Celebrating a new beginning with age-old traditions

By Susanne Martin, Managing Editor

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Uniting Chinese communities across the globe in a celebration of cultural identity, Chinese New Year is an auspicious time to exchange best wishes for the year ahead. It also offers unique opportunities for businesses to engage with Chinese audiences.

Like many festivities in Chinese communities, the 2015 Chinese New Year celebrations that start on February 19 involve large family reunions, special foods and symbolic traditions.

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Robert Hung Ngai Ho, who grew up in Hong Kong, remembers the celebration as an elaborate affair. There was a big dinner on New Year’s Eve or the day before, and families would pay respect to their ancestors and receive blessings. He says the streets were filled with the sound of firecrackers set off to scare away evil spirits.

On New Year’s Day, relatives visited each other’s homes to exchange best wishes for good health, prosperity and peace. For children, the highlight was receiving hongbao – “lucky money” stuffed into little red envelopes, and Mr. Ho recalls exchanging tips with his cousins on which grand-uncle was the most generous.

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He notes that some traditions have shifted. The socializing that dominates the 15-day holiday more frequently takes place out of the home. “These days, families often meet in restaurants,” he says. “And more people take advantage of the time off to go on vacations.”

The holiday remains a focal point for Canada’s Chinese communities, and the many related public festivities attract large audiences, says Meghna Srinivas, who heads the multicultural practice at advertising agency Mac-Laren McCann Cultura.

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Businesses that get involved in community events can earn their clients’ appreciation, says Ms. Srinivas. “Whenever you show community members that you’re with them, they appreciate it,” she explains, adding that Chinese New Year presents an opportunity for brands to “leverage the holiday, its traditions and the seasonal shopping spirit.”

Marketing research by Environics points to a higher brand recall for businesses that participate in Chinese New Year celebrations, says Ms. Srinivas. Eighty per cent of Chinese customers remember seeing targeted advertising during the holiday, and more than 40 per cent say they feel closer to Canadian companies that advertise with a message in their language.

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“Since the holiday marks fresh beginnings, this is a time when shoppers traditionally buy new clothes and shoes,” she says, adding that research shows that 87 per cent of Chinese consumers made special shopping trips during this period.

However, while Chinese New Year is a good time to engage with customers, building relationships in the multicultural market needs to be a sustained effort, explains Ms. Srinivas. “If the holiday greeting is just a ‘one off,’ it doesn’t benefit the brand.

“MacLaren McCann Cultura’s focus group research indicates that companies that participate in Chinese New Year celebrations elicit an emotional and somewhat nostalgic response from Chinese audiences,” says Ms. Srinivas.

This deep connection to cultural heritage is also evident in the wide support for public events celebrating the holiday, says Mr. Ho, who is involved in the Vancouver Society for the Promotion of Chinese Art and Culture as well as the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation.
Metro Vancouver – a city where people of Chinese background represent 17 per cent of the total population – boasts a wide range of festivities. A highlight is the parade in Chinatown that features 3,000 performers, including 50 lion dance teams, marching bands and more. Tens of thousands of spectators are proof of the event’s appeal.

Mr. Ho has also noticed growing interest in Chinese culture, such as music, dance and visual arts. This is something he welcomes and actively promotes through the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, which he founded in 2005 to “foster the appreciation of Chinese cultural heritage and the application of Buddhist insights.”

The foundation recently sponsored The Forbidden City: Inside the Court of China’s Emperors – an exhibition curated by the Royal Ontario Museum that enjoyed popular runs in Toronto and Vancouver.

The inspiration for this work, as well as Mr. Ho’s many other philanthropic efforts, came from his grandparents, Sir Robert Ho Tung and Lady Clara Ho Tung, who are also the source of his fond childhood memories of Chinese New Year celebrations. Says Mr. Ho, “We have a family motto that started with my grandfather: ‘Before you receive, you must learn how to give.’”