When I was a kid growing up in Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Po district, my parents would take me to go look at Christmas lights along Kowloon’s harbourfront. There was an excitement in this special outing. First we’d have dinner; if my parents felt like we had a few extra dollars then we’d dine out.
We’d take the bus to the ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui and walk eastwards along the water. On the buildings facing the harbour, on both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island sides, Christmas designs adorned the facades in lights: Santa Clauses, poinsettias, snowflakes, ‘Season’s Greetings’ lettering, you name it. They looked like lit-up Christmas cards standing in uneven rows. We’d always end the tour at the InterContinental hotel, where the view is panoramic.
Bundling up for light viewings and walking the harbourfront with family while the sounds of carols emanate from shops is a childhood memory shared by many Hongkongers. In the West, families might drive around neighbourhoods to admire the blankets of fairy lights draped over houses. Here we don’t have that kind of neighbourhood; we have skyscrapers. It’s a tradition unique to Hong Kong, combining the key elements of competing tall buildings, a harbour dividing two densely packed skylines and the colonial influence of celebrating Christmas.
The lights communicated a mood that went beyond festivities: in good economic times, the pictures on the buildings were more abundant and flickered with abandon; in bad times, they were sparser, and viewers would comment, ‘Ah, look, the economy’s been bad, they’ve scaled back.’
Like many, as a teenager I graduated from the family outings, instead meeting up with friends during the holiday season to hang out. No one would mention the lights, yet the meeting place would invariably be Tsim Sha Tsui. The lights had become an unspoken draw, part of what the holidays meant to us.
The ritual has shifted though. The Christmas designs are still found on skyscrapers, but in fewer numbers and with simpler designs. Without evolving much over the decades, the displays are now seen as a quaint tradition. New LED lighting capabilities found on buildings year-round have also reduced the specialness of the Christmas lights.
The real show today is in malls. Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong and Landmark in Central have some of the city’s most impressive showings of decorations each year, with towering trees and mind-boggling displays of the festive spirit occupying the main atriums. Malls are where a lot of Hongkongers go for their festive fix now. But the harbourfront is where our holiday memories lead.
Hero image: Bay Leung