Born and raised in Guangzhou, I am in love with my city. I miss my hometown more than ever as the Spring Festival comes while bitter winds whistle outside of my window in New York City.
In the winter in Guangzhou, it never snows and the colors never fade. With the nickname “Flower City,” Guangzhou has the perfect weather for flowers to bloom and trees to stay green all year round.
I have countless fond memories of the local New Year’s Flower Fair. It has always been my favorite among all the Lunar New Year traditions.
Guangzhou’s bond with flower markets can be traced back to the Ming dynasty. The Maritime Silk Road introduced many exotic flower species.
Thanks to its warm weather, Guangzhou has had a robust flower business throughout history. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the local government set up the first official New Year’s Flower Fair.
Growing up, the New Year’s Flower Fair was a must in my family. The fair usually lasts from the 28th of the 12th lunar month to New Year’s Eve. Every local district has its own fair. It was always fun to visit multiple fairs throughout the day.
The flowers are pretty in the daylight. However, it is at night when you can see the archway and lanterns light up.
The best-selling flowers are mostly the ones with auspicious meanings, such as lucky bamboo, orchids and narcissus. Peach blossom trees, mandarin orange trees (桔 jú) and kumquat trees (金桔 Jīn jú) are also among the most popular ones.
In Cantonese, the character “桔” is pronounced as “gāt,” the same as the character “吉” (“Lucky”). But beware, don’t ever try any of the fruits from these trees. Why? Because I have. Sour.
The peach blossom tree is my favorite. For me, a peach blossom tree is like a Christmas tree. My family has a big tall vase, about the height of a 4-year-old child, specifically for the peach blossom tree.
Instead of a star and glass ornaments, my family hangs tiny red envelopes. It is a beautiful backdrop for the annual family photo.
Even when peach blossoms fall, the light pink petals become a delightful decoration to our dark Chinese wooden furniture. They bring out the best in each other.
You are wrong if you assume the New Year’s Flower Fair is only about the flowers. Walking down the streets, you will hear nonstop Cantonese New Year’s pop songs.
I always describe these songs as loud and cliche, but pleasurably addictive. If you come at the right time, you can even see Cantonese opera, lion dances and craftsman showcases.
Besides music and performances, stalls sell decorations and local New Year’s specialty snacks. All of this creates true New Year’s vibes. Undoubtedly the color red dominates these stalls. Decorations such as couplets, upside-down Fu characters and paper cuttings are all available.
It is hard to say no to New Year’s snacks such as tanghulu, melon candy (糖冬瓜 Táng dōngguā), sunflower seeds and New Year’s cake (年糕 Nián gāo). Impulse buying at the New Year’s Flower Fair is forgivable. Everything can be excused by the magic words “It’s New Year’s.”
Since I will not go back home this year, writing this article makes me more nostalgic than ever. Perhaps it is time for me to light up my tiny apartment with some flowers from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, just like how my family decorates our home with flowers from the fair.
But of course, nothing can replace the experience of celebrating the Lunar New Year with family. If you are away from home just like me, call your family on New Year’s Day!