The threat of Wuhan coronavirus, notwithstanding, chez Shenzhen it’s been a strangely low-key beginning to the year of the rat or mouse or any other kind of rodentia that floats your boat. Squirrels and hamsters, moles and chinchillas with their long, long whiskers–any and all can appear on a happy new years card, although most are ordinary brown or white mice, and some are wearing breathing masks. Most public spaces have emptied out, events have been cancelled, and we’re at home eating dried persimmons, roasted chestnuts, and dumplings. Someone mentions that the night before they (and who are they?) locked down Wuhan, four million people departed the city. Some must have had advanced knowledge of the shutdown, but others must have been traveling for the New Year. After all, Wuhan is one of the four most important railway transit hubs in China; anyone on the Beijing-Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong high speed train went through Wuhan on their way north. We’ll see how (and when) they make their way back.
100 rmb notes and US C notes go together like boy and girl, like modernity and tradition, like Mao Zedong and Benjamin Franklin, like officialdom (guanfang) and society (minjian), like yang and yin. I was thinking about how in Shenzhen du jour tradition is being (re)constituted through economic reform–specifically, I was thinking about how tradition has become the vehicle that naturalizes the demolition of (unnatural) urbanized villages in a city long described as “lacking history,” and this matched New Years set shows up on the entrance to my apartment building. As with many symbols of Chimerica, gender suggests the multiple forms of power that create particular subject positions, especially in the figuring of ideal relationships, where even if the male, head-of-house holds money that is ostensibly worth less than the female, nevertheless, in Chimerica East the primacy of renminbi makes sense (cents) precisely because “tradition” keeps us in place.
Tonight, I was one of roughly 2,000 people who welcomed spring in Changling Village (长岭村) by eating pencai together. Like a wedding banquet, a pencai banquet constitutes society table by table. The hosts were the 40-odd families who belong to the village, and their guests came from the Hong Kong side of the family, affines from neighboring villages, friends, street office officials, and representatives from the developer who aims to transform Changling into high end real estate on the Shenzhen River. Continue reading
Yesterday, the mass movement of Chinese literally known as “Spring Shipping (春运)”, but could also be translated as Spring Rush began and will continue until February 24. This year it is estimated that there will be 3.6 billion one way trips made during these 40 days. This is roughly one round trip per Chinese person. Some people will make more than two one way trips, and some will stay in place, but the figures indicate the scale of movement as people travel to be with family or to have fun.
Today, the city felt emptier and it will continue apace until the end of the first week, or after the 15 the day of the first month.
Old Sui makes starkly whimsical woodblock prints the old fashioned modernist way — by hand, alone, and in a studio that is open to friends who drop by for tea and chats. He has collected over 1,000 teapots that when individually shelved and arranged seem oddly menacing. Not a first mind. At first, one sees artistry in the smooth lines and soft glow of each pot. However, as Old Sui opens a drawer to show part of the collection, and then another, and then says that the majority of the collection is elsewhere, the care and time necessary to make and care for a teapot gives way to numbers games and ranking; here are 50+ teapots, here are several dozens, the top twenty or so have been displayed on a shelf that stretches around the room.
And the rest?
In a room at home.
I know the feeling of insatiable desire. I also enjoy aesthetic displays of objects. But. I am not a collector. Learning that Old Sui has set aside a room for private delectation? The intimacy of this knowledge startles me and my eye settles on a teapot crafted in black clay with flecks of golden sand. Continue reading
Several clear signs that Shenzhen is gearing up for the holiday:
(1) Everyone is in overtime mode to finish work by the end of next week, so that they can get off as early as possible. New Year’s eve is Feb 9 and the first is Feb 10, but elementary students are already off and the streets have emptied significantly;
(2) Lunches and dinners with friends have increased as everyone is taking time to sit down and visit, which is somehow at odds with all the overtime that is being put in;
(3) The traffic cops are out confiscating motorbikes. It is only legal to ride motorbikes in small communities or campuses, it is illegal to ride motorbikes on the road or sidewalk. Every year, the traffic cops start hanging out at intersections and confiscating illegal bikes. I’m told the reason is to earn a little extra for the holiday by selling the bikes elsewhere. I’m also told that this has been going on for decades, and that when a friend of mine was in middle school, the cops hung out at intersections and snatched bicycles;
(4) Flowers have appeared at all the plant shops. The annual flower market is one of the highlights of a Guangdong New Year’s, and individuals purchase all sorts of lovely flowers for their balconies and homes;
(5) I’ve received warnings not to help children who say they are lost or need money to go home because the common sense is that they are part of some scam. I’ve been instructed to take the children to the nearest police station because if they are truly lost, they will go and if they are part of a scam, they will run away;
(6) Snakes of varying degrees of cuteness are on sale everywhere.
Yesterday, Bao’an District organized the second annual pounded biscuit festival (沓饼节). Pounded biscuits are a traditional local sweet that are especially popular at Chinese New Year’s. It so happens that a Shenzhen brand, 合成号 has been making said biscuits since 1901. The company celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011, and to kick off its next century, in 2012, it became the sponsor of Shenzhen’s latest festival.
Local historian, Mr. Liao Honglei (廖虹雷) invited me to join the celebration. Mr. Liao curated the event and has been active promoting local Chinese culture. He is particularly attentive to cultural differences between Cantonese, Hakka, and Chaozhou settlements. Shenzhen inhabitants from outside Guangdong, refer to Cantonese as “baihua (白话)”, or local language. In contrast, Mr. Liao makes a point of calling each of these cultural strands by their official names, Guangfu (广府 literally provincial capital of Guangdong), Hakka, and Chaozhou in order to draw attention to Bao’an’s heterogeneous roots.
Also present was special guest, Professor Wu Bing’an (乌丙安), an 86-year old specialist in Chinese folklore. Professor Wu began his discussion by explaining why he opposes calling Chinese New Year “Spring Festival”. On his analysis, festival (节 jie) refers to a date on the calendar. In contrast, year (年 nian) refers to a period of time. Thus, jie mark the passage of time within a given nian. Professor Wu said that in order to leave one year and enter the next, Chinese people need sound and color. After praising the reintroduction of noisy, pounding to make New Year’s biscuits, he mentioned that firecrackers were the traditional “sound” for sending off and greeting the new year. Professor Wu also complained that too many safety restrictions had made Chinese New Year too quiet.
Impressions of the pounded biscuit festival, below.
I’m in Tianjin, listening to the firecrackers that go from dusk well into the early hours of the morning. Traditionally, people set off firecrackers from New Year’s Eve through the Lantern Festival. Firecrackers also provided an opportunity for Tianjin friends to distinguish themselves from Cantonese people because “northerners love firecrackers more than southerners”. In fact, they said, the further north you go, the more festive the towns as firecrackers don’t stop.
I don’t actually know how much of my friend’s claim about northern enthusiasm for pyrotechnics is true. I do know that early on, Shenzhen attempted to outlaw firecrackers. In fact, I remember buying illegal firecrackers and setting them off at the coast. We drove with a truck full of illegal poppers to houhai land reclamation area, snuck out, and set them off. This year and last, however, I’ve noticed stands selling firecrackers because — according to a friend — the SZ Municipal government finally accepted the fact that it was safer to sell legal firecrackers and regulate production than the alternative.
I’m also told that people set of firecrackers just to “burn money”. Last year, the economy was good and people celebrated by “burning money”. However, this year I’m told that there are fewer people willing to buy firecrackers because of economic difficulties. Nevertheless, everyone I’ve talked with has set off firecrackers or played with sparklers; we bought a box of fireworks and watched them light up the sky for all of five minutes. New Year’s — relatives and friends emphasize — is the People’s holiday. In contrast, on National Day, only the government willingly burns money and, my friend joked, those fireworks are of different quality.