Victoria Park was teeming with activity on Saturday morning, the first day of the Lunar New Year flower markets that pepper the city a week before the festival. Spirits were high as shops welcomed the first wave of visitors from across the city in Hong Kong’s busiest and most popular flower market.
While traditionally meant for the sale of in-season blossoms, the markets have turned into vast fairs that house an eclectic array of stalls, from traditional food and snacks, to zodiac-themed toys designed by students. Political parties also take the chance to deliver their political messages to the public through posters, themed products, and game stalls. The scale of these markets, particularly in Victoria Park, is huge in terms of logistical and financial planning, bringing about challenges that few visitors of the fairs are aware of.
Planning for the fairs began as early as November of last year, when commercial spaces in the various fair venues were auctioned off to stall owners. The Lunar New Year stalls this year were put up for auction from November 6 to November 8, 2017 at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wan Chai as arranged by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD).
This year’s auctions for Victoria Park garnered revenues of a whopping HK$12,867,072 ‒ higher than last year’s ‒ but some stalls are facing setbacks in terms of their expected individual bids. The top food stall, affiliated with entertainment company HMV, was auctioned off at HK$500,000, which was 40% lower than last year. Mr. Andrew, who oversees the operations and set up of their booths, said that this year is their first time setting up a booth here, and had a much higher budget than their biggest food stall competitors, who were unnamed but reportedly run many establishments across the city.
“[Our project] is only for four to six days. The others are running a store for quite a few years,” said Mr. Andrew, whose booth is at the very entrance of the fair ground. The lower than usual value fetched in the auction also means reduced prices for their food products, to allow visitors to benefit from value for money.
Brian, 44, runs a stall called “Kam Chuen Kee”, a family run establishment that has been selling an assortment of small toys and traditional Chinese snacks for the past five years. “We have seen good business in Victoria Park,” he said, adding that he also has stalls in Mong Kok and Yuen Long. As they sell dry food, their main competitors during the auction process were not the other food stalls, but on the contrary, were sellers of non-perishable items such as toys.
The primary attraction of the market, of course, is the long and winding section reserved for vibrant flowers and potted plants of every size, shape and hue, as well as the sunny mandarin orange plants that evoke the feeling of newness and springtime. This section is abuzz with vendors neatly arranging rows of hydrangeas, orchids, and succulents in colourful pots, occasionally calling out to visitors and explaining plant care to buyers.
According to florist Mr. Li, who has eight years of selling experience at Lunar New Year fairs, the costs of renting commercial space and procuring flowers have been increasing over the past years.
“Every year we bid for the same spot, but this year has been the most expensive for reserving the spot. There has also been more competition this year,” said Mr. Li. “This year is looking optimistic because of the good weather. We won’t change the prices but we will try to make more sales.”
Other than flowers and food, the fair hosts a number of quirky stalls, usually run by university or secondary school students selling their own designs for New Year-themed products. Chloe, 20, a student at the Stanley Ho Community College, said her university won a competition for a business proposal for stalls at the fair with a HK$10,000 sponsorship.
“We design the products ourselves, and I believe we are the most creative group,” says Chloe, as she stands with her group of university student volunteers who shout slogans to attract visitors. “We get to keep half of our profits and the rest of the profits go to the university. This year we have various dog-themed products, such as pinwheels and pillows.”
Tucked away in the midst of the toys and food, are stalls for various political parties that announce their goals and ideals to interested visitors. Chan Aufei, chief project manager of the Civic Party, says preparation for their stall theme and product design began a month before the fair to ensure the messages reflect the current political discourse.
“We use these stalls to soft-sell our party goals. Not only do we have products, but we also have interactive games,” said Chan, pointing to a game where the players try to throw a ball into a hole that’s placed on the mouth of a printout of current Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s face. The festive sentiment seems to cushion the risk of such bold political messages, as visitors are generally here for the lively atmosphere.
It is clear that these fairs are a vital lead-up to Chinese New Year festivities. Ms. Liu, a visitor who brings her family over to the fairs, believes it is an important way to keep the tradition of the New Year alive, and help her children immerse in the traditional culture.
“I only bought a balloon for my daughter, I don’t buy anything else here. I come here for the environment and the tradition,” she said.
“We are just hoping for some good weather ‒ not too cold, not too hot,” said Mr. Andrew, on his hopes for the next few days of the fair. With temperatures rising- as well as spirits- the fairs are likely to be buzzing for the next four days, as people flock to enjoy the celebrations!
The Lunar New Year fairs will continue until the morning of the first day of the festival, 16 February. More details about the various venues can be found on the FEHD website.
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