Once Upon a Time in Jiangsu Province

This Saturday I’m going to a Chinese New Year banquet, one I attend each year with friends from Hong Kong and China. Lots of good food and catching up, all in the comforts of my friends’ beautiful suburban home. The American Dream.

But that wasn’t always the case with Chinese New Year and me.

I can still feel the bone-chilling cold of the Lunar New Year, 1991, during my junior year in college. This photo was taken in the countryside about an hour from Nanjing. My Nanjing friends’ family didn’t own a toilet. Not even a squatter. We went outside for that.

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There’s nothing like a New Year’s fair. No Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse here.

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Back before people owned cars, streets looked like this. Usually there’d be bicycles, but during the New Year, it was more fashionable to stroll around the markets and visit friends and family en masse. Mr.Chen, my high school tour guide, is on the far right with his nephew. His wife is next to him with their daughter, and I’m standing near his brother and two sisters-in-law.

Video games? Who needs them (and who had them back in 1991?) when you have a yard to yourself and this new well. While the adults played cards and mahjong, I made sure the kids stayed out of the well. Scary.

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As I look toward the Year of the Dragon, I remember my friends in Nanjing and its outlaying cities and villages. Gongxi facai. Happy New Year!


  1. says

    The only heat in the hutong comes from charcoal burning iron stoves – there are a couple scattered through the rooms. The chickens love them.

    The sink topped toilets aren’t common here – but they are in Japan. They seem to have gone out of favour here.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      It’s good to hear there’s some heat in the hutongs. My mom has a Japanese toilet here in the US, sans sink top.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thanks! I’ll add a line or two. One of the guys was my high school group’s tour guide. He’s on the very right with his nephew in front of him.

  2. says

    Kung Hei Fat Choy!

    I can’t imagine having to go outdoors or have an audience – yikes!

    How do you celebrate Chinese New Year here? I have a Golden Dragon at home so this year should be interesting! – he’s turning 12

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      And Kung Hei Fat Choy to you and your family, especially your Golden Dragon! My Tiger turned 12 in 2010 and it was just fine. I think boys that age are pretty calm.

      The audience was at the trough toilet on the boat because the dividers only went up to my thighs. And being the only non-Chinese on a boat of 500, well, that was a spectacle. It’s in my memoir–as a highlight of my marriage! :)

      Chicago has a Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown. I don’t usually go because it’s so bloody cold, but this year has been mild so far. We’ll see. My alumni group from the Chinese University of Hong Kong gets together for a banquet, and that’s what I’m doing this Saturday. Yum!

  3. says

    It’s okay to use squat toilet; the only problems is that you got leg cramps suddenly, or you finished your business only to realize that there was no toilet paper! That happens a lot in squatty potty toilet in China.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thanks! I wish it were a squat toilet, but there wasn’t even that. It was choose your own spot of earth. My former in-laws had a squatter and I had no problem with that. I even think they’re cleaner than western toilets!

  4. says

    Wow, what memories! My memories of China during CNY are all LOUD. Our first year we were in a ground floor apartment and the noise was deafening, 24 hours a day for a week. I don’t miss that part.

    Happy New Year!

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Yes! The firecrackers and fireworks! And the mah-jongg tiles. I like my sleep so it always made me nervous that people could stay up all night and still function the next day. I don’t miss that part either!

  5. says

    I seriously love this post, Susan. I’m reminded of the times I spent with my inlaws in the countryside — fantastic food, freezing temperatures with no heat. Fortunately, they had a flush toilet installed in time for my arrival, though it was a squatter and I still had to use a bucket now and then b/c the toilet was not upstairs and hard to get to at night.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thank you so much! I’m so honored!! Goodness, you had to use a bucket like a chamberpot?! The food was great and was the only way I could keep warm. That and tea. My former in-laws had a flush squatter, too. The worst toilet I used was a trough one on a boat from Wuhan to Shanghai. It would have been better if I hadn’t had an audience.

      • says

        I spent my childhood in the countryside. I haven’t been back to my home village for many years, but I’m quite sure that people are still using chamber pots in northern China villages, especially in winter, and they are used to using them. I brought my paternal grandparents to live in Shanghai for a time this summer and they lived in my newly revamped apartment with bathrooms connected to bedrooms. On the first day they arrived, they asked me where I could buy a chamber pot for them…:-)

        • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

          Wow, that’s so sweet! I remember when my former in-laws first saw our house in California and all the crazy western indoor plumbing (big toilets, bathtubs, etc.). They had a nice year with us, but preferred what they were used to in Hubei.

  6. says

    Amazing – these could have been taken last year… the only thing that has really changed is the number of cars.

    We went to visit Ellen’s “Godfather” during the 2011 Spring Festival, pretty much right off the plane after almost a month in Australia – and he had an outdoor squatter toilet, too.

    That took some rapid readjustment!

    I’ll try and get some snaps from this year’s events, and write up something for here.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      It’s a little disheartening to think nothing has changed in these villages. And I can only imagine going to the countryside after a month in Aus. Squatting outside in the cold was probably quite a change from the post loos in Japan, right?!

      Would love to see photos of this year’s Spring Festival. Happy Year of the Dragon!!

      • says

        Ellen’s godfather lives in one of the last remaining hutongs on the edge of Tianjin city proper, and it was a hell of a shock from the mid-Summer heat of Adelaide to the sub-zero there.

        The posh loos in Japan weren’t in my apartment (I think I had a throne made for small children) – or in the railway stations (all squatters)… but I did see some that looked like they belonged on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

        Actually, they’re making something of an inroads here. When we were furnishing our apartment, we went to a place that had row after row of them – but none of them were plumbed or wired in, which was a shame.

        • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

          Does the hutong have heat indoors?

          I always wanted one of those Toto toilets, with the little sink on top of the tank. At least you’ve seen them in China. I haven’t seen any in the home appliance stores here. It’s possible to custom order them, though.

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