I know it’s a little late (I have the feeling this is going to be a common opening statement), but I really want to share with you the experience that is 春节 ‘Chun Jie’ also known as Chinese New Year. It’s difficult to do it justice in writing, so I’ve posted a few pictures and videos from last year’s celebrations to help get an idea. They are last year’s pictures because this year our group was much reduced as friends took advantage of the time off to travel, and therefore our little remaining group was less actively involved in setting off fireworks and more involved in admiring them safely from behind double glazing on the 17th floor.
Briefly summarized, Spring Festival is the most celebrated Chinese holiday. Everyone gets 7 days off work (although you do have to make up for 2 of those days by working a 6 day week either side of the holiday). However, celebrations will last 2 weeks, from new year’s eve according to the traditional Chinese calender, to the Lantern Festival 15 days later.
Every year our company has a party – think something along the lines of a Christmas office party but with more alcohol and compulsory singing. This year it was hotpot for a 3 hour lunch, followed by another several hours of karaoke. During lunch we were served ‘baijiu’ – a Chinese 65% “white wine” – by the wine glass. For anyone who’s never tasted this traditional Chinese liquor, there’s a reason (apart from it’s high abv) why it’s supposed to come in thimble-sized shot glasses, it tastes terrible! Unfortunately it’s quite rude to refuse a toast from your bosses or senior work colleagues, and our company seems to have an unusually high amount of employees who have taken it upon themselves – like a personal mission – to toast the foreigner to her good health…
As a city of around 20 million people (numbers are blurred due to all the unofficial migrant workers) the transformation Beijing goes through in the lead-up to Spring Festival is pretty astounding.
Factories shut down a few days before new year’s eve. The air becomes suspiciously unpolluted and smells… fresh. Firework stands start to pop up on every second street corner, supplying the entire city with explosives. Chinese people everywhere load up on crates of fizzy drinks, dumpling making supplies and clementines (here you often gift fruit rather than chocolates or flowers when visiting people). The city starts to empty as people from all over the country make their way back to their home towns and cities in order to spend time with their families. It is the largest human migration on the planet, around 250 million people traveling home at the same time.
By the night before new year’s eve, Beijing is like a ghost town; deserted and eerily quiet.
And then the fireworks start. There’s no such thing as health and safety when it comes to fireworks in China. People literally set them off anywhere; in the middle of roads, between apartment complexes, on pavements, really anywhere where there’s a couple of free square meters of ground. I’ve had firecrackers thrown under my taxi while we were driving. There are no rules. It’s both frightening and exciting at the same time.
Here are two videos, one of people letting off fireworks on a main road just outside the Palm Springs apartment complex, and one from a safer view on the 17th floor at around midnight.
By the end of the 15 days, having been exposed to the sound of fireworks every evening from sundown well into the night, and sometimes also early in the mornings, you do feel slightly shell-shocked and sleep deprived. Your nerves are a little frayed, you’ve developed a tendency of suspiciously glaring at random groups of kids, in case one of them has any firecrackers they’re considering lighting just as you’re walking past, and even the idea of opening a bottle of ‘baijiu’ renders you temporarily paralyzed with dread.
Having said all that, I think everyone should experience a Spring Festival once in their lifetime. I’ve never experience anything like it and I can’t wait for the next one!
Happy Year of the Dragon!