Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Elements of a memorable Chinese New Year's Eve

I was grumping the other day about how little I enjoy the Chinese New Year celebrations (and would always quit the country at this time of year if I could only afford to); but I have, of course, had a few good times here during this holiday over the years. In particular, my very first Spring Festival Eve ended up being rather fun... in a bizarre and random sort of way.

Here are the things that made it special:

1) Novelty
It was my first one. So, even the aspects of the holiday that aren't all that appealing to me (nearly all of them) at least had curiosity value. It didn't start to seem such a horrendous bore until I'd been here three or four years.

2) Being included in the party
Chinese friends are usually too preoccupied with fulfilling their family obligations (or spurning them, and fleeing the country for an overseas holiday!) to give much of a thought to us foreigners at this time of year. But in my first year here, several people - students, colleagues, new friends - made a point of inviting me to stuff. Such invitations haven't completely dried up, but in subsequent years I've probably tried to dodge them, since most of the traditional holiday activities - temple fairs, family dinners, watching the CCTV 'gala special', er... that's about it - are in fact a bit of an ordeal. But, as I say, in that first year they had novelty value. And I was particularly glad that LG, a musician I'd recently met, arranged a dinner gathering on Spring Festival Eve - almost exclusively for 'foreign friends', who he knew would have nothing else to do that night. The food I recall being fairly horrible, and the wine even worse (a comedy fake Chinese variety that appeared to have been manufactured from erguotou and cochineal); but it was a fun gathering, and I made several interesting new acquaintances there - including DD, who was eventually to become one of my closest friends here (although I didn't see her again for two or three years after this!).

3)  Comparatively few fireworks
At that point there had been a ban on fireworks within the city limits of Beijing for several years, and it remained in place until 2006. It was widely ignored. There were actually quite a lot of fireworks being let off back in those days - but not the monstrous overkill we have to suffer today. Moreover, it was nearly all traditional firecrackers rather than the fancier mortars and rockets and volcanos and so on that we are now deluged with (and which become such a trial because they are often so poorly made, and almost invariably irresponsibly used: rockets tend to explode at a dangerously low height overhead, and often at ground level; fizzling misfires and delayed detonations are alarmingly common). Most of all, I think, it acquired an extra level of exhilaration from the fact that it was an outlaw activity, that kids were having to set them off furtively, while keeping a lookout for the armband-wearing neighbourhood monitors patrolling the hutongs to try to suppress this naughtiness.

4)  A random flirtation
After the dinner, we adjourned to the foreigner bar street of Sanlitun Nanjie (demolished a couple of years later), which was about the only place where anything was open that night. Just as my party were decamping to another bar on the strip, an improbably gorgeous Scandinavian girl came in through the door - apparently lost and alone. What could I do? While not exactly a crash-and-burn, it was not one of my more successful chat-ups either - but we nattered pleasantly for half an hour or so. Romance was evidently never going to be a possibility here, but we are still friends 9 years on.

5)  More randomness
The irresistible distraction of a gorgeous blonde had separated me from the rest of the group - and I couldn't find them again. At this point, I'd hardly ever been out on Nanjie; maybe once or twice before, at most (I couldn't afford to frequent foreigner bars in my first year or two here). So, I didn't know the bar they had said they were hitting up next. And I couldn't find it. Couldn't find them. And after briefly trying a couple of other bars on my own, and being severely unimpressed with them (I think that was one of only two occasions that I ever went in the notorious dive that was Pure Girl), I gave up on the evening and decided to head home. At least I had finally begun to familiarise myself with the Nanjie strip, an area that I would be starting to visit a little more often over the coming year.

6) A game of pool (or several)
However, it was barely 10pm, which did seem a little early to be calling it a day. And there were, of course, no cabs to be had, so I was likely to have to walk the whole 6 miles or so back to my college. I therefore decided to break my journey at the only foreigner bar I had developed any sort of 'regular' habit with at that point - Huxley's 2, a large-ish venue down by the south gate of the Workers' Stadium (it was a promising space, but suffered from a slightly out-of-the-way location and extremely patchy promotion; it lasted barely 6 months - eventually killed off by the SARS outbreak, although I don't think it would have survived much longer anyway). There was a young European guy there - Dutch or Belgian, I think, not sure now - who was supposed to be running a DJ night. But it probably hadn't been effectively advertised: there was no-one there - NO-ONE. The DJ was trying to remain upbeat about the prospects of people starting to show up around midnight - but no-one ever did. I bought him a drink to console him, and thrashed him on the pool table a couple of times. Then I started playing the staff - as I had before a number of times on slow nights (there were many slow nights in that place, so they'd all become quite good; Sammy the head barman was a formidable player, rather too good for me). That passed a very pleasant two or three hours. And then I decided to continue my journey home.

7)  Mellow thoughts
I'd had a wretched Christmas that year, with my mother dying a couple of weeks before, huge strife with my employer, a temporary holiday job in Tibet falling through... I'd been a bit of an emotional basketcase for the preceding three or four weeks. But there are few things as good as a long solitary walk very late at night for clearing the cobwebs out of your head: very restful, meditative, restorative.

8)  The spirit of Christmas Chunjie
When I finally got back to my college, the two teenage security guards in the sentry box at the front gate were looking particularly disconsolate. I imagine they'd tried to watch the traditional CCTV variety gala on their tiny black-and-white TV earlier; but now they were completely at a loose end, while all the rest of the city was revelling - and were probably desperately homesick, since they came from Shaanxi province, far to the west, and this was their first year working in the capital. On a sudden impulse of goodwill, I nipped up the street to a 24-hour convenience store to buy them a few beers and a bag of candy. The young lads almost wept with gratitude. I never again had any problems persuading them to open the gate for me 'after hours'.

Yep, I have very fond memories of that first Chunjie in China. Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns has been operating particularly ruthlessly since then.


KingTubby said...

Beijing fireworks. I barely survived a New Year in the Phillipines. Crikey, Mogadishu on a bad night would be small beer in comparison.

My worst CNY experience was setting off on the scooter to hit the dvd shops for my regular fix of Japanese yakuza movies to find the whole CBD totally deserted. I was gutted.

Question: can a person live long-term in Beijing and remain mostly normal?

The CNY recipe FROOG. Go to bed with a good book or someone who has read one.


Froog said...

I didn't realise you'd spent some time here, KT. Or were you talking about the CNY firework overload in other places you've visited?

It doesn't seem too bad here this year. Either people are being a bit more careful with their spending because fireworks - like everything else - have got so damned expensive in the last few years.... or the city government has introduced some sort of curfew, which people are mostly abiding by. It has been VERY quiet between 1am and 7am - which is a most welcome change from previous years.

But even in mid-evening when the mayhem is at its height, it's seemed just a little bit subdued - at least around my neighbourhood.

Or maybe I'm just not noticing it so much, because I've hardly been out of the apartment for the last three days.

I have plenty of books and CDs and DVDs to keep me distracted, but no female companionship, alas.

KingTubby said...

FROOG. Seven years in China, plus another two in Korea and Vietnam. I never had an adequate book supply in China but really pigged out on cinema. Fuzhou (a dump) where I lived for five years has the best quality bootleg dvds found anywhere in China. Think of any movie you want, and sooner or later you will find it for a dollar. I finished my film education there, and it was tremendous and did not revolve around hollywood dreck.

Totally regret selling off my Japanese film collection.

A couple of my film reviews.


japanese cinema...part one

Walked thru tubbyland customs with a 1000 of my best in a backpack. The bloody customs beagle went ape but it was only because I was carrying a packet of cashews. Paid the four-legged fucker out by treading on its paw when its handler's attention was distracted.

Froog said...

I have a soft spot for the golden oldies. There's a wonderful little store next to Beijing's Central Academy of drama where they have separate bins for Bergman, Hitchcock, John Ford.

I'm not optimistic about my chances of getting them out of the country, though. Customs checks on exit, rather than entry, have become a problem these days.