Tag Archives: Chinese New Year

Year of the Horse – Part 2: Dinner with my Chinese teacher’s family

3 Feb

The day after our Chinese new year baptism, last Friday, we, along with our friends L. and M., were invited to have dinner at my Chinese teacher S. and her husband K.’s house with their family (his side of the family to be precise – Spring Festival is celebrated with the husband’s family). This is the equivalent of being invited to spend Christmas at your friend’s place, so a real token of friendship (by my standards at least). Just for information, as K.’s was explaining to me, the first day of Chinese new year, Chinese people do fireworks but also stay at home and usually watch the national show of the Spring Festival on national television during which celebrities sing and entertain. This year, wearing a red dress for good luck, French actress Sophie Marceau, apparently a real celebrity in this country, was part of the show and sang “La Vie en Rose” in French with Liu Huan (singer and song writer) for the good people of the People’s Republic of China. See it on YouTube here.

But back to our evening.

We had already been invited to dinner at S. and K’s place some time before Christmas. J. and I had arrived about 10-15 minutes late and found all the guests already sitting at the table and waiting for us to start. There was no small talk or drinks before sitting on the dining table. It was a little bit embarrassing that everyone waited for us to start eating. This time, I insisted that we get there on time, especially that K.’s whole family would be around. We got there only five minutes late and thankfully, although many dishes were already laid on the two tables, we were not the last ones to arrive and nobody was sitting at the dining tables yet.

We were introduced to the family and were very warmly welcomed by everyone. There were four generations, with the grandmother, two of the mum’s brothers and their children and grand-children. One of the uncles was particularly talkative and we chatted with him for a while. He commented on our understanding of Chinese and encouraged J. to be more “nǔlì” i.e. hardworking at studying Chinese. He asked us about our drinking capabilities (how many cans of beer) and showed us the báijiǔ (Chinese white alcohol distilled from sorghum or maize, a traditional and VERY strong drink reputed to be absolutely vile), a very old one in small bottles, they had selected for the occasion. I was a bit nervous at the idea of tasting it. It is a much-dreaded drink amongst the lǎowài* community of China as it is a very acquired taste for us. Somehow I managed to escape it after over two years but tonight, clearly there was nowhere to hide.

The evening was lovely. Surprisingly, I liked (this) báijiǔ! Then again it was a very special one. We had fun conversation with K’s cousins at our table, tons of great food, with K.’s mum and other uncle tirelessly cooking as the rest of us were eating. The friendly uncle went back and forth between the two rooms to do “gān bēi” (bottoms up) with us and make sure we were eating well.

As other Chinese occasions, things tend to end up fairly abruptly. So around two hours after we had arrived, when we started to feel stuffed, some members of the family started to leave. We lingered an extra 20 minutes or so and then started to make our way out. We were the last ones to leave. I guess the sudden end shocks us less (after attending S. and K.’s wedding and having already had dinner at their place) but we probably still need some time to get our act together and actually leave.

Just as we were putting on our coats and L. and M. getting their son I. ready to go, K.’s mum gave us bags filled with a huge bags of home-made crisps (with white and black sesame seeds), two different (and big) pieces of beef (one cold-cut and another salted and dried one), as well as a full lotus root stuffed with rice (sweet and chewy).

What else to say… We were very moved to be so well and so generously received by a very special friend and her lovely family on the most familial celebration in Chinese culture. Good times!

* lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

The Year of the Horse – Part 1: Celebrating with noise!

2 Feb

On Thursday and Friday, China and a few countries around celebrated the Chinese new year and the forthcoming year of the horse. After the year of the dragon and that of the snake, it is our third lunar new year – or Spring Festival –  since we moved to Shanghai. For the first time, we decided to stay around, first because we took too long to buy our plane tickets to Cambodia and second because we thought that we ought to spend a Chinese new year in China at least once. We had been told or warned by a few foreign veterans that spending Chinese new year in Shanghai was great, was terrible, was a bad idea, was a “special” experience, etc. etc. etc. The most precise information I got though was from a colleague who told me that she loved it because, overall, Shanghai is very quiet because most people head back to their hometowns. At the same time of course, one should expect a lot of fireworks. Not the pretty kind done by professionals in a wide open space for everyone to see. The small, noisy, non-visual type that anyone can buy and blow on the street. She also said that the only way to enjoy it was to take part to the hype. So I decided that we should embrace the whole idea. This year the holiday started on the day of Chinese new year (that was Thursday 30th of January). Those of us who didn’t flee the country went to work on that day. The city had already considerably emptied up and, after a short day at work, I ran a few errands before going for dinner with friends. At 5:30ish, the normal rush hour, streets were empty. Commercial activity, which never ever stops in Shanghai, was practically non-existent. Eight if not nine out of ten shops were shut, anywhere you looked. In addition, the very high pollution levels and consequent low haze and glaring light gave the city a pre-apocalyptic atmosphere,  intensified by the either distant or closer sound of fireworks interrupting the general, heavy silent. Truly an apocalyptic atmosphere suited for movies…

The AQI levels on that day

The AQI levels on that day

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Oddly our friends managed to find the restaurant they wanted to go to open – Di Shui Dong (very good incidentally) on Maoming Lu. The restaurant itself is quite a warm place in terms of its décor and relaxed atmosphere. It was quite full and lively and therefore a welcome contrast to the outside vibe. There we met other friends, a group of six boys arriving with their stash of fireworks. Although J. was not keen about the whole fireworks thing, I insisted that we join them later as part of my embrace-the-event plan. And so after dinner, I asked a friend where we should actually pop the stuff (I might’ve spent too many years in France and the UK, being so mindful about health and safety issues) and was a bit disturbed when he found the question a bit stupid and replied “Just here… anywhere… on the street…” I didn’t quite have the time or space to tell him that we should perhaps look for a suitable place, we were already out of the restaurant and one of his mates was already lining firecrackers just at the entrance of the building. The guy wouldn’t listen to anyone telling him to do it elsewhere and just lit it here and there, causing more noise and smoke than anything else.

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

We then headed to a nearby (small residential) street close to another group of lǎowài (turned out it was my colleague, her family and friends) who had already started their festivities with their young kids and who were greeting one another with “Xin nian kuai le!” – happy new year in Mandarin. Our stock lasted half an hour I guess. It was fun, convivial, noisy, unconscious, slightly dangerous, spontaneous, childish, traditional, not very mindful of local residents or traffic, smoky, scary, not environmentally friendly at all and brought back childhood memories of celebrations of Eid el Saydeh (the Virgin Mary’s Day) in Lebanon… J. and I then headed back home while the others split to continue their evening. At midnight, all hell broke loose with noise levels truly high and fireworks reaching us all the way to the 18th floor and lighting up our flat with their colours. It lasted for a while into the night. But since then (3 days now), I can’t say that there have been more fireworks than the usual. I liked the whole experience and I will remember it fondly. We may not be locals and never will be but after the third one, Chinese new year is now part of our calendar and the lunar signs of the dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, etc. siding next to the scorpio, taurus, pisces, virgin, balance, etc. * lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

Butchery course

15 Feb

I had lunch with my friend C. the other day. The weather was exceptionally beautiful and for once not freezing for a sunny winter day. We then had a bit of time to wander around the French Concession. This area of Shanghai is probably one of the most sought after amongst foreigners to live in. It has retained a lot of its charm and it is very difficult I am told to build tall structures over there. Somehow, many of its original residents still live there and it can have quite a popular feel on many of its streets.

Walking out of the restaurant, we were greeted by the usual profusion of drying of laundry typical of sunny days in Shanghai. Except that in this very street – Jinxian Road, also hanging from the laundry racks, was an abundance of meat and all sorts of it: poultry, pork and fish at least. So much so that it felt like we could’ve had a butchery course on the spot. There were lots of homemade sausages but also gutted duck, goose and chicken, gutted gigantic fish, split pigs’ heads and other things I can’t put a name on. Have a look at the pictures below for colourful details.

Jinxian Lu

Poultry, fish tails and other stuff

Pigs' heads

I was surprised there weren’t many flies around or on the meat itself, even for the ones hanging just above the rubbish bins. I understand that drying meat is part of the local culture and a local necessity to preserve meat for as long as possible. And you don’t find meat drying only in popular streets or areas, you can also find it on the windows of the 15th floor of expensive apartment buildings. I have to say that I find it somehow admirable that in spite of living in one of the largest cities on the planet (16 millions inhabitants), Shanghainese are managing to carry-on and nurture the tradition of homemade foods instead of buying it industrially processed and overly packaged from an impersonal supermarket. Still, I can’t shake the high levels of urban pollution from my hygiene food standards. Instead of having, say, oak-smoked bacon, you’re actually having it kerosene-smoked… Not the best marketing angle or feeling really. But who knows? Maybe it does enhance its taste? Given that I have very limited control over what I eat here, I guess that’s what I have to keep saying to myself for as long as I live in China.

New years

18 Jan

So now that Christmas and New Year have gone by and we’re all nursing away our holiday blues, it feels like it’s a long way until the next time off. Not in China! Even though the Bund was filled with people on December 31st and there were nice projections on historic buildings (see picture below, courtesy of my Italian friend C.), the Chinese don’t really give a toss about the Gregorian new year, at least until now. That’s just entertainment for them, and in fact when midnight hit, nothing happened. No countdown, no fireworks in the country that invented them and in a city where there are fireworks any given day and during daytime.

The Bund on the 31st of December 2011

They’re saving themselves for the really important thing which is just about to start over here and in much of southeast Asia. We’re about to celebrate the Chinese New Year (xīn nián in Mandarin) on the 22nd of January, and not just any new lunar cycle, the year of the Dragon! The dragon is the only animal in the Chinese horoscope that doesn’t exist. (The other ones being, in no particular order: rat, monkey (me incidentally), dog, pig, horse, rooster, snake, tiger, ox, rabbit, boar and sheep). This means that the Dragon is a tad more special than the others in this 12-year cycle. Dragon years are meant to bring prosperity to all and it is considered to be especially good auspices to be born or get married during the year of the Dragon.

With all this fuss about it and remembering how colourful and eventful, even though generally contained, Chinese New Year celebrations used to be in London, I was expecting more visual manifestations of the build up to the event in Shanghai: street decorations, mighty and live dragons everywhere, some sort of Chinese carols or the equivalent. None of that. Compared to Christmas decorations (even in non-religious China), the Chinese New Year so far is quite a modest affair. True they have hung small red lanterns in most places, like building or restaurant entrances, banks, or something a bit more overstated in my local supermarket. There are also special edition packages, on the Danone yoghurts, and some other products that I don’t know. Yesterday only, the fruit vendors started displaying special fruit baskets and selling fireworks of all sorts in their shops. My same friend C. received a cute dragon from her bank. And, apart from some palpable tension prior to a big holiday (and one certainly well deserved for Chinese workers who have a meagre yearly holiday allowance and live far from their families) in office mostly, that’s about it.

So have they managed to escape the commercial exploitation typical of Christmas and New Year and keep Chinese New Year a family affair? Or do they just celebrate wildly on the D-day – there’s so much fireworks it feels like you’re under siege for literally the whole night – then spend a week resting and go back to their workplace? Where’s the beef? It’s too quiet…

At the entrance of my compound

The entrance of my building

In the lobby of a hotel

At the supermarket

Yoghurt pack

Fireworks

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