Expat during Chinese New Year in China

Update:27 Feb 2007

This was Jenny Hammond's first breath-catching Chinese Lunar New Year in China and the Cheshire, England, native enjoyed fireworks looking down from a skyscraper and steeped herself in the lore of fortune and good luck.

Firecrackers, pigs, flowers, color, noise, no available taxis anywhere, throngs of people, smiling well wishers, rice cakes, jade, gold, and good-luck charms -- all mixed together in a bursting montage to see in the Chinese New Year.

As an expat living in Shanghai, the first thing that struck me in the run- up to the Spring Festival was the heightened sights and smells. A reminder of my initial impressions of the city when I first arrived.

Perceptions that had been lost or perhaps had become familiar were refreshed with the potent spices and fragrances that laced the thick air during the weeklong holiday. It was as if I was experiencing China, Shanghai again for the first time!

February 18 marked the first day of the Chinese New Year, or the Year of the Pig. There were firecrackers going off late into the night, lucky oranges and plum blossoms in shop windows, and a lot of red and gold decorations everywhere. Although there were no champagne toasts and no "Auld Lang Syne," Chinese New Year was a truly spectacular celebration.

Spanning a 15-day period, the first day of the Lunar New Year was "the welcoming of the gods of the Heavens and Earth." This was a time that many people abstained from meat because it is believed that this would ensure long and happy lives.

For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the celebration was the different elements of fortune and superstition. Good and bad luck seem to play a strong role, unlike the British New Year where the aim for many is to drink as much as possible and find a suitable partner to kiss at the stroke of midnight.

With meaning behind everything, it was enjoyable discovering the different things that could bring luck. Many Chinese holiday traditions are heavily steeped in symbolism, beyond the typical associations between shapes and colors, the large number of homophones in the Chinese language has made the Chinese fond of puns and wordplay.

The word "fish" in Chinese sounds very similar to the word for "surplus," so if you eat fish on Chinese New Year's Eve, you are hoping for a year of abundance. Oranges and tangerines are often given as gifts at New Year's Day since the words for these fruits sound like wealth and luck, respectively.

Many Chinese households put up little red diamond-shaped posters on their doors. However, the poster is always upside down, because the word for "upside down" sounds similar to the word for "arrive," meaning you're inviting good fortune and prosperity to your home.

But you don't need to know the meaning behind the oranges or the rice cakes to feel the festive spirit in the streets. Shanghai over the holiday seemed to be transformed into a proverbial ghost town, as much as a city with a population of 17 million can be.

Most shops were closed, even the antique market that you would have suspected would make a bustling trade over the holiday. But many shops selling fireworks were open. It was rather novel to be able to wander down Huaihai Road without the continuous bombardment of handbag and DVD touts.

The city seemed to slow down for the week, transforming its usual busy businesslike mentality to a truly holiday feel. With the ayi gone, fewer taxi drivers, firecrackers fizzing and spluttering on most pavements, even Element Fresh seemingly not available for a couple of days. It would have been easy to feel like a lonely foreigner abandoned in this city.

However, the amount of families and friends with invitations to celebrate with them in their homes for the holiday was overwhelming. And of course the most important part of Chinese New Year, like any other holiday, is the chance to celebrate with family and friends. By the fifth day, called Po Woo, the celebrations seemed to reach a climax.

With a crescendo of fireworks in the evening working up to a spectacular finale at midnight, it seemed as if the whole city was going to explode. It is a very surreal experience to watch fireworks from a skyscraper. Looking down as they sparkle then burst is oddly therapeutic, and this should also be said for the relief of neck cramps, caused by the traditional way of watching the displays -- face to the sky.

New Year for me had always been somewhat overshadowed by the joviality of Christmas, and my experiences of Chinese New Year were limited to my local Liverpool Chinatown. There, red dragons would dance around the streets and happy Chinese residents let off party poppers and offered passers-by prawn crackers and paper charms.

But seeing how the Shanghainese did it has brought a fresh magic to the already-spectacular festival. All that was missing for me was the dragon dance which I narrowly missed.

Oh well, there is always next year. So the only thing that is left to say is "Best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year."

Liverpool's Chinatown celebrates

Liverpool, one of England's more colorful cities, is known for its iconic musicians such as the Beatles and football stars like Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen and, of course, the defining (or deafening) scouse accent.

However, a little known fact is that Shanghai is linked to Liverpool, twinned as a sister city. With the oldest Chinatown in Europe and the long history of sea links, Liverpool and Shanghai have been joined for hundreds of years.

So with the strong Chinese influence, over Chinese New Year, Liverpool was ablaze with Oriental cheer. To give you a flavor of the far-off celebrations, Mark McNulty, a well-known Liverpool photographer, took some snaps of festivities on the day.

" Liverpool is very big on celebrating and the Chinese New Year has become a major event on the city's calendar," McNulty says.

It's a big family affair with fairground rides surrounding the Chinatown area where most of the fireworks are.

It's surprising, but most of the celebration performers are European, says the photographer.

More than 10,000 Chinese people live in Merseyside and about 3,000 in the city center and many are involved in the celebrations, of course. But from dancers to dragons, actual performers tend to be Europeans, he says.

McNulty is working on a photography project about Shanghai and Liverpool similarities. He will be documenting their rapid changes.

He cites links in popular culture, river-based tourism and construction cranes, as well as people's penchant for wearing nightwear in the daytime and outdoors.

McNulty first visited Shanghai two years ago. He was struck by the emergency of new forms of popular culture. He plans to visit again next year and photograph the Chinese New Year in Shanghai.

(Shanghai Daily February 26, 2007)


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