Human Flower Project

Year of the Rooster

February 9, the Lunar New Year, is the biggest floral occasion of 2005 for much of the Eastern Hemisphere. May your bong mai be in bloom.

imageBong mai in flower, Vietnam

My friend Wei Cheng, originally from Harbin, China, calls the lunar new year “Spring Festival.” I had a hard time understanding this, since late January or very early February,  when the lunar new year always falls, is too soon even for a groundhog to declare it spring.

Having grown up in Kentucky, I do remember early crocuses sometimes pushing their purple and yellow buds through snow. Along my walking route even this morning, one white iris had bloomed. Around the corner, a bush that’s just looked scraggly all year is frilled with coral-colored blooms, a flowering quince, or as we called it in Kentucky, “japonica.”

So it was through the Lunar New Year’s flower customs that “Spring Festival” finally made sense to me. After the winter solstice, as the days begin lengthening, we all are looking for signs of spring. And once you look, you see them.

Across Asia there are many flower traditions of the new year. In the south of Vietnam, bong mai is the festival’s ancient emblem. Savvy nurserymen will peel the leaves off the branches about six weeks prior to the new year, forcing the plant into bloom. Ideally, when one wakes up on Tet (Vietnam’s name for the new year), bare branches will have turned into a cloud of golden flowers.


Bong Mai

Bong mai is too tender for Vietnam’s northern provinces. There, in Hong Kong, and in much of China, pink peach blossoms mark the new year. “As a local tradition, peach blossom trees are ‘planted’ at Times Square in Causeway Bay,” Hong Kong “and the International Financial Center in Central, as well as many shopping centers. Young people, especially women, are spotted holding bundles of peach blossom branches that they will take home to decorate their homes. Peach blossom is believed to bring good luck, especially for single individuals looking for a lover.”

This article describes floral customs of Hong Kong at Spring Festival, some of them old Cantonese traditions, and others more recent botanical fads.

imageA flower market in Hanoi

As with Christmas holiday in the West, festivity is not just in having flowers but in buying them. The flower markets of Hanoi are especially vibrant in the days before Tet. Le Trung Vu, a Hanoian and folklorist, says, “Vietnamese people usually prepare special food, wear beautiful clothes and enjoy going out to have fun during Tet. However, having some beautiful flowers is a must. In the north, peach and kumquat trees are the most popular decorations for Tet because of their lively colours and blossoms, which represent energy and life.”

In Singapore exotics seem to be as popular as traditional flowers, perhaps more so. This being “Year of the Rooster,” “bonsai-like lime and writhia” have been pruned into roosters. A five-year-old bonsai azalea from Belgium, primed to bloom on February 9, goes for $800. But just about anyone can afford pussy willow branches or the old friend—yellow chrysanthemum.

Now the Lunar New Year flower market is beginning to catch on in the United States, especially San Francisco and New York. Curators from the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, which organizes the New York event, were shocked when 30,000 visitors came last year. They expected “up to 10,000 more guests” this year. William Dao, a museum associate, said that the flower market “attracts a crowd spanning generations and nationalities. For Chinese-American families distanced from Chinese culture over three or four generations in this country, Dao says, the flower market opens a door to forgotten culture.” For people of all ethnicities who’ve never bucked hay or planted tobacco, flowers of the Lunar New Year bear traces of an agrarian past. It seems, coming through that same doorway, we’ve forgotten the same things.

Here’s a list of traditional Spring Festival flowers and their various associations, or so someone says. That’s all secondary and superstitious. I don’t believe Spring Festival is really an occasion for superstition. It’s a time to spend, brighten and socialize, to look for spring with such care that you find it.

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