Hong Kong for Chinese New Year: Hit or Miss?
So what are you doing for New Year’s?
No, not that New Year’s.
I’m talking about the Lunar New Year.
Depending on where you are, it’s also called the Chinese New Year, Tet, Solnal, and probably a whole bunch of other names I know nothing about.
If you’re in Asia, call it what you like, but get ready for a party.
Lunar New Year usually happens in late January/early February, and it is a major holiday.
That means a couple of days off, and you know we couldn’t just stay at home. After a few days’ deliberation (“Is it too expensive? What if it’s too crowded? Should we or shouldn’t we?”), Jared and I excitedly bought flights to Hong Kong.
We went with two goals in mind: Jared wanted to go to the New Year’s Day races and I wanted to see the parade. (That pretty much sums us up, by the way.) Every other decision was made at random, so we came away with a few hits and misses.
Hit: The Big Buddha on Lantau Island
Mountainous Lantau Island is accessible by ferry or subway from Hong Kong. It’s home to what was formerly the world’s largest seated bronze buddha (if you’re getting technical). You can take a cable car from the subway station or catch a bus from the pier, whatever takes your fancy.
If buddhas aren’t your thing, there’s also the Po Lin Monastery, the pretend-old-fashioned Ngong Ping shopping village, walking trails, and the path of the divine generals.
Tip: We took the 40-minute fast ferry both ways to get a boat ride, but missed out on the cable car. It might be worth taking the ferry there and the subway back, to get the best of both worlds.
Miss: Repulse Bay
Maybe labeling Repulse Bay as a ‘miss’ is a little unfair. It’s not a bad beach, there’s just nothing happening there in the dead of winter. Once you’ve walked around this gaudy painted plastic fun fair, there’s not much to do unless you count a Pizza Hut that’s linked to a 7-11. Factor in the 40-minute round trip bus journey from Central Station and you’d be safe to skip it.
Hit: The Chinese New Year Cup at Sha Tin Racetrack
Jared worked at a racecourse in Newcastle when he was at university, so he knows a bit about horse racing. That didn’t help us at all, as we didn’t win a single race. I still call this a hit, because we walked away happy.
On a whim we took the Come Horseracing tour offered by the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The price was steep – it cost about $240 for both of us – but it was worth it in the end. The ‘tour’ included pickup and dropoff, a full buffet, unlimited drinks, HK$30 betting voucher, and we spent the day in the swanky Member’s Enclosure. They also gave us some goodies like pens and chocolates.
Tip: Unlike at Western races, dressing up is not common (but it’s still fun). In fact, it’s rare. I only saw a handful of people in dresses or suits, and even less wearing frilly hats. So don’t stress if you’ve only got jeans and sneakers.
Miss: The Night Parade
If you want to see people with cameras, the night parade is for you. Head to Nathan Road at about 9:00PM and you can’t miss them.
In fairness to the parade, there are tickets available which will buy you a decent vantage point along the parade route. If you stroll up at the last minute, it’s going to be a bit lacking.
It didn’t help that the parade took its sweet time getting to the top of Nathan Road. The first floats started trickling past after 9:30, which was when the parade was due to finish. By then, my holiday spirit had long since packed up.
Hit: Nan Lian Garden & Buddhist Chi Lin Nunnery
We saw these gardens on a tourist map from our hotel, the Lee Garden Guesthouse, and visited out of curiosity. I was immediately impressed – it’s peaceful, pretty, and most of all – notably uncrowded. But if you get bored, there’s always a shopping center on the other side of the wall.
Tip: As with everything, go in the morning to avoid crowds. I don’t know how popular this place gets, but it was positively tranquil at 10AM.
Miss: Wong Tai Sin Temple
This is a place you don’t want to be early for, at least not on the first day of Chinese New Year. Apparently (thank you, wikipedia), thousands of people arrive the night before in order to rush the temple at midnight.
It’s first in, best dressed because the earlier you put in your incense offering, the more luck you’ll have in the coming year. If I had read wikipedia before going to Hong Kong, I would not have come here. We were passing by on the way back from Nan Lian Garden, so got off the subway to see what all the fuss was about.
Don’t do this.
Just stay on the train and continue on your merry way.
We literally walked out of the station, saw the hordes, turned around, and walked straight back down. That’s not luck, that’s crazy.
Result: Hong Kong = Hit
Despite a small number of ‘misses’, I had a great time in Hong Kong. As far as hits, I could go on – the street markets, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants where you share a table with strangers and eat whatever comes out, the riverside skyline, and so many internationally-themed bars it’s like Epcot center.
We spent four full days in Hong Kong, which felt just right. I left wanting just a little bit more, but not burned out on the city. As far as a Chinese New Year destination, it’s an ideal place to get a genuine dose of festive, (if a little bit touristy) atmosphere.
Just as long as you stay away from that temple.
Tip: Wear red! It’s a lucky color for the Chinese New Year. And then you won’t even need Wong Tai Sin Temple.