Hua Shi – a Cantonese Spring Festival Tradition

CNYChinese New Year holds certain traditions, the preparation and cleaning, preparing food and visiting friends, and for myself, and anybody who grew up in Guangdong, no Spring Festival would be complete without a visit to the 花市 (“hua shi”), or flower market.

The tropical province of Guangdong, in southernmost China, produces a large variety of beautiful flowers all year round, and its capital Guangzhou, is also known as 花城 (“hua cheng”) or the City of Flowers.

Taking place over the week leading up to the New Year, flower markets are open-air night markets which usually occupy a single wide and long street in the city. The long rows of wooden stalls groan under the weight of fresh flowers, sprigs of willow and blossom, bamboo, as well as baby kumquat trees, to welcome in the New Year. Roads are closed to traffic, and the markets fill with families, young couples, and individuals getting ready for the celebrations.

Popular flowers at the markets include winter beauties such chrysanthemum – most often yellow, white and sometimes red, gladioli, cockscomb (because the rooster is considered a very auspicious by the Cantonese), plum blossoms (the plum flowers in the deep of winter and has come to symbolize endurance and vitality), peach blossoms (peaches are a symbol of longevity. Raised on Cantonese chrysanthemum & puer tea from childhood, I have fond memories of flower markets, and the air hanging heavy with the scent of chrysanthemum.

There are whole stands devoted to kumquat trees (a homonym with “lucky”, in Cantonese), ranging in size from dinky table sized potted shrubs to fully grown five foot specimens with much larger fruits. These trees line private roads, and stand at the entrances to shops and homes throughout spring festivals. Whilst they used to be left bare, influences from western Christmas traditions now see them hung with lucky charms and red envelopes, which some entrepreneurial traders have also begun offering.

It is customary to bargain at the Hua Shi, although flowers sold at the market by farmers from nearby villages are by no means expensive. It is part of the fun, and the goods are surrendered with copious amounts of well wishing, after the price is reduced a little through a few rounds of bantering, playful haggling.

In recent years, Hua Shi have grown in size, extending to a cluster of streets, or even a whole stadium. People are selling morehand made crafts at the market, such as papercuttings and tiny paper windmills. It’s become a recent thing for high school students to pool their money, rent a stall and have a fun night out selling flowers and whatever they could bring together, like animal hats they’ve designed and sewn themselves or silly head bands with glowy lights. Helium balloons are also popular.

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There is at least one Hua Shi in every district (like boroughs) of Guangzhou, with one of the largest being the Xi Hu Lu Hua Shi in the Yuexiu District. The oldest market is of course, in the oldest part of the city, in the Liwan (literally “lychee bay”) District. Recently, the old moat, running outside the Liwan Museum has been reopened, and a park built around it. Last year, we were delighted to see the tradition of flower boats being revived. This is how flower markets began, with farmers rowing their floral goods around on their boats, to sell to people walking along the bank, whilst others would sell snacks such as “boat congee” and Cheung Fun.

001372af4a45127d434104Although the lighting of lanterns is a tradition marking the end of New Year festivities after the 15th of the first month, giant creatively shaped lantern displays often mark the entrance to the Hua Shi. The lantern displays have become more elaborate and impressive in recent years, representing zodiac animals, palaces, and even dioramas with beloved cartoon characters.

In London, I try to keep the tradition, visiting the Columbia Road Flower Market each year, to buy my New Year flowers. I am not the only one to do so, and the vendors stock, alongside their usual fare, dyed pussy willow, blossom branches and curling bamboo, and even the lucky kumquat trees. The crowds lining the street were as thick as I’d ever seen in Guangzhou, and I was told by one vendor, that they had been carrying these specialties to cater for Spring Festival revelers for over 40 years. Another little corner where British and Chinese culture have learned to adhere, even if the glue involved is money.

At Columbia Road, you can pick up bunches of pussywillow from £4-7, blossom stems from £5-10. Bamboo can cost between £2.50 and £5, but we were lucky, and found a vendor packing up, and selling them for a pound a piece. Flower prices vary, but with the range available, you can still leave with a beautiful mixed bouquet for under £10. Kumquat trees are available for around £8 for the smallest, ranging up to £40 for something 2’ high. For those who want the look without the expense, winter cherry shrubs could be bought for as little as a pound.

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