Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hu nian kuai le

Hu nian kuai le; or as they say in Guangdong, Kung hei fat choi.

It’s the end of the spring festival holiday in China. After a week of festivities, millions of people are wending their way back to work. Come Monday, and life will be back to the routine. The overwhelming feeling is akin to a schoolgirl having to go back to school after the summer vacation.

It is rather a strange feeling being in Guangzhou during this period. It's my third spring festival in China and I still haven’t got over this strangeness. For Guangzhou is half empty at this period as everybody who’s from elsewhere in China goes back home for the new year celebrations.

This period sees the largest human migration in the world. Some 200 million people leave their place of work and go home for the festival. As China is full of migrant labour who have come from for work, this number balloons every year. Imagine the challenge of transporting 200 million people in a week. And then a week later transporting them back. Amazing. Even though I come from a country where crowds are usual, I am still open mouthed at the sheer number involved here.

Spring festival is a period when the family congregates at home. Somewhat like Christmas in other parts of the world. It is not unusual in rural China that both the mother and father have gone to work in different cities of the country. The children are left with the grandparents. And the spring festival holiday is almost the only time the husband and wife meet each other as well as get to see their child. No wonder, despite rain and snow, people will do anything to get back home.

But in Guangzhou, it’s a very strange period. The city is empty, for half its usual population has gone away. The roads are empty; the shops are deserted. Fireworks, a critical part of the celebration is banned in Guangzhou. The Chinese are the world leaders in fireworks – even Diwali has to take second place when it comes to defeaning and amazing fireworks. So, while most of China is suffering from sore eardrums, Guangzhou is eerily silent. Its hard to kindle a festive atmosphere in Guangzhou.

Being an expat, one of things you miss is festival time. When its Diwali, it feels odd to go to work as if it’s a normal day and not have the festive cheer. But at least you can make up by enjoying the local festivals. Unfortunately in Guangzhou, even that is denied – the still, empty and quiet spring festival is a, sort of, let down.

There’s a quaint tradition here. Come Feb, in every shop, you’ll see red underwear all over the place. The belief here is that if you are a tiger and this is the year of the tiger, you may get bad luck. To ward off ill luck and bring some of the good variety, you are supposed to wear something red all through the year. But men wearing red is somewhat odd – so the tradition has been interpreted to mean that its OK to wear red underwear ! Hence all the red underwear in the shops !!

Well, I am a tiger, but ……… . Hu nian kuai le (Happy year of the tiger).