What lunar new year in China is really like.
I was in the Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province in the west. It was 2005, and it was the first lunar new year I would spend in this country. I’d befriended a flat-topped, motorcycle riding, tattooist the previous day, and was invited to spend New Year’s Eve with him. Perfect. I was expecting chaos and drunken extravagance, fireworks and all out insanity. Chinese New Year is supposed to be a gigantic street party, right? Dragon parades? Noise makers? Dancing?
Night fell, and the festivities were about to begin. Or so I thought.
I was in my bad ass friend’s cubicle apartment up in some gungy mid-rise apartment in the residential outskirts of Kunming. We were sitting in his coffin-shaped, micro-sized living room. The guests soon arrived. It was his decrepit grandmother. She couldn’t hear anything. I tried to yell a happy new year to her, but she just smiled and nodded clueless like old people who can’t hear anything do. My friend then flipped on his small TV, adjusted the antennae, and snapped CCTV’s New Year gala into focus.
And that was it.
That was Chinese New Year.
Everybody goes home with their families and watches TV on the lunar new year in China. While Chicago, San Francisco, and Vancouver are having big street parties and parades, the people of China are sitting in living rooms with their families watching CCTV’s New Year’s gala. This seemingly endless variety show with famous singers, dancers, cute kids, and token foreigners who surprise the audience with their Mandarin language skills is a yearly mainstay of mainland Chinese culture. Over 700 million people watch this program each year, the largest audience of any entertainment show on the planet.
But I couldn’t accept this. There were fireworks going off like mad all around us, and I wanted to see a fucking dragon parade or people partying, or something as mind blowing crazy as I though the lunar new year would be. So somewhere between the Guan Yin dance and the little fairy kids frolicking in circles, I realized that I couldn’t let my first Chinese New Year go down as a night watching TV — even if that was what everyone else was doing. I bid my friend farewell, screamed something at his grandmother, and stepped out into the street to find the appropriate action . . . somewhere.
I didn’t have to go far. I went out into the streets and found myself in a gauntlet of fireworks. People were setting them off from their balconies, on the street, and from rooftops. They were big, exploding, hot ones. The Chinese citizenry accept no less than real fireworks — not those piddly wimpy ones like Americans sometimes smuggle in from Canada. Errant blasts bounced off of buildings and exploded in close proximity to people, others shot into the sky and discharged bright fizzling flames into the windows of high-rise apartments. There were no pauses between detonations, and the sounds blended together into a singular, drawn out boom. The shrapnel from the plastic casings and shredded paper from their wrappings confetti-ed down from the sky like snow. The streets and sky were completely shrouded in smoke. It was difficult to see; it was difficult to breath. My eyes watered. I was in what they call the “war zone,” the residential ring around Chinese urban centers on New Year’s Eve. It was easy to see why they call it that.
That was my first lunar new year in China. This year is my fifth. I’ve now grown used to this holiday, and know it’s a time when foreigners are generally a wart hanging off the face of this culture. The feeling of foreignness is never more thoroughly felt than when in the midst of a country that’s enraptured in a national celebration that has nothing to do with you. Unless you get invited into a home, you’re more or less just going to be strolling through empty streets by yourself during these times, hanging out in a bar with other foreigners, or, if you’re lucky, watch other people’s celebrations.
Last lunar new year I went over to Chinese friend’s house, made dumplings with her grandparents, and sat around watching the CCTV gala. At midnight we went outside and lit sparklers. In China, the celebration of the lunar new year is a private, behind closed doors affair, and, fireworks aside, it’s a surprisingly quiet event.
I am in Xiamen this year, and there is hardly anybody in the streets. The big cities of China empty at New Year or Spring Festival time. Everybody goes home. The migrant workers go back to their villages, the students to their parents’ homes, and the everybody else goes back to the someplace else they came from. It has been reported that 9 million of Shanghai’s 23 million people are registered as living in other parts of the country. During Spring Festival most vacate the city, leaving it with noticeably more elbow room. While a virtual exodus of people split from Beijing, leaving the city half empty, and parts of it looking like ghost towns. At this time of year it is possible to see the degree to which the population of China has been mixed up and scrambled about. The people of this country are strewn across its map, working, studying, living in places other than where they grew up. For a couple of weeks the population geographically resets itself as hundreds of millions of people go home.
In the West we seem to think the lunar new year is a wild holiday of dragon parades. This is the Chinatown version. Like with many other minority holiday traditions in the West, Chinese New Year has become magnified and blown out of proportion to compete with the excesses of its more mainstream compliment.
This year I strolled through the empty streets of Xiamen. I declined an invitation to spend New Year’s Eve with the family of a Chinese friend. I just didn’t feel like sitting around, awkwardly watching a variety show, folding dumplings, eating way too much food, trying to get out of doing as many baijiu toasts as possible, and lighting sparklers. It’s a good experience to have once or twice or three times. . . but I figured I would just let it ride for this fifth lunar new year that I’m in China.
So I went down to the beach last night and watched a fireworks display that both Xiamen and Taiwan’s Kinmen Island put on in unison. For a half an hour both sides of the straight were alight with bright bursts of colors and booms. People on both shores were oohhing and ahhing at the same time, able to concurrently watch the fireworks of both Chinas. Though not long ago the explosives these islands were firing off at each other weren’t so benign.
This was the only fireworks display to be watched here. The firework tradition has been dead in Xiamen for a while now, banned by official decree. Though during the New Year the setting off fireworks is now being discouraged all over China. It’s not because the authorities want to curb the amount of their people blowing their fingers off and setting themselves on fire, but to cut down on air pollution. Last year I spent Spring Festival in a city were fireworks are not outlawed, but relatively few people were setting them off nonetheless. What I saw in Kunming in 2005 and subsequently in Hangzhou in ’06 and ’07 were some of the last instances of mass citizen pyrotechnic insanity — lunar new year “war zones” have been pacified by an awareness of air pollution.
It’s now the year of the wood horse. According to tradition every Chinese person has just turned another year older. A different twelfth of the population are putting on the red underwear. The people of China are at home with their families, showing off their boyfriends and girlfriends, exchanging red envelopes of money, eating massive amounts of dumplings, getting drunk, and watching the new year gala on CCTV. Happy new year everybody.