What the Shroff?!

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A Shroff Office!

A Shroff Office

The first time I was directed to take my parking ticket and receipts to the Shroff Office to redeem my “parking privileges” (i.e. get free parking!) I put it down to those odd mist-translations which pop up frequently around Hong Kong.  The second time I thought it was funny that so many car parks were making the same mistake.  After the third time I realised that it was “a thing”!  So I have done some research (google, naturally!) and it seems that the term “Shroff” originated with the British rule.  
In White’s book “Turbans and Traders’ (about South Asians in Hong Kong), she notes that the Shroff was the ‘Police Court Official to whom money was paid’ in 1872. Now in this era of Hong Kong the great bulk of the police force were South Asian.  As the term has a East Asian origin it seems likely that the term was adopted by the administration because of the large South Asian contingent in Hong Kong and the forces.  It has endured and remains one of those odd reminders of the complex colonial heritage of Hong Kong. 
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“When Flowers Bloom Prosperity Comes”

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2013-02-09 15.34.58The saying “Hua Kai Fu Gui” (when flowers bloom, prosperity comes) helps to explain why flowers are so central to the celebration of the New Year in China.  Flowers and plants represent the joy of reawakening and new growth following the long winter gloom.  Shortly before the start of the festival it is customary to clear out dead plants and flowers from your home as these are considered unlucky.  Then the Lunar New Year flower markets spring up in Hong Kong and are flooded with people seeking decorate their homes with new auspicious plants and flowers like the lotus, orchids and plum blossom to secure good fortune and prosperity for the Year of the Snake.  We went to the market in Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to join in with this classic holiday shopping experience and it was just heaving!

The Victoria Park flower market was super crowded!

The Victoria Park flower market was super crowded!

Nonetheless we dived into the crowds and were rewarded with the most incredible stalls, all selling only one or two types of flower or plant – very specialist!  I have already written about the significance of the “golden nugget” tangerine bushes in a previous post, but I hadn’t seen them en masse before.  This stall had so many it was on three specially constructed bamboo scaffolded storeys!

Row upon row of tangerine bushes

Row upon row of tangerine bushes

The orchid symbolises beauty, wealth and luck and, as this encompasses the traditional Chinese New Year message, is a particularly popular gift for friends and family.  Red, which symbolises happiness is, along with gold, one of the main colour themes associated with Chinese New Year.  Consequently pink (as well as red!) plants are extremely popular.

A stall specialising in pink orchids – stunning!

The Chinese plum blossom is a flower that is celebrated across Asia and is often seen in traditional Chinese paintings.  Emerging before the leaves and bursting forth onto seemingly lifeless branches at the end of winter, to the Chinese the plum blossom symbolises courage and hope so is a perfect fit for Chinese New Year decorations.

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Among gorgeous bundles of plum blossom

There were also lots of stalls selling arrangements of strange fruit wired into miniature tree shapes.  Other than being yellow I haven’t been able to find a particular significance tying these to CNY traditions – perhaps it’s just a Hong Kong thing?!  We currently have one of these on our dining room table – it’s lovely (despite the comedy name)!

Nipple fruit decorations!

Nipple fruit decorations!

Need to know:

The Lunar New Year flower markets are held at a number of locations across Hong Kong over the week prior to New Year’s Day.  They are free to attend but are often flooded with mainland tour groups and are extremely crowded, especially in the evenings, so go prepared!  Further details available from Discover Hong Kong

A Peculiarly Chinese Activity…

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We have noticed that getting your picture taken among the decorations at the IFC mall is an extremely popular pastime – for adults as well as children!  Craziness…

Children getting their picture taken among the CNY panda decorations...

Children getting their picture taken among the CNY panda decorations…

...But it's not just children!

…But it’s not just for children!

And it's incredibly popular!  I don't understand...

And it’s incredibly popular! I don’t understand…

What is it with Tangerine Bushes?!

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Tangerine (or more accurately ‘Four Seasons Lime’) bushes are everywhere, having popped up all over Hong Kong shortly before the CNY festivities commenced.  Some are decorated with red packets, some are just bushes in pots, and some are large bushes which have been decorated with strings of fruit, as if there weren’t enough actual bushes to go around.  There seem to be at least two at the entrance to almost every building at the moment.  But why?!

The decorated mandarin bush outside the entrance to our block

The decorated tangerine bush outside the entrance to our block

Most Chinese New Year decorations are steeped in the symbolism and superstition which is particularly rife at this time of year, when certain auspicious decorations are believed to confer good fortune for the year ahead.  The Four Seasons Lime potted plants are sold once a year and are viewed as a total must-have decoration.  The small fruits symbolize gold nuggets and and are expected to bring with them abundant good luck and wealth for the year for those who place them at the doorway or within the living room.  Kumquat and mandarin plants also play a similar role in the celebrations.

Other Traditional Decorations

There are many other auspicious plants popular at this time of year, which I will show in my final CNY post about the flower markets.  Here at Pacific View we have trees made from plum blossom (which looks a lot like cherry blossom but comes into season earlier in the year), which are common CNY decorations, symbolising (as a winter flowering tree) beauty in adversity, good fortune and longevity.

Cherry blossom tree decorated with red packets at Pacific View

Plum blossom tree decorated with red packets at Pacific View

Dragon dances, traditionally performed to scare away evil spirits and ill-fortune are, perhaps unsurprisingly, extremely popular over CNY.  Even most of the apartment blocks will bring out their own dragon to dance among smoke and beating drums to bring good fortune for the inhabitants.

The Pacific View dragon ready to dance

The Pacific View dragon ready to dance

Muddling Through…

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Last week found us picking our way through the etiquette minefield that is Lai See – or “red packets” which are traditionally given out over CNY.  Whilst on the one hand we have enjoyed finding out about, and adopting local customs over the festival, on the other hand we were really nervous about offending anyone – particularly the guys we see everyday here at Pacific View!

Red envelopes

Red envelopes

It seems that whilst the quantities people give out in these little red envelopes differ quite widely – there are a number of hard and fast rules associated with the tradition, and some frequently committed faux pas!  So – for future reference – here is my step by step guide to Lai See, based on asking almost everyone I know out here!

General Principles:  Who gets them?

You give out Lai See “Senior to Junior”, “Old to Young” and “Big to Small” – so basically to anyone who works for you, directly or (perhaps most importantly!) indirectly.  For us this worked out as D’s secretary, trainees, our helper and the doormen, car park attendants, cleaners and anyone else we came across around the block.  It would not be at all cool to come across someone you should give to and not have an envelope to hand over so it’s wise to keep a bunch of “spares” on you over the holiday.  Married couples have an additional obligation to give to their single friends and younger relatives – you don’t need to worry about this if you are not married though.

General Principles:  When do you give them out?

We got this a bit wrong this year – I thought it was at any point from New Year’s Day (Sunday) for the duration of the holiday (i.e. up to and including Wednesday).  But today I saw the block handyman and he very pointedly wished me a Happy New Year.  Turns out (I think) that red packet giving carries on for the whole week – ooops.

General Principles:  What goes in them?

Cold hard cash – but NEVER coins!  Tradition dictates crisp new notes (meaning huge queues at the banks in the run-up to CNY as people inspect their withdrawals rather than trust the ATM!), but the Government has been running a campaign to encourage greater acceptance of “good as new” notes.  HSBC had staff patrolling the queues trying to explain this to those in the lines – not sure how well it went down!

Getting our Lai See ready for action!

Getting our Lai See ready for action!

The specifics:  Just how much?!  It’s complicated…

Firstly – never ever HKD40!! (Because “4” sounds like “Die” in Cantonese, which is not a message of goodwill to be handing out to anyone!)

Amounts which contain an “8” are good as 8 is considered a lucky number (obviously not HKD88 though as that would require the use of coins!).  We were told that this makes HKD80 preferable to HKD90 – not sure our doorman would agree!

Odd amounts are also considered bad form – as odd numbered cash gifts are commonly associated with funerals.  So HKD100 is definitely better than HKD105!

Married couples should split their offerings between two envelopes – so one from each of us.

And how much exactly – well how long is a piece of string?!  For a doorman, say, we were told anything between HKD20 and HKD200 and just about every amount in between, although the modal amount among expats seemed to be about HKD100 for those you saw everyday, and HKD20 or 60 for everyone else at the apartment block.  D received HKD100 from his firm today, and Arlo a picture of a sheep from his playgroup!  Everyone still seems to be speaking to us (apart from aforementioned handyman!) so I think we came through unscathed!

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

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We celebrated the coming of the Year of the Snake by watching the New Year fireworks with friends from a junk in Hong Kong harbour – and it was spectacular!

6 seconds to the start of the display! (Look at the second tallest skyscraper in the picture!)

Countdown to the start of the  Year of the Snake firework display - 6 seconds to go!

Countdown to the start of the Year of the Snake firework display – 6 seconds to go!

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Joined by lots of other party junks – making for a fun atmosphere on the water

Then – tah dah!!FireworksDSC_0054DSC_0038What an amazing evening (and yes – Arlo came too and slept through the whole thing in his Baby Bjorn on his Daddy – bless!)

Things I Love About Hong Kong – Efficient Restaurants!

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IMG-20121111-00011Apart from the food, obviously, one of the things I love most about Hong Kong is the way this city can continuously surprise you!  We turned up at Yung Kee (click the link if you want to check out the slightly off-putting roasted goose on the homepage!!) hoping for “world famous roast goose” one Sunday lunch time (always a massive error on the day the entire population heads out for brunch seemingly en masse) with little hope of getting a table, but instead of being turned away at the door we were ushered upstairs to a packed waiting area.  This is the point when I would normally turn and run – I hate waiting for tables, not knowing how many people are waiting ahead of you, wondering whether we have been forgotten or worrying that someone had come to look for us but were unable to find us.  At Yung Kee however, everyone patiently waiting was clutching a ticket, not unlike those you find at supermarket deli counters designed to prevent a riot when someone attempts to jump the queue for naice ham, while the receptionist yelled the numbers through a mini tanoy system as tables came up.  Ruthlessly efficient… and rather brilliant!  Are there other restaurants in Hong Kong using this system?  I do hope so…

Getting Glammed-Up for CNY

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Hundreds of paper lanterns decorate a footbridge over Queen’s Road East for CNY

Hong Kong is putting it’s party clothes on ready for Chinese New Year with beautiful decorations adorning the most dull skyscrapers – even the footbridges have been dressed up in traditional red and yellow!

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Red and yellow stickers decorate a footbridge over Queensway

Things I Love About Hong Kong – Random Locations!

photoWhen we first arrived in Hong Kong there were a number of times when I would set out to find somewhere – a shop, spa or maybe even a winery only to think that someone was playing a practical joke on the newcomer as I wandered through what felt like abandoned warehouses, only to eventually end up at the right place after all.  Once you have lived here a while you learn to trust the address more and also to look up – as there tend to be retail spaces across multiple floors of buildings rather than just those with street frontage.  The photo above shows the brilliantly random location of the wonderful Flex Pilates in Aberdeen – you just wouldn’t know it’s there!

 

Eccentric Taxi Drivers II

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Following on from my post Eccentric Taxi Drivers I I came across this guy in Central recently – he had five mobile phones rigged up on his dashboard plus a further two down by the meter which I couldn’t get into my covert photo (he wasn’t quite as friendly as my first eccentric!).  It looked a bit like one of those homemade explosive devices which used to feature regularly on Spooks!  Who knows…

Massively keen on communication (but not with his passenger!)...

Massively keen on communication (but not with his passenger!)…