February: The Year of the Horse

by - March 01, 2014

Chinese New Year Fireworks in Victoria Harbour
Nothing quite focusses the mind like waiting for a delayed flight, and sitting in Bombay airport trying to return to Hong Kong for my second semester, my mind turned to the great dialogue at the end of the Great Gatsby between Nick and Gatsby, which essentially sums up that most wonderful of novels.  The ever-rational Nick tells Gatsby that “you can’t repeat the past”, to which the protagonist responds (incredulously) “can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can! I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before”.  I have always been attracted to Jay Gatsby’s particular brand of hope, optimism and blissful ignorance and returning to Hong Kong felt like one of life’s rare chances to re-live a period of happiness and energy and (dare I say it) self-discovery.  If anything, with Hong Kong feeling more and more like home and with the knowledge that the clock is now starting to run down, there will be even more incentive to squeeze out every drop of good times over the remaining four months of my year abroad.

A balloon octopus - about as good as it got
This certainly started well as we strategically timed the India trip to finish for Chinese New Year, one of the best times to be in China.  Unlike ‘western’ New Year, which is a very specific evening of resolutions and drinking, the Chinese equivalent is a festival that runs over a week or so.  Most nights of the holiday would include events and the first of these was a parade that made its way along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon Peninsula.  There had been a fairly major change of personnel between the semesters, with maybe three-quarters of the last exchange cohort returning to their homelands and being replaced by new people.  As I suppose was always going to happen, the “two-semester” gang immediately gravitated towards each other, but we headed down to the parade with a good mix of 'new and old’.  The crowds were, understandably, enormous and we struggled to get any kind of vantage point.  Surprisingly (and somewhat amusingly) the 'family festival’ of Chinese New Year turned out to be quite a tense affair for locals and we experienced a whole lot of pushing, shouting and general vitriol in the crowds between people straining to get a view.  The normally polite and respectful atmosphere became something like being in a crowd outside a football match - at least, we argued, watching the parade appeared to be worth fighting for.  This logic was misplaced however and the parade turned out to be a bit of a flop, with the highlight (and I use that term loosely) being an octopus made from balloons, so in true expat form when faced with a confusing local custom, we decided to make a tactical retreat to a rooftop bar from which we could observe from afar.

Escaping the crowds
Crowds in Tamar Park for the fireworks
The following evening we made our way back into the city to watch the Chinese New Year fireworks in Victoria Harbour.  If there was one segment of the celebrations that were going to be good, we figured that it would be the fireworks and they did not disappoint with a long display that was made more epic by the way that the noise of the explosions reverberated around the harbour basin.  We chose to base ourselves in Tamar Park in Admiralty on Hong Kong Island which was thankfully not particularly crowded - I don’t think that my ribcage could have taken another evening of being jabbed at by elderly Chinese women.  The view would probably have been even more impressive from the Kowloon side of the bay (with Hong Kong Island in the background), but we had no intention of spending a whole day queuing.  After the fireworks we made our way to Lan Kwai Fong for our first night out of the semester.  That roughly marked the end of actual New Year celebrations, though I did receive a 'red envelope’ from one my very kind local friends.  These envelopes contain a small amount of money and giving these to unmarried people is a Chinese New Year tradition.  While the amount in an individual package is relatively small - about 20 HKD (£1.50), an individual can give out dozens of these in an act of supreme cumulative kindness.

Dinner at Mr Wong’s
The remaining days of the New Year holiday were spent meeting new people and making preparations for the start of the term.  One highlight was a hike along the Dragon’s Back (see previous posts) on the island.  Myself and Jake had hiked the trail last semester on a weekday morning and only saw a handful of people and this second attempt was quite a different atmosphere as it was a Sunday afternoon and almost the whole exchange came.  It was a good social activity, but I have never before had to queue on a hike…  The term started slowly, with a few weeks of boring overview lectures, though the workload on my research project has ramped up significantly and with the deadline sitting a mere three weeks away I am going to have to bust a gut to complete the fifty pages of writing required.  That said, having achieved a surprisingly okay set of grades from last semester I have felt able to take it a little easier and have been far more social than usual - even visiting the fabled 'Wan Chai’ district for the first time and then using it as a base for late night Six Nations viewing.  Another first was a visit to “Mr Wong’s”, an unbelievable (if slightly shady) restaurant in Mongkok that offers all you can eat and drink (beer included) for a mere £5.  The owner is one of the most interesting characters you are likely to meet in Hong Kong - on my last visit he insisted that myself and a friend spent a while listening to the Beethoven playlist on his iPod and on another he told us how he had purchased over fifty copies of the “Les Miserables” DVD to distribute to his customers from around the world to extol values of values of comradeship and international unity.  What a guy.

February is a month that always flies by and in its wake it leaves March with a trail of midterm exams, assignments and late nights in the library.  That said, I remain motivated to enjoy and make the most of my time in Hong Kong and (don’t tell my supervisor) I’m willing to let my grades slip just a little to achieve this end.  Those born in the Year of the Horse are thought, according to the Chinese Zodiac, to be cheerful, friendly and social, so hopefully that will be my maxim for the rest of the year.  I perhaps worked TOO hard for the first half of the year abroad, and if I can’t repeat the past semester you can be certain I will be striving to make the future one even better.

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