Celebrating The Chinese New Year In Kunming, China

Feting The New Year Of The Sheep In Kunming, China

Paul and I are in China celebrating Chinese New Year in Kunming, China.

The first thing we noticed: No one showed up.

Not here, anyway, in center-city Kunming. Some 300 million Chinese packed onto trains, buses, and planes so they could celebrate with family. Many returned to villages. Center-city Kunming, rebuilt over the past decade, represents the future. For the holiday, Chinese cleared out rather than showed up.

Kunming started slowing down a couple of days before New Year’s. Small restaurants put signs on locked doors encouraging us to return in 10 days. By New Year’s Eve about half of the downtown district had shut down, while probably 90% of businesses, factories, and restaurants closed in the rest of Kunming. All will stay closed for 3 to 10 days.

Our hotel emptied out. The regular breakfast buffet, included in our room price, shut down during the official three-day holiday. The front desk provided a simple boxed breakfast instead. Before New Year’s Eve we shopped to make sure we had plenty of goodies on hand, but it turns out that supermarkets in our area stayed open even during the holidays.

Paul and I spent New Year’s Eve doing what most Chinese do, some 700 million or more around the world, based on last year’s figures. We watched TV. Every year since 1983, Chinese TV has presented a glitzy gala.

We started with a half-hour of world news on China’s English-language CCTV news station. We watch the news most days. The station presents timely news that matters, rather than simply news that happens to lead to the most dramatic video.

At 8 o’clock the gala got under way and continued nonstop until just after midnight. English-language CCTV offered a special edition of the gala. A host and two guests explained what was going on and related it to Chinese culture. English-language captions on the bottom of the screen translated the lyrics. The first series of songs reminded me of so many fortune cookies, with good fortune, happiness, prosperity, the usual stuff.

Later on, the songs told love stories, glorified China, honored family, and gently taught moral behavior. One online site said, “No other cultural event serves as such rich fodder for water cooler conversation after Chinese families return to the office after spring festival.”

Paul and I especially enjoyed the acrobatics. Cirque du Soleil must be watching the show to see the newest stunts. One young boy stood on one leg on a man’s head while wrapping his other leg around his own head. A 6-year-old girl did 40 flips in just a few seconds, every one perfect. Chinese have been selecting and training acrobats for 2,000 years, all focused on strength and balance.

The English program’s host explained that Chinese love noise, crowds, and bustle. We’ve noticed. It wears us down. Supermarkets hire what we call frenzy makers—girls who choke the aisles offering tastes of food, helping shoppers find what they want, and more generally, doing nothing other than keeping the place feeling buzzed. Grocery stores stayed unusually quiet during the official three days of the festival, with few frenzy makers anywhere. Those who work during the festival collect triple time, so perhaps frenzy makers became too expensive.

After two hours the English edition of the gala went off the air. We changed channels and watched both the show in Chinese and the fireworks outside our 17th-story window. Firecrackers, connected on long fuses that blast away for several minutes, started before the sun set. In the old days fireworks warded off evil spirits, but now it seems they show off disposable income.

On New Year’s Day Paul and I walked to Green Lake Park and discovered that all of Kunming seemed to congregate there. On our way home we bought dumplings, the traditional festival food. Along with a billion Chinese, we toasted the New Year and its heralding of peace and harmony.

Vicki Terhorst

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