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Out of Hong Kong: New Year gives Chinese plenty to crow about

HONG KONG - With barely a pause for breath after the Christmas lights came down, the dull, grey, winter streets have been enlivened over the past week by the appearance of small forests of potted orange bushes.

They stand guard at the entrances to banks, shops and office blocks. In narrow side-alley markets, miniature urban orchards defy the cold wind as shoppers take their pick, and then struggle home on the trams and buses. For these tiny trees, laden with their bright orange fruits, are one of the horticultural necessities for a propitious Chinese New Year.

The kumquat bush is a traditional symbol of good fortune for welcoming the year to come; its name in Chinese characters sounding the same as 'lucky'. At the new year flower market in Victoria Park, on Hong Kong island, the colony's general principle that 'Bigger is Probably Better' has meant that the lowly kumquat has partly given way to taller mandarin and tangerine plants; there are even 6-ft high bushes on sale, straining to hold fruit the size of grapefruit.

But the traditional new year blooms are all there, defying the weather; winter peach blossoms, chrysanthemums, white jonquil bulbs, gladioli, and the bright yellow Golden Fruit plants - shipped in from Japan - that portend five healthy future generations of children.

The Spring Festival, the lunar new year, is the most important traditional Chinese festival. In preparation for today's start of the Year of the Rooster, homes and buildings have been decorated, families united, fortunes told, debts paid off, staff bonuses given and lai see, lucky money, distributed in red packets to children and unmarried friends.

Elderly Chinese complain that the filial devotion expected at this time of year is not what it used to be, and the younger Chinese say Christmas is more fun because they are not expected to stay home. But at this time of year, the Westerners in Hong Kong cannot help but feel left out.

For three days, the bustling, bright world of Hong Kong shuts down. A large proportion of the population, an estimated 1.2 million this year, travels overland to China to see relatives or take a holiday. Many Westerners head off to warmer climes.

And, lest anyone has forgotten the modern theme of the new year celebrations, those who retreat to the hotels are faced with new year menus offering special dishes and dinners, such as 'Richness and Good Business' (oysters with sea moss), and 'Good Business and Rapid Progress' (abalone and mushroom).

The traditional form of the 15- day festival, which dates back to AD220, still provides the structure for the rituals with its focus on starting afresh and ensuring good fortune in the new year, albeit with some modern embellishments.

Ten days before the new year should be the 'sweeping of the floors', a thorough clean-out of the house. This is followed, four days later, by the departure of the kitchen god for his visit to heaven.

Since he is returning to the Jade Emperor to report on the household's behaviour, it is a wise precaution to sweeten him up with sugar and fruit before he goes, to ensure he speaks sweetly of everyone. Then his picture is taken down from the kitchen and ceremonially burnt with incense to send him on his way.

These days it is usually the children who get the kitchen god's sweets. More worldy matters, such as shopping in the new year sales, take up people's time.

The approaching new year is also usually marked by a not-so- traditional wave of crime (with particular attention paid to gold shops) and an optimistic filip to the stock market (which this year means defying most of the fortune tellers' predictions that China's row with the Governor, Chris Patten, still has some way to run). By the last day of the twelfth lunar month, yesterday, large numbers of red lucky papers with auspicious slogans had been pasted by the outside doors and in the houses, and two guardian door gods are posted on duty to keep away demons.

In the evening, extended families gather together, offerings are made to ancestors, children receive their lai see, and a feast of propitious foods is laid for some serious eating.

Everyone is expected to stay up, as evil spirits must be frightened off with bright lights, the red lucky papers, and firecrackers. The Hong Kong government obligingly keeps the metro running all night but has given the demons a fighting chance by banning firecrackers. Strings of fake red firecrackers are hung decoratively instead. In the neighbouring Chinese province of Guangdong, which suffers the same prohibition, they have been cleverer. Sound and video recordings of firecrackers have appeared on sale this year.

New Year's Day, and tomorrow, no work must be done, no knives used and no floors swept, so all the cooking and preparations must have been completed in advance. The kitchen god, who returned overnight, will be back in his place. New clothes are worn, no meat is eaten, and friends and relatives are visited, with more lai see distributed.

One Hong Kong Legislative Council member this year said he expected to give out HKdollars 50,000 ( pounds 4,300) in lai see money. Some of Hong Kong's wealthy residents are said to find it cheaper to fly off to another country than to stay and pay out all that would be expected.

Tomorrow is the time to win favour with the god of wealth. His picture is renewed and the temples are full with worshippers and those seeking to have their fortunes told. Predictions for Chris Patten next year have so far been mixed; one respected forecaster said he would have good luck all year, while another said the Governor must diet and lose weight to ensure stability for Hong Kong.

To which he would probably respond with the seasonal reply: 'Kung Hei Fat Choy]' (Wishing you great wealth).