China

Exploring Hong Kong's new year market

CY Leung paraphernalia at the New Year market
Image caption All kinds of goods - including items mocking the chief executive - are on offer at Hong Kong's New Year fair

If you want to experience Hong Kong in a nutshell, visiting the Chinese New Year fair at Victoria Park is a good place to start.

The market, a hotbed of people bargaining, shopping and taking selfies, seems to embody both the best and worst things about Hong Kong:

1. It's extremely crowded

Tens if not hundreds of thousands of shoppers squeeze into the space of just a few football pitches every day in the run-up to the new year.

By early evening, you can expect to be stuck in a human wall, jammed as tight as a molecule - not unlike being on Hong Kong's public transport during rush hour.

Getting anywhere - whether to a stall with merchandise you like, or just to the exit - is likely to be a mini-expedition.

Image caption The crowds can making getting your shopping done a challenge

But remarkably, despite the high numbers, it's still fairly orderly. The shopping aisles are divided into several one-way paths, and visitors are required to follow large signs indicating the direction of travel.

Making a u-turn or blocking the way for others is strictly frowned upon.

It turns out that although often impatient, Hong Kongers are always willing to wait and queue for the right products or food - especially if they see other people queuing too.

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Media captionBBC reporters visit markets in Hong Kong and Singapore

2. Land prices are insanely high

Soaring house prices are a pet gripe of most young people in Hong Kong - a city where homes are ranked as the second most expensive in the world.

Commercial space is at a premium too - even at a temporary market erected on six football pitches, where most stalls sell flowers or trinkets.

Hundreds of vendors have battled it out at an annual auction to try to grab spaces, with most dry goods vendors paying an average of HK$31,200 ($4,000; £2,600) for a small stall of about 3m x 1.5m.

Prices for premium spots can be astronomical. ClubOne, which hosts weddings and banquets, made headlines after it paid a record HK $570,000 ($73,500; £47,800) for the top spot.

Image caption Regular goods are sold along side stalls promoting venues or political ideals

George Wong, the owner of ClubOne, says it is a price worth paying.

"There are a few particular festive events in Hong Kong that people really care about, and one of them is the new year markets. And the Victoria Park fair is the biggest one in Hong Kong.

People estimate up to a million people could go there each year - that's one in seven of Hong Kong's population."

His stall sells small portions of luxury food, such as abalone and shark fin, for prices as low as HK$30. And although he doesn't expect to recover the funds spent on the stall, he still views it as money well spent.

"We're expecting to make a loss but it's OK, because it's a great promotion opportunity, and a chance to let the public sample quality food at a low cost," he says.

Why are other stall owners willing to shell out so much for a spot? Well, it's because:

3. It's a capitalist hub that can reward the daring - and the loud

Image caption Inflatable barricades are among the more off-beat merchandise on offer

Hong Kong likes to pride itself on being a city of opportunity, even though concerns over the rich-poor gap and social mobility have surfaced in recent years.

The Lunar New Year markets are still bursting with optimism, and the firm belief that there is money to be made for those willing to try.

It's not a view confined to big business tycoons either. Enter any part of the market and you will see political parties, charities, family businesses and even religious groups vying for your attention (and funds).

Even groups of young students will club together to hire a stall - believing that as long as they have eye-catching products they can turn a handsome profit despite the soaring rents.

Image caption The year of the sheep provides inspiration for some

Of course you need to fight to get attention in a crowd of tens of thousands.

Most stalls will have volunteers standing among the crowd, shamelessly waving their products. A megaphone or a ladder is a must to help you stand out.

4. You can't avoid politics

Image caption The umbrella became the symbol of the pro-democracy movement

Hong Kong isn't just a commercial city - it's also intensely political, especially after the pro-democracy Occupy Central protests last year that paralysed parts of the city and divided public opinion.

There's been an ongoing controversy about how the city's leader, known as the chief executive, should be elected.

Critics of the current leader, CY Leung, never let him forget that he only garnered 689 votes from a 1,200-strong committee.

Drawing on this sentiment, several stalls have capitalised on CY Leung's unpopularity.

The Democratic Party has been selling towels decorated with his face for HK$68.90 ("good for wiping the floor with", they say), while the Labour Party has designed a line of slippers depicting Mr Leung's face - allowing his detractors to literally step on him.

Image caption CY Leung is known is sometimes called 689 for the number of votes he received

The recent pro-democracy protests also loom large in people's minds this year.

Many stalls are selling umbrella-themed products, after umbrellas emerged as a symbol of the protests.

KC and his daughter have been selling lighters in the shape of tear gas canisters.

"I want people to remember the day tear gas was fired at protesters," he says, referring to 28 September 2014, when police fired tear gas to disperse Occupy Central protesters.

"Whatever your political views, that day was an important day in Hong Kong's history, and it needs to be remembered."

Image caption Tear gas fired at protesters by police is remembered with lighters

Not all Hong Kongers support the protests, of course, and some stall-owners have been heckled by those who think they're worsening the territory's relations with Beijing.

And the pro-Beijing DAB party has its own stall, selling calligraphy with less controversial new year messages, wishing customers "togetherness and harmony", "many reasons to smile" and "good academic progress".

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