Happy Niu Year, part 1

Once again, the Chinese Spring Festival is upon us. Most Beijing residents who are from other cities in China have returned to their home towns, leaving the city oddly depopulated but far from quiet. As in the last two years, firework madness has taken hold of the city.

This is the Year of the Ox, and the word for ox (also cow and beef) is niu 牛, so we’re getting a little pun on some seasonal signs. There’s a beef and dairy company called Meng Niu (Meng here refers to Inner Mongolia, where they are based) which is especially using the slogan. (The Chinese phonetic spelling niu is actually pronounced nyo, like yo with an n tacked on the beginning of it, but it’s still close enough for a bilingual pun.)

One exception to the pattern of returning to hometowns is a friend of mine, and she very kindly invited me to New Year’s Eve dinner at her place. She and her mother, originally from the Shanghai area, live nearby and have not gone south for the holiday. They fixed a wonderful meal for me, the first time I’ve been invited into a Chinese home for a taste of non-restaurant food.
I was told that the tradition is to have ten dishes, which of course is way too much food for three people. Especially when one of them stays in the kitchen the whole time! Since their stove has only two burners, making ten dishes is more of a serial than a parallel process (to venture into computer metaphors). My friend’s mom kept cooking away (and I think I heard the sounds of cleaning as well) while we ate.

The picture was taken when eight dishes had been served. Shrimp, small whole crabs, roast beef, little pieces of ribs, chicken wings, a dish with squid and vegetables, and one with pork and vegetables are on the table along with a crock of soup. Still to come were broccoli and dumplings. And because in China too much is never enough, we also had some steamed buns with sweet fillings. We were so full we never even touched the soup.

With so many pieces of dishware being used to serve food, there was nothing left for us to eat off of, so we took food directly from the dishes with our chopsticks and put the shells and such on the table. Everything was quite tasty. I had to wonder about the predominance of meat. Was that for my benefit, special for the holiday, or what?

After dinner we watched the CCTV Spring Festival Gala on TV. There were a few times when I could tell what they were talking about, if not all the details. The two pandas recently given to Taiwan were mentioned a lot. I kept hearing their names, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan. Finally the show got too corny for my friend and we decided to take a walk to work off dinner.
We entered a wasteland of fireworks debris.
As before, the pyromaniacs were out in force, openly displaying their obsession.
Across the street, we saw a big bunch of fireworks go off close to the ground. They looked like the kind of big colorful explosive things that are supposed to go off way up in the air. Soon flames leaped up from the shrubs next to the sidewalk. You can see a guy bringing a fire extinguisher. They soon had the fire out and went on with their fun.
A little further on our walk we came to the famous Gongti Xilu club area. There weren’t many people in the dance clubs, but the lights were going, competing with the fireworks going off around them. Along this street, there were fire extinguishers sitting about every ten meters or so along the sidewalk.

After we finished our circuit around Workers Stadium, we went back to their apartment and watched the rest of the Gala. I thought it was very interesting (especially after all the talk about the pandas sent to Taiwan) that the closing performance of the show, which started at about 12:30, was by a band (yes, and actual band, with guitars and drums) consisting of four famous Taiwanese singers from the 80s. My friend pointed out that when China started opening up to the outside world and discovering pop music, it had no music industry of its own, so most of the music came from Taiwan and Hong Kong. And since most Taiwanese pop was in Mandarin, as opposed to the Cantonese from Hong Kong, many of the songs from Taiwan are still well known today.

I am somewhat familiar with one of the singers, Luo Dayou (罗大佑 sometimes written Lo Ta-yu), and know that many of his songs have in the past been considered too politically outspoken for Mainland consumption. But the ones he sang for this Gala seemed to be well known to all the people in the audience.

I am sure that the Gala organizers were well aware of the symbolism of giving a Taiwanese artist such a place in the program (though honestly I think a lot of viewers switch off after midnight and might have missed it). And the performers are also aware of it, so it’s obviously a mutual agreement. Certainly these musicians could have declined the offer if they had problems with it.

Anyway, in my next post I’ll continue with more Spring Festival activities, and then catch up on some of what has gone in in the overly long time since my last post.

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