Lucky swine with the golden touch

hong kong days
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The Independent Online
We are awash with pigs these days: not the live four-legged animals kept for pork production but the pictorially depicted variety. They tend to be rather cute and often very large, appearing in flashing neon lights.

The Chinese Year of the Pig has begun, but this is also the year of the Golden Pig, which comes around once in 60 years and is seen by many geomancers as a jolly good year for giving birth to children who will lead lives free of material want.

Speaking as a dog-owner, I regret the passing of the Year of the Dog, which promised so much. My neighbour was adopted by a Dalmatian which turned up on his doorstep and refused to budge. The Chinese believe it is good luck to be chosen by a dog. He was initially reluctant to accept this particular click of the wheel of fortune but has since been rewarded with promotion at work. Could this be a coincidence?

As for my dogs, they verged on the brink of stardom after being pressed into service for a Year of the Dog fashion shoot with a ridiculously glamorous local DJ wearing some very un-dog like attire. I thought they looked just fine but the fashion editor ditched them in favour of some ridiculous looking pedigree hounds that are accorded much greater status than my mongrels in this very status-conscious city.

Pedigree dogs, like designer labels, mobile phones and large cars, are all part of the mad scramble for face which seems to preoccupy a great many people. Face is achieved during the new year by distributing packets of lucky money, or lai see. The obligation to provide lai see falls on married adults and bosses, regardless of their marital status.

Naturally, the more you give, the more face is gained by both donor and recipient. This is an expensive business, made even more expensive by the government's decision to scrap the HK$10 note (worth about 90p). Being the lowest-denomination note, it was the choice for most lai see packets.

Now HK$20 is effectively the minimum amount, except for those buying HK$10 notes from one enterprising dealer who foresaw the problem, snapped up vast quantities of the last HK$10 note and has been selling them at a premium of 12.5 per cent.

I would like to report that the Chinese New Year is a deeply spiritual occasion. It is certainly surrounded with enough myths and legends. However, the new year here is, like most other things, overshadowed by money.

I see the main benefit of the week-long festivities - officially it's three days, but who's counting? - as bringing an almost blissful outbreak of peace and quiet to this usually frenetically bustling city.

For a start, more than a third of the population takes off, mainly to China, for holidays and family reunions. Second, commerce actually grinds to a halt; well, almost. Practically every shop and restaurant used to be firmly closed for the duration of the holidays.

However, in the past five years the lure of the extra buck has enticed many shutters open. Things have gone so far that some families are trooping off to restaurants for the all-important new year's dinner. This was previously quite unthinkable but many of the women responsible for preparing this elaborate feast are now putting in 12-hour days in offices and see no reason why they should spend their precious free time cooking.

Stephen Vines