The best of the rest (1)
Chinese New Year
Where? Hong Kong
When? Late January/ Early February
How long? 3 days
The best place to welcome in the Chinese Lunar New Year or Spring Festival is, of course, the traditional citadel of good times, Hong Kong. Celebrations last for three days, and feature parades and lion dances accompanied by booming percussion, firecrackers, skyscrapers bedecked in neon – and one of the world’s biggest fireworks displays, launched from barges in Victoria Harbour. The tradition of buying a wardrobe’s worth of new clothes to welcome in the New Year also means that Hong Kong’s shops go crazy, knocking upwards of fifty percent off everything in a massive clearout sale that only adds to the rising fever of the approaching festival. New Year’s Eve is usually devoted to gorging at family banquets, which must include chicken (for prosperity) and fish (for good luck), as well as an idiosyncratic stew of dried oyster and a kind of black seaweed known as fat choi, which also translates as “prosperity”. Buckets of the stuff are downed, along with anything sweet and round – to encourage unity and happiness (through sweetness). For days before the big party, Hong Kong is crammed with a huge fragrant flower market; locals go for kumquat trees in particular. Afterwards, head for Lan Kwai Fong in Central for some great post-parade partying, and then on to the traditional New Year’s Day meet at Sha Tin racecourse (where much of the financial abundance so earnestly wished for is flashed around). Kung Hei Fat Choi Prosperous Wishes!
Where? Iloilo City, The Philippines
When? Late January
How long? 2 days
Held the weekend after Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan (see p.299), Dinagyang is Iloilo City’s chance to go bananas. Similar to the Kalibo event, this too honours the Santo Nino (the Christ Child), and is characterized by drumming, drinking and dancing over the course of a madcap two- day party. The climax – officially speaking, anyway – is the Ati-Atihan competition, in which tribes of costumed, soot-caked “warriors” dance themselves dizzy to the drumbeats – although in the past Dinagyang has been a victim of its own insanity and the mayhem has ended in violence on occasion. In a bid to calm things down, organizers are emphasizing the festival’s religious roots, and introducing more sedate spin-off events such as film and food festivals. Even with its corners smoothed, though, this will still be one hell of a party.
When? October or November
How long? 5 days
The Hindu festival of lights – symbols of knowledge, health, wealth and everything that is positive in the world – celebrates Rama and Sita’s homecoming in the Ramayama. It’s the biggest event of the year in India, sort of on a par with Christmas in the West, and as such is not an especially good time to travel here, since everything is closed and everyone stays at home for feasting. But if you know someone in India, taking part in its rituals can be magical: festivities include the lighting of oil lamps and firecrackers and the giving and receiving of sweets and gifts.
Where? Pune, Maharashtra, India
When? Early September
How long? 10 days
The pot-bellied elephant-headed deity Ganesh is celebrated all over India but is particularly important in Maharashtra, where there are eight temples dedicated to him. In Pune, especially, his birth is remembered every year, when everyone in town makes clay idols of Ganesh for worship. The god is venerated by brass bands and drums, culminating on the last day, when the idols are taken to the river in a massive parade of drummers and musicians, and everyone scatters armfuls of red powder over everything.
Dragon Boat Races
Where? Hosag Kong
When? May 31
How long? 1 day
Hong Kong’s dragon-boat races commemorate the aquatic suicide of an upright regional governor, Qu Yuan, who jumped into a river in central China in 278 BC rather than live to see his home state invaded by a neighbouring province’s army. Distraught locals raced to save him in their boats, but were too late; later on, they threw packets of sticky rice into the river as an offering to his ghost. There are festivities all over China remembering the uncompromising Qu Yuan, but the race in Hong Kong’s Stanley Harbour is one of the best, with huge quantities of sticky rice consumed and some fierce competition between the dragon-boat teams, who speed their narrow vessels across the harbour to the steady boom of pacing drums. To soak up the best of the buzz, go down to the waterside with a cold beer and take in the festive atmosphere, though you’ll need to get up early to catch the dedication of the dragon-head prows. The celebrations carry on through the evening, with firecrackers and traditional dragon dances. Not to be confused with the much better publicized International Dragonboat Races later on in June.