glutinous rice cakes to encourage promotion of position or income), fried rice cake (炒米餅) cha kwo (茶粿, a traditional Hakka steamed glutinous rice cake that’s shared among family and friends), deep-fried taro balls (芋蝦 for happiness) and crispy pastry dumplings (油角, which denote wealth due to their golden colour).
From childhood until today, the selection of food to be served at Chinese New Year is significant as every dish has a meaning — certain foods are deemed lucky, while others are to be avoided. Christine explains, “we don’t eat duck, because a duck’s face looks sad. Instead, we have chicken – chickens talk and peck, which encourages you to chat with others. Shrimp is served because it’s red and denotes good health, while the word for fish in Cantonese sounds like ‘surplus’ which represents an excess of wealth. Shiitake mushrooms look like copper coins, also a sign of wealth, and they’re often served with lettuce which further represents prosperity.” At the other end of the spectrum, “Chinese kale is avoided because it sounds like the word ‘rotten’.”.
Today’s Chinese New Year feast might be a simpler affair, but foods are still chosen for their merit and Christine invests tremendous effort into the preparation. Alongside the range of delicious home-cooked dishes, last year Christine ordered pun choi. A multi-layered casserole made with up to 14 seasonal ingredients such as chicken, seafood, turnips, mushrooms and other vegetables, pun choi aka ‘basin food’ is a traditional dish believed to have originated during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). According to legend, a group of Mainland China villagers, caught off-guard by the arrival of one of the Emperor’s generals and his soldiers, prepared the first pun choi with what ingredients they had, and in lieu of individual bowls, served it in a washing basin.
Pun choi was brought to Hong Kong by early settlers and became a humble yet festive staple of the walled villages in the New Territories. In more recent years, it’s acquired near iconic status as a native dish of the city that for many reflects Hong Kong’s unique identity. Deceptively complicated to prepare, pun choi is widely served at Chinese New Year and other festive gatherings in the New Territories and beyond.
Maintaining Chinese New Year rituals is extremely important to Christine, and she invites her family and guests to follow suit. “I still give my kids and grandchildren red packets and on New Year’s Eve they are expected to bathe with pomelo leaves (碌柚葉) to get rid of the old and make way for the new (除舊迎新),” she says. “We have to wear new underwear – I ask my Australian daughter-in-law to do so as well.” For Christine and many Hongkongers, such customs are a means of encouraging good health and fortune. “If you believe in these customs, and follow them with no doubts, then you will feel at ease and have a more prosperous year ahead,” she says. Kung Hei Fat Choy to that!If you want to create your own New Year’s feast, Sea View Restaurant in Hoi Ha Wan, Sai Kung makes meat and vegetarian pun choi to order.
Originally written for Discover Hong Kong
Visiting Hong Kong during Lunar New Year?
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