Spring Festival in Tianjin

Former China Daily columnist Stuart Beaton is back guest blogging about his trip to his in-laws’ over Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. Stu’s podcasts can be found at http://rastous.podomatic.com/. I have many a Chinese New Year memory at my former in-laws’, so this really hit home. I hope you enjoy his post as much as I do! Here’s Stu:

My wife is lucky in that she doesn’t have to travel far to visit her parents for Lunar New Year – we live and work less than an hour away from them by bus, the route of which pretty much runs door to door.

However, she only has five or six days off for Spring Festival each year, so we have to make the most of it. Last year we spent part of the time in Adelaide, and returned to spend the rest of it in China, but this year we just didn’t have the resources to make that a possibility (and breaking my Nan’s heart in the bargain, but that is a long tale best left untold).

So we set off bright and early for Ellen’s parents’ place on the 22nd… well… Ellen was bright. I was already missing coffee, and yet I was still clutching my cup in the hope of a miracle. Ellen’s Dad drives a taxi on the mean streets of Tianjin for a living, so he collected us from our apartment, and dropped us at theirs, before heading back to work.

Immediately I was pressed into service putting up the decorations. Ellen’s Mum knows that I have an Arts background, but unfortunately she thinks that it’s in the Fine Arts, which should give me a wonderful eye for such things. I don’t think Art History is training in itself to hang things on walls, but maybe it helps.

With the paper cuts and Dragon motifs in position, I was told to get my Docs and jacket back on, as we were going to visit Ellen’s Godfather. A huge container of oil was stuck in my right hand, and a bag of just dead fish in the other, and we walked to some of the last remaining Hutongs in Tianjin.

These courtyard style homes have been systematically bulldozed in recent years around the city, despite their historical significance, and those remaining are on the outskirts of the city proper. Ellen’s Godfather’s family lives in a narrow, cobbled stone paved alley of Hutongs, kept meticulously clean by what seems like an army of broom wielding housewives, eager to see who is approaching and entering their neighbour’s homes.


Heating consisted of an old stove in the bedroom – which doubled as the living room, as it was the warmest in the house. When we visited last year, a chicken spent the whole time warming itself by the stove, resisting any effort to move it. I asked Ellen where the chicken was this time, and she just pointed to the pot on the stove…

After a while, we returned to Ellen’s parent’s apartment, to find that heating to the building had been shut off. It seems that someone had gotten too enthusiastic with their fireworks, and set them off in the middle of the day – underneath the main pipe carrying hot water to the radiator system. A crew turned up eight hours later to patch it, whilst we huddled under coats and blankets to keep warm.

At least the power wasn’t out, so we could still make dumplings – bao zi. I’m not a bad cook, and so I pounded up the dough for the dumpling wrappers, and then made the filling, while Ellen and her Mum happily nattered in front of the TV. Unfortunately I can’t roll the wrappers out fast enough, or crimp them properly, so they took over – wrapping and folding with practiced ease.

With Ellen’s Dad returning home, I was pressed into service to set up and light the rolls of firecrackers. This year I’d begged Ellen to ask her Mum not to spend a lot of money on them, as they’re just a wicked waste – they only go bang once, and you can always look out the window and see other people’s money going up in smoke!

We spent the next couple of days there, wandering about and saying hello to people, before returning to our apartment – and although the Spring Festival holiday is now officially over, the sound of fireworks is still filling the air.


  1. says

    “…they only go bang once, and you can always look out the window and see other people’s money going up in smoke!”—ha ha…I really like this line; when I was a child 30 years ago, my parents didn’t have enough money to buy CNY fireworks for me and my little sisters, so they encouraged us to see people setting off fireworks on the street. I remember there was a children’s song for this back then, and the first line goes like this, “the foolish man enjoys setting off fireworks, and the wise man enjoys watching…”

    • says

      So, Suping, were you “wise” or “foolish” when it came to fireworks ths year?

      I hope you have a great year of the Dragon, and it’s so cool that your baby will be a Dragon, too!

  2. says

    Sounds like a nice, typical CNY. We don’t make or eat dumplings here for CNY. But lots of fireworks and firecrackers and lion dance performances and calling on friends and relatives. And lots of food too. The fireworks/crackers can be noisy and annoying to those not used to the din and loud noise but without them, CNY just doesn’t feel like CNY! 恭喜发财,新年快乐,万事如意!

      • says

        I am not sure if there is any food specific to CNY here in Malaysia. But many families do have braised sea cucumbers for the occasion. Sea cucumbers are considered a delicacy but expensive here. Some families also cook bamboos shoots for CNY that I know of. But every Chinese here knows what yee sang is and will toss the food for good luck as part of the CNY celebration.

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