On the Southern edge of China is a peninsula, and directly underneath it are two bigger islands that stretch out into the South China Sea. These scrapes of land make up Hong Kong, or – as it is more correctly referred to – the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).
As a former British colony, it sets itself apart from its mainland neighbor in a number of political and cultural aspects, but has still very much kept some of its Chinese charm.
If you're studying abroad in Hong Kong, you should know that the two of the biggest festivals in the city, for instance, are two major Chinese holidays: the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Chinese New Year.
The Mid-Autumn Festival
It is known under a variety of names, including Moon Festival, Moon Cake Festival, Lantern Festival or Chinese Thanksgiving. The term Moon Cake Festival originates from the small, round pastry Chinese people like to eat on that special day. The Festival usually takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month each year, according to the Chinese calendar. In the Western world, it falls into the month of September or October.
The best way to celebrate this holiday for anyone studying in Hong Kong, is by taking a Moon River cruise around one of the islands surrounding Hong Kong or by watching one of the traditional Dragon Dances, where a dragon, made up of thousands of burning incense sticks, is carried on a stage by performers and set into motion in a fiery performance.
A typical celebration of Chinese Thanksgiving would not be complete without a wide array of lanterns and without tasting the famous moon cake. The Cantonese version of this dessert, famous in Hong Kong and other parts of Southern China, is made of red bean or lotus seed paste and has a center of duck egg yolk, which is loved by some and hated by others. A few years ago, a more modern version of this pastry, icy moon cake, was introduced and is now almost equally popular as a celebratory dessert.
The Chinese or Lunar New Year.
It is usually celebrated in January or February and lasts for 15 days. To welcome the beginning of the New Year in an appropriate fashion, it is common to burn incense at the temples and ask for good luck. In addition, flower markets tend to pop up all over the city during this holiday and are a popular location amongst locals and foreigners alike.
The most important color in relation to the Chinese New Year is red. It is represented in clothing, especially on New Year’s Day, since red is regarded as a lucky color in Asia. Another local custom is the delivery of red envelopes, or red packets. Usually containing money, they are given away by grandparents and parents to the children or unmarried juniors. When taking part in this custom, it is important that the bills you put in the envelope make up an even number, as odd numbers are seen as an unlucky sign.
Similar to the Western way of heralding a New Year, Hong Kong also hosts an annual firework display, which usually takes place on the second day of the Chinese New Year. Apart from this display, fireworks have been banned in Hong Kong for security reasons.
As far as festivities go, international students in Hong Kong might be surprised that even Western holidays receive a growing amount of appreciation in the region.
Weeks, sometimes months before Christmas, customers in supermarkets or shopping malls are already treated to Christmas jingles emanating from loudspeakers. And while on December 25 there is not much Christmas celebration going on in Hong Kong, you can still set up your own, personal “Christmas path” to get into the spirit of the holidays. As a starting point, you could choose from the many festivals offered as open-air happenings or at locations like the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. For last-minute Christmas shopping, the Ladies Market in Mong Kok is a commendable destination, where some sellers may even be more co-operative in their bargaining on such a jolly holiday.
Lastly, for a glimpse of holiday decorations, malls such as the IFC Shopping Mall or 1881 Heritage are usually promising destinations for impressive Yuletide-themed statues or small sceneries.
One more festival that has spread its pumpkin-colored roots in Hong Kong over the past years is Halloween.
The best way to spend this hallowed day or evening, especially for families, is by going to one of the big theme parks, which are Ocean Park and Disneyland. Both cover their attractions with ghostly cobwebs and let their visitors be greeted by staff members clad in unearthly costumes while they wander from one haunted house to the next.
To put it in a nutshell, some study abroad students who expect to be greeted by a Chinese landscape may at first be intimidated by the tall skyscrapers rising towards the blue canopy above on each side of the streets in Hong Kong, some of them so thin they look like they could collapse at any moment, or located dangerously on a steep hillside. After all, the city by now has more skyscrapers than New York and is the current global trailblazer when it comes to breaking through the “The sky is the limit” barrier in architecture.
This, however, is necessary, since Hong Kong has a population of more than 7 million people and only an area of 1.104 km² to house all of them. That is why houses have started to rise higher and higher, despite the year-long threat of typhoons, which is most significant from May to November each year.
Nevertheless, people in Hong Kong know how to enjoy a holiday and most of them are more than willing to share their customs with foreigners who are interested in celebrating with them.