Special Foods—– Dining In and Out of the Home in Hong Kong at New Years and through the Year.

Throughout Chinese society  Day 11 and 12 are the days when it is customary for the people to  visit each other  in the home environment.  They invite them for dinners at their homes.   Myths and customs aside, these two days are  a time about family and kinship. Even deceased loved ones are remembered. It is the time for family members to gather, forget past squabbles and join together in a celebration with hopes for a better year ahead for everyone.

Dining on food and enjoying it with friends and family is vital during Chinese New Year.  It represents a family’s devotion to their ancestors, gods and one another. Food eaten during CNY is often chosen based on how lucky the individual food sounds in Cantonese.  Or it is chosen because it appears and convey one’s hopes for prosperity and good luck in the coming year.

Dining in the family home is held very special:  It is held in great honor to the ancestors to join in union.  But, in Hong Kong because of the small size of family homes, even during this holiday period families also dine out in restaurants. And, the younger people even join with younger family members at local parks and beaches for winter BBQ’s. This is because of space. And, it is because it is now modern day culture to dine out in this urban city environment, unlike past times when Hong Kong had emptier space. Today, with the mountains of skyrises, space is restricted. Living environments do not include outdoor area and may be as small as 200 sq ft….thus, opportunities to meet each other take place where ever there is space enough to hold the family. And, where ever the family can share the special CNY foods….

Where ever one dines on day 11 and 12 ( or the other days for that matter), these foods can be seen on the table.

Fish Represents abundance as it sounds like “excess”. Fish is often served whole with its head and tail attached to symbolise a good beginning and ending for the year. The popular yu sheng is served based on the belief of it sounding like generating abundance.

Black Hair Seaweed Its name, fatt choy, has the meaning of striking a fortune in Cantonese.

Mandarin Oranges Sounds like gold in Cantonese so people would bring them as gifts during visiting.

Pomelo Signifies abundance because it sounds like the words “to have”.

Spring Rolls Represents wealth because of their similarity to gold bars.

Sticky Rice Cake Known as nian gao which sounds like rising achievements with each year. The sweetness also symbolises a sweet and rich life. It is also believed that by serving this to the Kitchen God, the stickiness will ensure that an unfavourable report would not be made on the household to the heavens.

Myths and customs aside, Chinese New Year is a time about family and kinship. Even deceased loved ones are remembered. It is a time for family members to gather, forget past squabbles and join together in a celebration with hopes for a better year ahead for everyone. We would like to wish everyone a very sweet and prosperous new year ahead!

And where ever one gathers……especially if with a foreign visitor or expatriate…..

Celebrating a meal in a Hong Kong Chinese home is a most special event because this invitation to foreigners seldom happens. ( this has been noted by many ‘foreign devils’ in their expatriate experience).

In Hong Kong, if a person is a foreigner and is asked to dinner inside the home of a local person— especially if it is a mulit generational household (not a modern single family household), this is an extension of friendship that is both unusual and signals a deep respect for the individual. The foreign visitor should understand that for the Hong Kong Chinese to entertain at home, the event is extremely special. as most entertaining is outside of the family home (especially when foreigners are in attendance).

At other times in the year, dinners with friends and family are an everyday experience. This is one country that loves to dine out. Mornings begin with yum chow at the wee hours and the old people gather for their first meal of the day. Lunches are part of the culture of the town with the commercial districts buzzing with activity. Short ( one hour) and longer lunches, especially business lunches are a daily routine. Not only do bosses entertain out, but staff entertain customers outside. Seldom does an employee eat in the office at lunch, as do staff in other cultures. In Hong Kong it is a daily rush at 1pm to the elevator to get out and get to the restaurant for the one hour break. Workers are normally in small groups or couples.

Dinner diners enjoy either  the finest of dining environments or partake of the Di Pi Dong (street vendor). Most people take their dinners out if they are working. So many never have dinner in the home. This is common.  It is not only on the weekends that one sees people being entertained but it is every night. People do business and celebrate and meet friends at 7pm until the wee hours of the next morning. The family dinner table is many times more, outside of the flat than in. Children in uniforms are a common sight at Hong Kong restaurants. Even in areas of the city that have lower consumable incomes.

My years eating and dining with business associates, colleagues, and friends now a mirage of memories. Each and every major event a vivid color in my mind. I can re visualize these dinners as if they were yesterday, and yet the daily lunches and dinners now blend together…..Like eating at home, being at the dinner table with my  family has become a ‘feeling of home’ — an activity expected and usual. Something I grew accustomed to. And, I must say, now that I am away from the territory, I miss being out daily in restaurants. There was such a normalcy to this. It seemed so right to do in that environment. And, I enjoyed the food each and every time I ate, as Chinese cuisine remains my favorite. Today, I eat out less, see friends socially less, and am in groups less. The Philippines, were I stay now, as a culture is not the same as the urban jungle of Hong Kong. People in the Philippines and in other parts of Asia,  have a more  home based dine in culture.

There is one area of dining acceptance that the Hong Kong Chinese show that in other cultures (especially if I compare this particular culture to the west) is not as evident, not as visual to the observer. That is multigenerational dinner tables. When you see groups in Hong Kong gathering, whether they are family, friends, or colleagues, the table is comprised of a wide range of ages. If people are single or alone, they may include an older person, for example a person of grandfather or mother age who is alone. This individual need not be even a relative.  This person may be a friend, a boss, a colleague. People do not segregate by ages and races as much as they do in other areas of Asia or the west. I actually noted this in my observations as early as my first days assimilating into Hong Kong society. I found this beautiful. Yes, beautiful. I found that the color and makeup of personalities and positions, races and ages was a wonderful sight to see. I would dine at the most posh restaurants in Hong Kong, the most exclusive, and with some of the finest and most intellectual people I have ever met, and our group of young expatriates and Hong Kong Chinese would include much much older guests. The composition of ages, races, nationalities, lent to the best dinner conversations over politics, the arts, world affairs,  sports , gossip and sex, too!

I miss these every day events. Those days I took for normal in my early career in the territory, today I hold very very special. I wish to have that experience again. But, in other nations I have lived, the dinner table’s guest list is just not the same. For whatever reason, Hong Kong and its dining habit is muti racial, multi generational, and an exquisite example of how people from different parts of the world can cohabitate and mingle together in peace and harmony.

Hong Kong dining out is a daily normal event. Dining in, at the home of a local Chinese family, is a special event. And, if you are ever invited to dine at home with a local family, take this as a great honor and go with red envelopes and gifts for the hostess. You will leave with a very special memory. But, remember to treasure your daily meals, because these are the ones that will teach you best the culture, attitudes and beliefs of the local hosts. And, if you are luck enough to be an expatriate living in this fantastic country, you will leave with not only the memory of Chinese New Years dinners but of the wealth of knowledge gained at each and every dinner table you sat at.

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