Enter the Dragon...
Well, we survived the 15 days of celebrating and welcoming the new Year of the Dragon; and what fun it was!
Throughout it, we were blessed, along with the time off work for Anthony, with long chilly days of blue skies and sunshine, and the peace and quiet of an almost deserted city.
Anthony walking in a deserted street in the former French Concession
It started, as it must each year, with a bang, or should I say millions of bangs! We were at home, in our apartment in the centre of the city, on the eve of the new year when, at about 11pm, we realised we could no longer hear the film we were watching on television. By 11:45 we were dressed warmly in coats, hats and gloves, standing out on our balcony, thinking that what we were experiencing couldn’t possibly get any louder or brighter but, by midnight, we were in the midst of what could only be described as mayhem!
Everywhere, and I mean this in a literal sense, people were letting off fireworks and firecrackers. They were being set off in the streets, the squares, the parks, and on any open site, across the entire city, as far as the eye could see and the ear could hear. We stood on the balcony, our mouths open in awe and wonder, unable to hear each other’s shrieks of delight (or disbelief), and just watched and watched as millions of brightly coloured lights lit up the skies and loud bangs reverberated around the concrete jungle below us.
I don’t want to insult the people who have experienced war zones whilst under fire, but this must be the closest ‘peace-time’ equivalent. The noise was truly deafening. The video below was shot from the balcony of our apartment.
Eventually the views dimmed as a thick smog of cordite smoke gathered, and it became more difficult to breathe (or see what was going on) at balcony level, so at 12:45am we joined some other residents in our apartment who, having been banned from “playing fireworks” in the communal gardens, let off enormous boxes of rockets and long strings of firecrackers in the street next to our building. However, the main problem with the street fireworks was that there was no way to predict the projectile direction of the rockets and so the roadside of our building was hit by many of them that immediately exploded on impact.
In the midst of all this craziness, Anthony and I were amused to see a street cleaner patrolling up and down our street, sweeping up the debris left by the firecrackers and adding it to the empty firework boxes on his cart (according to City Weekend magazine, 970 tonnes of fireworks trash were collected in Shanghai after the first day of Chinese New Year).
Finally, at about 1:30am, the madness began to wane and we decided we just might be able to sleep so we took ourselves off to bed, our ears (mine already affected by tinnitus) ringing loudly and, apart from one interlude of about 2 minutes when some more huge rockets exploded nearby, we slept well, something we had been told would never happen!
I'm safe up here...
...so am I!
The next day dawned cold, bright and sunny and after brunch we decided to venture out, walking to the Old City, about 20 minutes away. The rest of Shanghai had exactly the same idea! We have never experienced such thick crowds of people; it was very claustrophobic, but all very friendly, and we were carried along in all directions with hundreds of others, children safely on shoulders being afforded the best views. At one stage we wanted to go straight over at an intersection but the crowd were all moving off to the left, so we had to tack our way across, like a yacht through a cross-wind!
On the Bridge of Nine Turnings - Yu Yuan
Most people were desperate to walk across the Bridge of Nine Turnings for luck but, after seeing the crush there, we decided to walk on, and 20 minutes later we were with a much smaller crowd on The Bund, admiring the views over the river to Pudong’s magnificent ultra-modern buildings.
Holiday crowds on The Bund
After a warming hot chocolate in the fabulously Art Deco Fairmont Peace Hotel (previously the Cathay Hotel, where Noel Coward apparently wrote “Private Lives” whilst languishing within with a bout of influenza) we hopped on the Metro and made our way back home.
On the next day, we were lucky enough to have an amusing two-hour lesson with our wonderful Chinese teacher, Rachel, but, instead of a simple Mandarin class, we learnt all about Chinese New Year, the days and their meanings.
Our wonderful Chinese (Mandarin) teacher - Rachel
In many ways, Chinese New Year is similar to the western celebration of Christmas and Thanksgiving; it is all about the reunion of families and hopes for the future, with a mixture of Buddhist/Taoist religion and thousands of years of tradition thrown in, with the emphasis on the whole family, both past and present.
Here are a few of the days with their explanations:
Day 1: Nian chu yi – ying jie tian di sheng ming – welcoming of the gods. At midnight, having already eaten a huge feast earlier in the day, jiaozi (small half-moon shaped dumplings filled with vegetables, minced pork and prawns) – or, in the south, a glutinous cake called niangao – are eaten as the fireworks and firecrackers are being set off to scare away the evil spirits. Many people close their house until the morning lest some of these spirits venture in! Incense – shang xiang – is burned and, in many public places, there are displays of dragon and lion dancing, the loud banging of the accompanying drums and the fierce faces of the animals both warding off evil spirits.
A display of Lion Dancing in the foyer of our apartment...
...and Dragon dancing in Xintiandi across the road...
...watched by this little fellow who was so excited!
Day 2: Nian chu er – a day of praying to ancestors, and a day when married daughters were traditionally allowed to visit their birth parents, relatives and close friends.
Evening of day 4 into day 5: Nian chu wu – welcoming in Guan Yu, the god of wealth. More feasts, more family gatherings and, although we couldn’t believe it was possible, more fireworks! The ‘display’ might not have lasted quite so long, but because this god has to be welcomed as loudly as possible, it was even louder than on the first night! And, on day 5 itself, every business that opened did so after letting off huge strings of firecrackers, so the day was a truly noisy one here in the heart of the city, despite many businesses being closed for the holiday!
...clearing up after Guan Yu had been welcomed!
Day 7: Renri – celebrating humankind on the common man’s birthday, the day when everyone grows one year older, and a day to feast on mian tiao – long noodles!
Day 9: Nian chu jiu – offerings to the Jade Emperor (Yu Huang Da Di) – the supreme ruler of the heavens, hell and all mankind, and the highest ranking deity of the Taoist pantheon.
Day 15: Yuanxiaojie – Lantern Festival – rice dumplings (tangyuan), some filled with sesame paste, are eaten, and candles are lit outside houses, to guide the spirits home. Many families walk the street with lighted lanterns, gathering at rivers, ponds and lakes to let them drift away into the air. Sadly, on the night of Lantern Festival here, it was pouring with rain, and there was no sign of any celebrations taking place in our area; I hope that we will see this next year.
...does a dragon live here?
And so the Dragon year begins, with those born in the next 12 months deemed to be passionate, brave, innovative and enterprising, but also short-tempered and conceited. The dragon is the only mythical animal in the Chinese zodiac and thought to be the most auspicious to be born under. Consequently, the birthrate is expected to soar this year! If you are a ‘dragon’ you should wear something red throughout the year; many just wear a red string necklace hidden under their clothing, but the sale of red bras, underpants and boxer shorts go up in the weeks before the new year starts too!
The washing must be done...
...on closer inspection...!
Homes are filled with floral displays for the new year, and the Hongqiao Flower Market stayed open every day, the stalls frantically busy with the preparation of hundreds of displays and arrangements. One of the loveliest items on sale were blue and white china bowls filled with shuixian (Narcissus bulbs), flowers of prosperity, which flowered for weeks in our apartment. The street stalls were filled with baskets of fruit, and we happily munched our way through the sweetest of oranges, kiwi fruit and melon all week.
One of our many local fruit stalls
So, was it worth staying in Shanghai when all our friends and work colleagues were lying on the sun-drenched beaches of Thailand? You bet it was!
Anyone fancy a visit here next year to witness this? The madness kicks off on February 10th, and we will be welcoming in the Year of the Snake!