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“Kung Hei Fat Choy”! “Kung Hei Fat Choy”?

May 1, 2014
Xianjing Zhang, MAIIC Student

As I walk on Fisgard Street—the epicenter of Victoria’s Chinatown—and see the refurbished spaces with their vibrant mix of organizational headquarters, stores, and housing, I can hardly imagine how the Chinese people settled down here more than 150 years ago. Here, the history of the Fraser River gold rush and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway are recorded; here, the revitalization united Chinese people and the revival of Chinese customs and cultures are seen. As a recent Chinese immigrant I am amazed by the range of Chinese culture and traditions on display in Victoria and I find the recent Chinese New Year celebrations awe-inspiring. But I am also confused. Why did so many Canadians and even Chinese people greet me with “Kung Hei Fat Choy” as Chinese New Year wish? Back home in Mainland China, people usually say “Xīn Nián Kuài Lè” (Happy New Year)”; no one would ever greet a student like me with “Kung Hei Fat Choy!”.

Kung Hei Fat Choy is roughly translated as “Congratulations and be prosperous.” It is usually followed by “Fung Bao Diu Loi,” which means give me a red envelope (with money inside). The act of requesting for red packets/red envelopes normally occurs in the south of China, such as Guangdong and Hong Kong. The commercial atmosphere of Guangzhou and Hong Kong is much stronger than in other parts of China (with the possible exception of Shanghai). The expression “Kung Hei Fat Choy” is thus very important to people from these two areas. Red envelopes are usually given out by married couples to single people, especially to children or work colleagues (mostly are in Hong Kong). By virtue of the location of Guangdong, its customs are more influenced by Hong Kong than other parts of Mainland China. In other parts of China, the red envelopes tradition originates from “thread coins with a red string” and they still keep the belief that the money was referred to as “money warding off evil spirits.” Therefore, the elderly give red envelopes to their children and young family members but not to their colleagues (some people may also make use of this custom for corruption or bribery, but I won’t go into detail about that, here).

Although the two mainstream Chinese in Victoria (Mandarin and Cantonese) share many similar traditions, beliefs, and customs under the umbrella of “Chinese culture,” they have dissimilar immigration backgrounds and different cultural influences, as well as different histories.

From 1858 to 1978, whether gold seekers or railway builders, almost all the Chinese workers in Victoria were from the Cantonese-speaking Guangdong province . The first Chinese association established in Victoria was the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) in 1885. As more associations were built and more Chinese immigrants took up residency, more Chinese traditional customs and events were seen here. Since the Reform and Open Policy in 1978, Chinese people from other parts of the mainland started going abroad to study, and Canada was one of the popular destinations. Even though we can see a lot of Chinese from other parts of China in Victoria, that century and a half of Guangdong immigration has established a solid Chinese Cantonese culture that’s very commercialized and “Hong Kong-ized”.

There are quite a few festival celebrations in the Chinese culture, the most important and grandest is the Chinese New Year or “Spring Festival.” This past Chinese New Year was my first Chinese New Year out of China. I couldn’t express my feeling of nostalgia during those days through words. Luckily, I was not alone.

The celebration of Chinese New Year consists of indoor and outdoor live performances, and the consumption of many delicious foods. It usually lasts for two weeks in China and the “Nian Weier” (the atmosphere of Spring Festival) remains strong. This year, the big Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown in Victoria was a typical example of expressing Nian Weier. The Mayor and some other key local government officials, who were wearing traditional Chinese costumes, followed the president of the Victoria Chinese Commerce Association in performing the rituals, burning incense, and praying. The performances were varied: colourful elaborate costumes and decorations, live traditional Chinese music, dragon and lion dances, and Kong Fu.

All of this felt like home except that as a Mandarin speaker from Fujian province, I found it odd to receive the traditional New Year’s greetings in Cantonese and English. At that moment, I felt lost in my own thought of defining myself and tracing the root of this Chinese diaspora. However, I was sure that at that moment, our hearts were together, filled with nostalgia and the irremovable attached to a country more than seven thousands kilometers away from Canada. 

Another two big celebrations were held by mostly Mandarin speakers during the same period, and I was lucky to be invited to participate in both of them. One was the Spring Festival Gala, which is broadcast live from Beijing on New Year’s Eve from 8:00 PM to 1:00 AM. The other one was a New Year Dinner. Both of these events are deeply rooted in Mandarin Chinese culture, and some of my Cantonese friends in Victoria had never heard of the Spring Festival Gala.
The Spring Festival Gala was held at the University of Victoria’s 1000-seat Farquhar Auditorium and the dinner took place after the Gala. People from all walks of life were invited to the dinner and students didn’t need to bring any food. Everyone was smiling and greeted each other with “Xīn Nián Kuài Lè” (Happy New Year in Mandarin) and the rest of the communication took place in Mandarin. More than ten round tables were set in the big room of Emmanuel Baptist Church. People were busy rolling dough and making dumplings with various stuffings. The big screen on the wall was broadcasting the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV from China. Families and friends were chatting and laughing and several non-Chinese Canadians could be seen as well. In contrast to the Cantonese celebrations I’d previously attended, no greetings relating to prosperity were heard, and no government officials participated.

My first Chinese New Year outside of China was a beneficial experience for me. Through both the Cantonese and Mandarin celebrations I was taught not just about Chinese people in Canada, but the Chinese culture I carried with me from home. Having the same skin colour and speaking the same language with the diaspora of other international students, I gradually understand the variety of Chinese culture and its influence in another country.
Only one province (Guangdong) and one special administrative region (Hong Kong) out of thirty-four provinces and regions in China speak Cantonese. Strictly speaking, Cantonese is just one of the seven dialects in China, like Wu dialect, Xiang dialect, Gan dialect, Min dialect, Hakka dialect and Hokkien dialect.