Stuart Beaton guest blogs here about the festivities and customs surrounding the Spring Festival in China. Stu also has his own site at http://rastous.podomatic.com/. I’m excited to share his latest post as we approach the start of the Year of the Dragon. Here’s Stu:
As I sit here, writing this, the still night outside is being rent by short, crackling bursts, punctuated by the loud “crump” of explosions. Rockets scream in arcs over buildings, and the smell of black powder is everywhere.
I am not crouched in a shellscrape in the Helmand Province, but at my desk in downtown Tianjin – currently doubling for early Eighties Beirut, it seems.
Spring Festival is here, not with a whimper, but with a bang – and there are many more to come. The official holiday starts on the 22nd of January, but already the place feels like it’s on a break.
Local courier companies, much to my wife’s chagrin, ceased deliveries on the 10th, and many online businesses have been forced to put up their virtual shutters until the holiday is over.
My wallet thanks them, too.
Spare a thought, however, for the millions of migrant workers who make up the vast majority of the urban construction crews that are building the “Miracle Economy”.
Most Chinese, rich or poor, want to travel to their hometowns, and spend the Festival with their parents and relatives. The usual method is to travel by the backbone of Chinese transport – the railways.
Unfortunately, this year saw the implementation of a new Internet based ticket reservation system, designed to streamline ticket sales, and reduce waiting times.
Which it hasn’t.
Migrant workers, by their very nature, are those least likely to have access to a computer, let alone the Internet. Unskilled, underpaid, and more often than not poorly educated, these workers are the ones that are now having the most difficulty getting home to their families.
This is also the season that construction crew bosses tend to abscond with suitcases packed with their workers’ wages, so you can see that it’s not going to be a very happy time for some people – stranded in terrible conditions, far from home.
It’s also a time of gifting and excess, when little red envelopes (Hong Bao) come into their own. Originally given by parents to children, Hong Bao are now the grease that oils almost all parts of Chinese society.
Can’t get a promotion on merit? Buy it with a bundle of used yuan. Your kid can’t get a place at a school? A nice wedge will get their bum on a seat. Facing an investigation for bribery? Buy your way out of it with a pretty red envelope.
This happens all the time, and it’s not even seen as the corruption as it is – it’s just another tradition… one that I am yet to take part in.
Another emerging trend is the “contract girlfriend” (or boyfriend).
No one wants to travel back home, and display their sad, lonely status (or display their “perverted” sexual orientation) – so why not hire a companion for the journey? For a carefully negotiated fee, which includes just how much “hand holding” will occur, you too can have a pretty partner to display to everyone you know.
After the holiday, you can simply tell all and sundry that you broke up with them… then hire someone else next year.
Finally, it’s the time to eat until you burst – and then eat some more. I’ve seen far too much food wasted here than I care to dwell on, and the image of half a dozen untouched roast duck being discarded will go with me to my grave.
But our house is decorated with paper seals on the windows and door, and red lanterns in the window, and we’ve planned to spend a few days at Ellen’s parents’ house…
Luckily it’s only a short bus ride away.
Xin nian kuai le, folks.