Rabbits Come, and Rabbits Go
I spent this year’s early February Lunar New Year holidays in Beijing. While enjoying the holiday and relaxing, I found myself wondering whether this Rabbit Year will be one of those relatively even-paced, predictable ones, or one which brings big, bold surprises. In other words, the kind of rabbit with a steady, bouncing gait; or one of those wildly bounding hares criss-crossing the landscape in erratic leaps and bounds as if being chased by a hungry hound.
As I enjoyed Beijing’s cold, dry weather, delicious dumplings, family gatherings and around-the-clock fireworks, my conclusion was that our world seems to have turned a corner. We’re already into a new era, in which higher levels of volatility and unpredictability are the routine, rather than the exception. The pace and tenor of change itself seems to have changed. Rabbits come and rabbits go, but we seem to have a new kind of rabbit on our hands now.
It seems wise to begin each new year hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. Any doubts about the wisdom of that which we might have had during early February have since been dispelled by the steady progression of dramatic headlines from around the world, involving tragic natural disasters of historic proportions, punishing extremes in weather, see-sawing markets, unexpected political instability, etc.
The Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing was quiet — except for the pyrotechnics in the streets — and relaxing. It is the big window in the annual calendar when Beijing exports vast numbers of its residents to their home towns, all over China, and increasingly, to holiday destinations abroad.
It is also about the only time each year that Beijing’s wild traffic is tamed for a few days. For those few days, it becomes possible to go from one end of that great city to the other without needing a haircut and a change of socks because you just spent so much time stuck in traffic. It brings back memories of the way Beijing used to be, before the dictatorship of the traffic jam.
Those of us who spent time in Beijing during the 1970s recall the days when bicycles ruled the roads. Mule and horse carts, buses, trucks and cars were dwarfed in numbers by comparison with the massive tide of 2-wheelers.
At night, the city and its streets were dark. Some drivers were in the habit of honking their horns constantly as they drove in the darkness, ostensibly to warn bicyclists and pedestrians of their approach. Some also switched their headlamps on and off as they drove, no doubt for the same purpose. This was an innovative audio-visual approach to driving safety. I suspect it was quite effective, especially given the low motorized traffic levels of that era.
The New Year holiday nowadays empties the roads to such an extent that one thinks back to those quieter, simpler days, which in itself is something of a virtue.
While Beijing’s roads nowadays may be much quieter for those few days, there is ample compensation in ambient noise levels provided by the constant, around-the-clock fireworks. Residents are permitted to purchase and ignite them for a few days and nights, only during this period.
Don’t get me wrong. I like fireworks, and they add a highly festive, raucous, colorful, celebratory effect to the New Year holiday.
Street vendors suddenly pop up in the downtown area, selling everything explosive, from big double strings of red, cigarette-sized firecrackers to meter-long bottle rockets. These big fellas are spectacularly beautiful when shot off at night, but dangerous in the hands of us ordinary folks.
With the exception of the fireworks, Beijing during the New Year holiday has something in common with the Hong Kong of 20 years ago. A lot of shops and restaurants close, so you have to plan ahead on foodstuffs and eating arrangements.
Just as Beijing has grown into a major exporter of people during this holiday period, Hong Kong has become a net importer. Its economy is now highly dependent on tourist income, especially from mainland visitors. So, unlike the old days, the stream of hungry tourists ensures that most shops and restaurants stay open, with the exception of small neighborhood establishments.
By the time I was about to leave Beijing for Hong Kong, while thinking about upcoming travel plans (to the weather extremes of North and South America), and reflecting more generally on the year ahead, my gut feeling was that this particular Rabbit Year would bring more than its fair share of surprises.