city slicker Hong Kong

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The Independent Culture
The Chinese New Year is celebrated on 19 February. It's the Year of the Rat, the last full year in which Hong Kong will remain a British colony

What's it all about?: The Chinese year has 12 lunar months, each represented by an animal symbol, supposed to bestow certain characteristics on those born under that symbol. The year starts any time between late January and late February, everything shuts down for three days and Big Ben, Andy Williams and lumps of coal don't get a look-in.

What to say: "Kung hay fat choi", which means Happy New Year. The Chinese characters on the scrolls and posters that appear on buildings everywhere wish passers-by prosperity, long life and happiness.

How to celebrate: Go to the flower market in Victoria Park and buy lucky peach and plum blossom; acquire a traditional paper lantern; hand out gifts of money in red envelopes (lai see); catch a lion dance. Tightwads should stay out of the hairdressers, who charge double at New Year.

Best present: Buy someone a new telephone number or car registration plate that includes the lucky numbers three (longevity), eight (prosperity) or nine (eternity). Don't be fobbed off with the bargain job-lot of fours, a number which sounds like the Cantonese word for death and is thus to be avoided at all costs.

Famous Rats: An eclectic bunch, from Mozart, Shakespeare and Marlon Brando, to Doris Day, Prince Charles and Jimmy Carter. And anyone else born roughly February to February in 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984 or 1996 is a rat, too - you're diplomatic, generous, intelligent and like challenges (though you can also be petty, insecure and prone to emotional entanglement).

How to see the New Year in: On New Year's Eve (18 February) it's traditional to stay home for dinner or go out to a restaurant; either involves drinking copious amounts of brandy. Later on, you could brave the crowds and nip down to the Wong Tai Sin temple to burn joss-sticks, and then it's on to see your extended family to hand out more lucky money.

Where to go: The firework display in Victoria harbour is the main event, but you can forget other local jaunts: if you thought being pushed on to the railway in rush hour by special attendants was bad, try getting on a cross-border train with six million other people, laden with presents, going home to see the folks.

New Year predictions: The absolute, definite, irrevocable, final completion date of the new airport will be announced (just like last year). The Chinese government will be rude about Governor Chris Patten (just like last year).

Top local insults: The Chinese government hasn't actually called Patten a rat yet, but it's only a matter of time. So far he's been branded a tyrant, a prostitute, a serpent and, most intriguingly, a tango dancer. "Fatty Pang" was a good one, too.

Best way to continue annoying Beijing: Forcibly seize part of another country's territory and turn it into a Crown colony, sell drugs from it in the early years and generally exploit it for 150 years, while actively discouraging anything approaching democracy, and then, when it's time to give the colony back, invent a few half-assed elections, give all the key personnel (but none of the workers) British passports, and pretend to be defending democracy in the Far East.

Most contrived astrological fact: In 1841, when the British occupied Hong Kong, it was the year of the Ox, as it will be in 1997, when China takes back the territory. Those born under the sign of the Ox are best suited to partnership with people born under the sign of the Snake. Chairman Mao was a Snake.

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