Xinnian kuaile!

Written 15 February 2007

That’s “Happy New Year” for the non-Mandarin speakers out there (like me). There are apparently quite a few different common expressions for the occasion, just like Americans say “Merry Christmas,” “Seasons greetings,” “Happy holidays,” and so on. (And as a rough guide, xinnian kuaile is pronounced shin yen kweye luh.)

Sometimes I swear I’m going to turn my head and see Rod Serling standing in the doorway. And for those of you too young to understand that reference – go look it up. And the really odd thing is thinking that as strange as it may seem to me, this is perfectly normal to the people who live here. At least I think it is. Maybe this New Year is different from any other.

As most of you are probably aware, the Chinese New Year is coming up very soon here. Sunday, in fact. In China, they mostly call it Spring Festival, and pretty much everyone takes at least a week off. We’ve all seen pictures of dragon costumes, fireworks, and other elaborate celebrations, so I’m looking forward to experiencing it here, as opposed to seeing a in small community in an American city. When I’ve asked locals for places to go and things to see, like where to catch fireworks displays, they mostly downplay the whole thing. Most people visit their families during Spring Festival, and like most big cities, a large part of the population is actually from somewhere else. From the way they talk, Beijing will be largely empty. I suspect otherwise – when there are this many million people, not all of them can leave.

Certainly there are decorations up everywhere. Red lanterns adorn almost every building, and paper cutouts of elaborately dressed characters (mostly small children or old men it seems) are tacked up on windows and walls.
This display at a nearby shopping center is one of the most interesting. A couple of months ago this little structure housed a Christian Nativity scene. Now the baby has been replaced by jolly pink pigs, now looking a little worse for the dust. Of course, this new year is the Year of the Pig in the Chinese zodiac – not just a normal pig, but the Golden Pig, which happens only every 60 years. It is an especially auspicious year, and those born in the year of the Golden Pig are said to be destined for very good things. Anyone turning 60 this year – how has it worked out for you?
There have been loud fireworks most nights for the last week or so. It’s only legal for private citizens to do fireworks at certain times on certain days (just like we regulate the Fourth of July in the US), but either these are illegal or some sort of organizations with special permission. Anyway, loud booms go one for the longest time, and sometimes you hear car alarms going off after. BOOM! Meep-meep-meep-meep! BOOM! Meep-meep-meep-meep!

17 February 2007, 23:30
And tonight, New Year’s Eve, it’s been a constant roar for the last two hours. I am not exaggerating. I can hardly make out the individual bangs from the incessant explosions. And it’s not organized professional shows either. It’s tens of thousands of individual people buying ridiculously large fireworks and setting them off all across the city. I’ve seen the stands that sell them, and some of the canisters are as big around as my thigh. To repeat: I am not exaggerating.

It is simply mind-boggling, the amount of firepower being expended in the skies of this city tonight. And then I think about the fact that there are many cities in China bigger than Beijing, and the same thing is most likely happening in all of them. Surely this spectacle is visible from space.
Photographing fireworks is always a hit-or-miss proposition, and I took over a hundred digital shots to get these few decent ones. Keep in mind that these are 20-story buildings and amateur pyrotechnicians.
From talking with some of my Chinese coworkers, I’ve learned that in many ways, the Lunar New Year in China is more like American Christmas in that it’s mainly a family thing, not a party thing like New Year in America or Europe. But they have fireworks kind of like the American Fourth of July.
And on TV is the Spring Festival Gala, which I can testify from direct observation is widely watched. Looking out my window, I can see big screens in other apartments showing the same thing I see on mine. Luckily it’s also on the English-language channel with a combination of dubbing and subtitles, so I can usually tell what’s going on. It’s one of the biggest TV events of the year, and performers vie for the coveted spots as career-makers. It’s a bizarre (to me) combination of big production numbers, comedy skits, and corny banter. And touching at times, like when a group of adorable schoolchildren recited a piece about how the students in poor rural schools want to study hard and please their parents and help their communities. I saw many misty eyes in the audience, and the co-hostess had to dab away a tear when setting up the next act.
One of the stranger parts was a salute to the military, which included a nostalgic song about soldiers wanting to excel at target practice to please Chairman Mao, which was followed by dancing pilots carrying model jets. Of course, we Americans like to celebrate and salute our military as well, but I can’t recall ever seeing dancing jet pilots.

And back to the fireworks… I saw a fire truck cruising the streets when I was out earlier. Now I know why.

It’s now after 2:30, and the fireworks are still going on, though at a slightly lower roar. Around midnight I put my shoes back on and took the camera outside. At the entrance to Seasons Park there was a small crowd of people with a large amount of flammable material. The sound here was deafening.

At one point I saw a taxi come up the drive, stop, and scurry away from the firestorm in reverse.
And I’m glad this fellow was invited to the party.

At no point in this post was I exaggerating.


  1. xinnian kuaile to you too! hope you get lots of lucky red packets!! hehe

    I envy you getting to watch those chinese new year shows. I think they are available on vcd or dvd after the holiday. It takes months before they make it to seattle.

    lucky you!

    have fun and get some rest.

    Cheers!! oink oink!!

  2. Today it's off to find the dragon dancing. After a little lunch trip to KFC, I'm heading out to Chaoyang Park to see what it's like. Camera battery charged? Check! Extra memory? Check! Comfortable shoes? Check!

    Let's go!