CLOSE YOUR EYES. Make a wish. Now blow out those candles! One of the great things about these modern “globalized” days is that we can all adopt each other’s traditions. And the big favorite across much of the world now is the children’s birthday party.
The idea of annual gatherings, where you mark someone’s age by putting candles on top of a cake, first appeared in Germany in the 1700s as “kinderfeste”.
Over the next 200 years, it spread across Europe, and then to North America.
It arrived in East Asia only in the past few decades, but has quickly become popular in Hong Kong and Japan and in parts of mainland China.
A big campaign by McDonald’s (left) helped to popularize the habit in Hong Kong in the 1980s.
In Hong Kong today, many families follow the western tradition AND the Chinese tradition (such as eating longevity noodles on the anniversary of your birth). In Chinese tradition, people celebrate their first, 10th, 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays only, but these days, many people are happy to organize annual parties for youngsters in the western style.
A CELEBRATION FOR EVERY CHILD
But what about the many folk in this city who can’t afford to hire a hall and buy presents and decorations and special food for friends and family?
Help is at hand, thanks to a couple who have made it their mission to solve that problem.
Edward Fernandes moved from Kenya to the United Kingdom as a child. His family couldn’t afford birthday parties to which they could invite their friends, so their kids tended to be not invited to parties. The woman he married, Marilou Edora (right) also did not come from a rich background. “My wife’s parents couldn’t afford to celebrate her birthdays or those of her siblings,” he told the South China Morning Post.
They moved to Hong Kong in 1994. “She wanted for no child to suffer the disappointment of not celebrating their special day,” Edward said. So Marilou set up Birthday Happiness (HK), an organization that organized parties for families who would otherwise not be able to celebrate their child’s birthday. The idea was inspired by a similar charity project that started in Argentina, but spread to multiple countries.
Marilou gradually became unwell, having fought cancer for many years. She eventually could no longer run the organization, and she sadly passed away in 2021.
Her husband felt that she had left him with a mission. “In memory of her, I decided to resurrect Birthday Happiness Asia,” he said.
Now the organization is back in full swing. Today, the group works with NGOs including Society for Community Organization (better known as SoCo), Caritas, Harmony House, the Evangelical Lutheran Church Hong Kong, and others. Children whose parents or care institutions are not able to celebrate their birthdays are asked whether they would like a party. As you can imagine, many of them say: “Yes, please!”
The children (not the parents or social workers) choose their three or four best friends, who are invited to join them. Then a big party is organized for multiple children.
The parties follow the western format of games, birthday cake cutting, and fun food – and of course the singing of the Happy Birthday song.
For example, a wonderful party was recently held at the SoCo centre in Sham Shui Po for seven children. This NGO helps children who live in subdivided homes or public housing. The event was led by student Fiona Wei, and the Sadhu Vaswani Centre sponsored an egg-free chocolate birthday cake, and also provided several volunteers to help run the party.
“Our volunteers are the life and soul of the party,” said a spokesman. “Not only are they helping a child celebrate their special day, but all our volunteers say the experience enhances their own lives too.”
Organizers get a budget of about HK$5,000 for each party – and then can celebrate up to 10 children, which each of them bringing several best friends. As well as food and drink and a spectacular birthday cake, the celebrants will get individual gifts, and each child will get a bag of “party favors” to take home.
It means a lot to children who live humble lives in a subdivided home.
To get involved with BHA, visit this link: https://www.bhasia.org.
All images from BHA unless specified.