Qixi - a traditional Chinese festival which has evolved over the past decade or so into a "Chinese Valentine's Day" (and you can imagine how much I detest that idea!) - fell a couple of weeks ago this year. I had been thinking of writing something about it then, but I had no Internet access. In fact, I had been meaning to write something about it last year, but didn't get around to it because I was travelling a lot in August. So, this post is 13 months late. Ah, well.
Last year, "Lovers' Day" came around rather earlier, near the start of August. Its date is set by the Chinese lunar calendar - the easily memorable 7:7, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.
I happened to be down in Yunnan at that time, and had been happily unaware of the imminent tsunami of slush. But as I wandered around Kunming on a sultry summer's evening, it became very obvious what was looming. Almost every shop seemed to have converted from its usual business into being a florist's for the day. Either that or a teddy bear shop. Or a chocolate shop. Many places were covering all three options, with huge displays of teddy bears, boxes of chocolates, and flowers outside. Many were also touting heart-shaped helium balloons. On more than one occasion, someone had thought it cute to suspend a teddy bear from a bunch of balloons with a string knotted around its throat. To me this seemed macabre, like some coded gangland threat - and a sinister omen for the night of "romance" ahead.
Bars and cafés were all hoping for a bumper night. Many had forests of pink helium-filled balloons outside, sometimes even fashioned into heart-shaped arches, to advertise their festive spirit.
But their hopes, it seemed, were being disappointed. Every single one I passed was completely deserted. The bar touts mooched dejectedly outside on the sidewalks, fretting that their labours all afternoon in erecting balloon arches had been wasted.
Still, it was early in the evening. Perhaps things would pick up later, after sundown. I decided to distance myself from all the balloon-festooned venues, and retired to one of the few restaurants that appeared to be having no truck with this nonsense.
I was upstairs, reading a book, not paying very much attention to my surroundings. I was vaguely aware that the sun had gone down, and that there had been a rising amount of foot traffic on the street outside. Then I was roused from my reverie by a sudden ROAR from down the street. It sounded like the growl of an angry mob, and my first thought was that two groups of lads were about to have a rumble - perhaps provoked by an argument over a young lady. But then I realised that the noise was not outside on the street, but inside a nearby bar. In fact, there were similar noises coming from almost every bar. Now that I started listening, I realised that there were sounds of agitation coming from downstairs in my own venue - so I went down to investigate.
I had quite forgotten, but the Italian Super Cup - the showpiece opening game of the Italian football season, between the winners of the previous year's league and cup titles - was being played in Beijing that day, between the two Milan giants, AC and Internazionale. The game was live on TV, and of course everyone was watching it.
So much for Qixi! I suppose it is possible that young couples might have arranged to go out together after the game. But that seemed unlikely: the crowds of football watchers were almost exclusively male, and after an evening of exciting bonding with their guy pals - and consuming rather more beer than the limited Asian alcohol capacity can cope with - the prospects for an intimate à deux with the girlfriend appeared severely unpromising.
I was strangely gratified to find that for the young urban Chinese male football trumps "romance" so emphatically. That is as it should be.