have a love-hate relationship with Chinese New Year, that moveable feast which is at once very quiet, and extremely noisy. Quiet because half of Beijing leaves town, leaving the streets strangely empty. Lots of stores, bars and restaurants are also closed – in fact any business that relies on labor from outside the city is shut down. If they are still open, they have got in some temporary staff, and it’s quite hit and miss whether you’ll be served at all.
But then there’s the noise. Minor noise comes from all the households tuned in to the annual national New Year’s Eve TV extravaganza, known as the Chunwan, or Spring Festival Gala. It’s not that people really enjoy the show, it’s just like any other show to be endured during a national holiday that your elderly relatives insist on watching – a bit like the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day in the UK. Even though nobody’s really paying attention, it’s usually turned up to 11, with that year’s favorite boy or girl band strutting their stuff and singing syrupy love songs, or older performers belting out faux operatic numbers, interspersed with a bit of shouty comedy. I’m fortunate that I don’t have to watch – but my evening is always enlivened by my Western friends with Chinese in-laws who can’t escape the show, as their desperation increases as the show grinds on.
But no one can escape the fireworks. I used to love fireworks – in the UK we could only get them once a year, on November 5, an event when we commemorate the foiling of a plot to blow up the government and the subsequent harsh punishments meted out to the plotters – being hung, drawn and quartered. We even build bonfires and burn effigies of the chief plotter Guy Fawkes, as well as anyone else who has been annoying that year. They are usually politicians.
When I first came to live in Beijing, fireworks were banned in a large part of the urban area, and only allowed in more suburban areas. The ban was lifted in 2005, and that year we really were treated to a display. It starts around dusk, and gradually through the evening it gets louder and louder, until at midnight there are explosions all around – fireworks as far as the eye can see. I’ve always thought it would be a good night for bank robbers – no one would ever hear them. Urban dwellers don’t have their own doorway, so they congregate at the entrance to residential communities, taking it in turns to set off quite alarmingly large boxes of rockets – not single bottle rockets – but a box of maybe 10 or 12. There are long strings of loud bangers placed across roads.
As children in Britain, despite only having fireworks one night a year, we were always taught the Fireworks Code. Never go back to a lit firework, keep them in metal boxes, use a taper to light them – I remember it well. No one has ever heard of firework safety in China. Piles of fireworks are just put on the sidewalk waiting to be lit – usually with a cigarette. People skip over piles of still-smoldering remains to light the next one. Cars, even cyclists navigate around the fireworks that are occupying crossroads (also an auspicious place to scare away New Year demons). I’ve seen adults allowing children to shoot fireworks out of apartment windows. It also means that it’s dangerous to try to go anywhere – you just never know when someone will let off a firecracker as you’re walking along the street. And not to mention the effect on pets, although to be fair, my Beijing street cats are used to random loud noises, and barely get excited over the fireworks, and my dogs are not really bothered. Last year, though, I took in a small stray dog right before the New Year, and she was terrified – a trembling wreck hiding under the sofa.
But when the ban was first lifted, it was new and exciting. We used to go to a friend’s restaurant, closed for the night, and make dumplings with their staff who couldn’t make it home and let off fireworks at the end of the alley. But now I, and quite a lot of other urban residents, if surveys are to be believed, have fallen out of love with fireworks. It’s not the relaxed attitude to safety so much as the huge spikes in pollution that accompany every firework night – there are three main ones during the 15 days of the Lunar New Year – but also the enormous piles of trash left behind on the streets. Beijing has armies of street sweepers on standby, and they swing into action as soon as the fire and fury have died down a bit.
This Chinese New Year, the authorities in Beijing have reinstated the downtown firework ban, and I’m pretty happy that it will be a quiet one. There may be grumbles from the die-hards, but as I’ve watched the numbers of people gathering at the gates of my community at midnight dwindle over the years, it seems that people will be happy to give up their New Year bangs.