While talking about the Spring Festival, my friend lamented that Chinese New Year in Hong Kong does not feel festive at all. Hong Kongers merely treat it as a holiday and are way less excited about it than they are about Christmas, or even about the strange Halloween when ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, fairies and demons would roam the streets.
Someone then said that Hong Kong was a place of modern industry and commerce, where the Hang Seng index surpassed 30,000 points. He claimed that the city was in the “third stage” of post-industrialisation, far away from the old calendar years representing rural society and where the Spring Festival was only a remnant of old customs and habits.
I told him I understood that Hong Kong has modernised, industrialised, commercialised and urbanised, and was drifting further and further away from old customs and habits. But what was this about the third stage of post-industrialisation? I’ve only heard about the third stage of Confucianism, which is the hope for a Confucian revival following Confucius and Zhu Xi. If there is a third stage of post-industrialisation, what were the first two stages? And what has this got to do with celebrating Chinese New Year?
Staring blankly at me for a few seconds, he quickly tried to justify his thoughts: You see, over a million migrants rushed to Guangzhou Railway Station, desperately trying to squeeze into the trains and head back to their hometowns for Spring Festival celebrations. Their shoes came off and some were even trampled to death in the chaos. Hong Kongers are much more rational. As urbanites, they are more sober and have a sense of modern consciousness. They will not squeeze with the masses at railway stations at the expense of their own lives just to celebrate Chinese New Year.
I replied, yes, over a million people flocked to Guangzhou Railway Station, but there was also a “crazy” Sun Yat-sen University professor who had urged people to collect photographs of the Spring Festival travel rush, because he wanted to use it as evidence that celebrating Chinese New Year was a Chinese custom, when he submitted an application to UNESCO to make this tradition an intangible cultural heritage. But how is this related to the third stage of post-industrialisation? Are you saying that once the Hang Seng index crosses 10,000 points, that would be the first stage, 20,000 the second and 30,000 the third? If so, the Hang Seng index recently plummeted by nearly 10,000 points. Does this mean that we are back in the second stage?
My other friends quickly jumped in to smooth things over. They said that whether one celebrates Chinese New Year or not depends on the environment, and that Chinese cultural traditions are entrenched in the Chinese — even after urbanisation and modernisation, Chinese New Year is still celebrated. They pointed out that Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei and even Hong Kong celebrate Chinese New Year, recalling that they themselves only did not celebrate Chinese New Year when they were in the US in the 1960s and 1970s. Sometimes they would even forget exactly when the Spring Festival was if they didn’t pay attention.
But when I graduated and started working, I became clueless about such things; I couldn’t even figure out the dates of the Spring Festival for several years.
I was also reminded of my life in the US. Back in my student days, the Chinese students club would still gather to celebrate the Spring Festival every year. But when I graduated and started working, I became clueless about such things; I couldn’t even figure out the dates of the Spring Festival for several years.
Later on, when I taught in New York, Chinese newspapers became available and The New York Times’ lifestyle section would tell me exactly when the Spring Festival was. But after I found out about the dates, I felt even more uneasy — ignorance is bliss in this case, and it’s better that I did not know — because the university’s calendar does not care about the traditional Chinese calendar, and I would still be teaching on the first day of the Spring Festival!
“We’re not like you Chinese who follow modern trends, become westernised as you please, or abandon Chinese New Year altogether. These are cultural traditions passed down by our ancestors.” - Jewish colleagues commenting on traditions and the modern person
I often complained that New York universities would celebrate Jewish holidays — we would take a few days’ break for Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, and also Yom Kippur — but not even take a one day break for Chinese New Year.
My Jewish colleagues explained that they are very religious and couldn’t care less about whether the university gives them a holiday or not — they would definitely obey ancestral teachings, abide by their cultural traditions and not go to school. They asserted, “We’re not like you Chinese who follow modern trends, become westernised as you please, or abandon Chinese New Year altogether. These are cultural traditions passed down by our ancestors. What is that saying you have? Ah, we are not like you guys who would ‘throw them out like old shoes’.”
I know they meant to use the Chinese idiom qi ru bi xi (弃如敝屣, cast away like a pair of worn-out shoes), and did not mean to say that Chinese cultural traditions are “worn-out shoes”, so I did not take it to heart. But I still felt uncomfortable hearing what they had to say.
But regardless of whether I felt comfortable or not, I still taught on Chinese New Year as usual. It was not until I came to Hong Kong and took a break during the Spring Festival that Chinese New Year truly felt festive.
Related: [Chinese New Year Special] A bygone era: Chinese New Year celebrations during the time of the Republic of China | Early Chinese immigrants: Embracing the American way of life | Why China's railway development has fallen short of Sun Yat-sen's expectations | [Chinese New Year Special] Family rituals of a Shandong Spring Festival