Thursday, February 28, 2008

Doing The Lantern Festival right

I've often heard the complaint - from Chinese friends as well as from expats - that Beijing doesn't really know how to celebrate the Spring Festival (the Lunar New Year - China's major annual holiday, just passed for another year). It's not that Beijingers don't let off a lot of fireworks - THEY DO. But that seems to be all that they do; there's almost no public show of festivity apart from this, no kind of communal celebration.

Perhaps it's the fact that Beijing these days is so much a city of non-Beijingers: I would guess that perhaps as much as half the population leaves to return to their original hometowns over this holiday period, and the capital can often seem like something of a ghost town. Perhaps it's that a nervous government is hesitant to condone mass public gatherings (although you get some pretty enormous crowds down on Tiananmen Square for the dawn flag-raising ceremony on the major holidays). Perhaps there were large gatherings here on the Square or in some of the parks - but I've never heard of or witnessed such a thing. For Beijingers, the holiday seems to be only a private celebration, strictly within the family. Fireworks are let off in courtyards and from rooftops and balconies and out in the street - but are there any major 'public' firework displays? Perhaps some, but I wasn't aware of them. And the lanterns that are traditionally supposed to mark the end of the main phase of the celebrations, at the mid-point of the 1st lunar month - well, for some reason, Beijing doesn't seem to bother with them.

Harbin, on the other hand, was lantern-crazy: dozens and dozens of them bedecking every building, whether restaurants, malls, or government offices. And hundreds upon hundreds of the flying balloon-lanterns (the glowing red cube near the centre of the picture above is one) were being released. [These seem to be a relatively recent innovation; and yes, we have them in Beijing too, but I rather doubt there were anywhere near as many here as I saw in Harbin last Thursday.]

And the fireworks! Wow! Yes, there were the usual individual frenzies of pyromania, with every man, woman, and child blowing a small fortune on firecrackers and rockets - but there were also numerous small but more concerted displays. It seemed as though every major hotel, restaurant, or shopping mall in the downtown area had arranged a little show of its own; in the early evening, almost every sidestreet off the main drag of Zhongyang Dajie was for a while ablaze with batteries of rockets streaking into the sky. It was quite breathtaking. That just doesn't happen in Beijing.

And it was very much a public, a communal celebration. The frozen Songhua river was thronged with people. The riverbank for a mile or more either side of the central focus of the Flood Control Monument (above) was thronged with people. All the streets leading to this area were thronged with people. It was mighty hard for my travelling companions and I to fight against this human tide surging riverwards, and to find a cab to take us to the station to catch our train back to stuffy old Beijing
.... something we did with considerable regret.

It was a tremendous atmosphere that night last week in Harbin. I think I might go back there for Spring Festival next year.


Tulsa said...

wow, what a treat. you're right about the odd lack of public holiday displays in Beijing. And, yes, yes, the fireworks abound (my lungs attest to this -- the smoke! the smoke!) but beyond that there is nothing.

For Lantern Festival I made a serious effort to find some Beijing display of holiday festivities --- and completely failed. every attempt surfaced amazing lantern festivals in cities across China, but not in Beijing. Finally, settling on meeting with friends for dinner, I took a cab to my destination, only to find, en route, as i absently stared out the cab window, one side street COMPLETELY bedazzled with purple colored lanterns!

We sped by too fast and I didn't discover the answers to any of my questions: 1. why purple? 2. why that street (it was a residential side street between the 2nd and 3rd Ring Roads)? 3. How to return there en mass with the dinner companions? 4. and why not the rest of the city?

For any who've been to my namesake - Tulsa - and done the obligatory Christmas Lights show tour of Rhema Bible Church gardens, you will know just how massive a display that little side street had. For the rest of you, no doubt your imaginations will fail you.

Froog said...

Ah, there you are! How are the hols?

Thanks for that link - will have to go and take a look.