Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Spring Festival Survival Kit

Whether you're a newcomer to China or just completely clueless regarding what's in store for the next week or so, here comes something to make sure you don't miss out on the festivities and frantic craziness that is Chinese New Year. For one thing, take some advice from Andrew Hustad, an experienced laowai: "Stay as far away as humanly possible from the train and bus stations. Everyone in China travels home for the holidays, so imagine the largest crowd you've ever seen, and multiply that by a thousand." The Chinese New Year or "Spring Festival" signals the largest human migration on the planet as native Chinese from all over the world return to their hometowns to enjoy reunion dinners and a week of vacation. So take it from us, stay put in Beijing and make use of this survival kit; you'll not only survive, but enjoy all that Beijing has to offer.

Blow something up

According to legend, there was once a beast -- the fearsome Nian --which would come down from the mountains, sneak into people's houses and devour whomever it could get its claws on. The only things the Nian was scared of were the color red and extremely loud noises. Beijing residents were easy pickings for the Nian before 2005 when the ban on fireworks inside the city was lifted. So light up like there's no tomorrow, just be careful not to blow a finger off. The Beijing Government is even instituting special 30-minute no-traffic zones inside the 5th Ring Road beginning at 11:45 PM on February 17. Cars will not be allowed to drive through any one of 64 select communities (the number could increase to 100) so that people will be free to blow up as much as possible. To get your hands on some fireworks, go to any one of 2,500 designated stands around town. They're easy to spot. But we recommend you head out beyond the fifth ring to Huairou to score the best stuff.

Eat and drink like a pig

Baijiu: Anywhere from 80 to 120 proof, this potent potable is available in a myriad of different varieties and flavors. This is the stuff you want if your idea of ringing in the New Year is blacking out while singing terrible KTV. Two brands come especially recommended: Wulianghe Maotai and Kongfu Jiajiu (the stuff Confucius would drink with his mates).

Dumplings: Spring Festival is a time for families to make and eat dumplings together. It symbolizes togetherness. Mrs. Huang, a newly arrived expatriate, discovered first hand at a Din Tai Fung class that "they are indeed tricky little things to make. What I learned is that it's not so much the secret recipe as it is the technique." Make your own, buy frozen ones or order a plate from quality restaurants like Hongmao Jiaozi (Tel: 6495-9311) or Gu Zhen Huang (Tel: 6613-9641).

Niangao:"Sticky cakes" or "year cakes" are a sweet treat especially enjoyed during Spring Festival. While not exactly a traditional favorite in Beijing (they're more popular in southern China), you should give them a taste regardless. If you're lucky enough to snag one shaped like a fish, you'll be rich and prosperous in the coming year.

Get the gear

Hongbao: These "red envelopes" are presented as gifts to children and loved ones (even ayi's) during the New Year. While the red on the outside symbolizes good luck, they're packed with green, blues and reds. Ka-ching!

Chunlian: A temporary decoration placed on the entrances to homes containing happy, uplifting or hopeful messages about the coming year. The first line is on the right side, the second line on the left and a third line placed on the top. It is also common to hang an upside 'fu' in the middle which carries with it connotations of good fortune. Lito Zhang, native Beijinger, says, "It's very important that every year we decorate the house with chunlian. Equally important is to watch the CCTV Spring Festival TV show aired on Feb. 18. Every Chinese family does this while having dinner; it's a modern tradition."

Where to use it

The Chinese Culture Club rediscovers lost New Year's traditions by taking over a small suburb just outside the city for a day of fun and festivities. Director Feng Cheng likens the annual outing to "something like shooting a film." Check it out on Monday, Feb. 19 from 9 AM to 4 PM RMB 150/per person. Tel: 6432-9341, or check For those in the mood for a truly Chinese experience, we recommend you check out any one of the city's numerous temple fairs. These virtual carnivals are fun for the whole family, featuring all kinds of special games, foods, and performances. They typically begin Feb. 18 and last anywhere from a couple days to half a month. Admission doesn't run more than RMB 10, and parks are typically open from 9 AM -- 5 PM Tel: 6714-4336 (Longtanhu Park); 6336-0067 (Baiyunguan) or 6354-4994 (Daguanyuan).

What NOT to do

Do not sweep the floor for the entirety of the Spring Festival. If you do, all of your good luck and fortune for the coming year will be swept away.

It's unlucky to talk about death for the first few days of Spring Festival. Even if someone drops dead in front of you, change the topic of conversation.

On New Year's Eve, at the stroke of midnight, every door and window should be flung open to let the new year in and the old year out (as well as whatever that smell is coming from the fridge).

Make sure to get your hair cut before Spring Festival, because even getting a light trim during the holiday is considered bad luck. To avoid any problems, we recommend shaving your entire head before the New Year even begins.

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