Spring Festival in Beijing
Spending the Spring Festival holiday in Beijing welcoming the New Year of the Snake was most enjoyable.
It was punctuated by all the usual “F” words one expects at this very special time of year: family, friends, food, fruit, fireworks, feng shui, festivities, fortune, and fog (a euphemism for off-the-charts bad air pollution).
I felt a sense of déjà vu while walking on the empty streets of the Central Business District. It reminded me of 20 years ago when Beijing’s streets were nearly empty except for bicycles, buses, and a smattering of cars and trucks, or horse-drawn carts. In those days, no one seemed to be in much of a hurry.
90年代初，在早高峰时段，北京饭店对面的长安街街景 / Beijing’s Changanjie opposite the Beijing Fandian during morning rush hour, early 1990s
As is well known, nowadays, the typical daily traffic situation in Beijing is non-stop traffic jams. It takes a major national holiday to empty the streets.
An estimated 9 million people, out of the total population of 20 million-plus, left Beijing for their home towns to spend the long Lunar New Year holidays with their families.
That left about 11 million people still in Beijing for the holiday. According to my (not) extensive (not) scientific research, most of these stayed at home watching TV and eating dumplings. As a result, me and my wife had the streets mostly to ourselves.
(By way of comparison, only 500,000 of Hong Kong’s 7.2 million population left the S.A.R. during the holidays. It’s likely that some of the remaining 6.7 million residents were busy serving mainland tourist visitors in shops, hotels and restaurants. During the New Year holiday period, about 750,000 mainland tourists visited Hong Kong.)
There was so little traffic in Beijing during the holidays, we could jaywalk without looking either way. This is in sharp contrast to the usual situation, where even if you obey the pedestrian crossing signals at major intersections, you still cross the street while fearing for your life, as all sorts of wild drivers career at you from every which way.
Beijing used to be a fun and accessible city for pedestrians and bicyclists alike. Younger Beijingers don’t realize this was still the situation even 20 years ago. The change is really phenomenal and took place within a much shorter time frame than any other city I can think of.
I love almost all types of Chinese food, with the exception of a few whose smell, taste or texture turn me off (e.g. stinky beancurd, sea cucumbers, chicken feet), and a few I won’t eat for ethical reasons (shark’s fin, and other endangered species).
As in most cuisines, it’s very hard to beat good Chinese home cooking, enjoyed in the warmth of a relaxed family environment. I lost count of how many dumplings I ate during the holiday, but it was at least a battalion’s worth. So delicious, both the boiled “jiaozi” and the fried “guotie”.
The 4-hour long Spring Festival national TV program (“chun wan jie mu”) is another special feature of China’s celebration of the Lunar New Year. Every year, my Chinese friends and family watch this marathon broadcast. They wouldn’t miss it, like Americans watching the Super Bowl. Every year, they complain about its declining quality. But they still watch it, all four hours of it. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
I can’t usually sit through 4 continuous hours of any kind of TV programming, so instead, I asked people what they thought of this year’s program.
The most common answer: “Worse than last year, ” which is roughly the same answer I get every year.
I asked about any highlights. Several people mentioned Guo Degang’s cross-talk performance as a comic highlight with a bit of a satirical edge to it, making jibes at corruption and mis-use of public funds.
One criticism came from a northern Chinese woman who has been living in Europe for some years and speaks several foreign languages. She was particularly critical of the three foreign students from Confucius Institutes who were invited to sing Chinese songs. “Terrible singers” she said.
Worse still, she said, the message seemed to be similar to the old propaganda billboard which proclaimed ‘We have friends all over the world’ (“women de pengyou bian tianxia”). In her view, it looked like the new message is ‘We have students all over the world.(“women de xuesheng bian tianxia”)’
I countered that enrollment in Chinese language classes is indeed growing sharply in many parts of the world, including in Confucius Institutes. Her response: “That’s not the key point. It was a display of arrogance, which conflicts with traditional Chinese values.”
Interesting viewpoint. What did you think of the program?