Welcome to the Year of the Rat

What a privilege to be IN China at Chinese New Year. This year the lunar festival falls very close on the heels of Christmas as we welcome in the Year if the Rat (mice included) so we only had three weeks back at work before having another holiday. Mind you I could get used to a pattern of three weeks off and three weeks on!!

The festival spans 15 days with different events being marked but all of them centre around the family. Everywhere is full of red. It’s all very bright and festive. This is our local supermarket

Here are some fun facts:

Legend has it that there was a beast called Nian who would terrorize a village every New Year’s Eve stealing livestock. The concerned villagers discovered that Nian was frightened of fire, loud bangs and the colour red so they hung red peach wood plaques by their doors, lit fires along the roadside and banged sticks loudly to frighten Nian away. This was successful and this forms the basis of the cultural traditions of wearing lucky red and set off fireworks.

Lots of decorations resemble strings of firecrackers. Unfortunately due to pollution concerns fireworks are banned. I am glad as personally I think they are a waste of money…

Every house is swept clean as families prepare for the festival. This is to remove all the old bad luck and originated from the ancient ritual of epidemic elimination.

On the 23rd day of the lunar month, legend has it that the kitchen god will report to the Jade Emperor all the good and bad deeds of the family. So people make many offerings to their kitchen god in the hope that these good deeds will outweigh any negative ones from the past year. Offerings include rice cakes, sweets or Tofu. Rich in nutrients tofu can be cooked in many different ways and in the past was useful during times of food shortages. This is an indispensable delicacy at New Year.

It is traditional for every family to hang the character’Fu’ on their door. Fu means happiness and fortune. Some paste this character upside down deliberately because the character for ‘upside down happiness’ sounds the same as ‘happiness arrives’.

Some doors also have spring festival couplets. Originally on planks made from red wood, nowadays they are just on red paper. Our landlord gave us some. Apologies for the dark picture but our hallway is very poorly lit. I have no idea what they say or even if we have hung them the right way round!!!

Here are some freshly painted couplets drying outside the calligraphy shop

As New Year arrives people bathe and put on new clothes. New clothes are lucky but they are even more valuable than that, apparently they help to remove evil spirits! (I knew I was doing the right thing with all that retail therapy!!!)

An interesting tradition is to pay attention to your words and actions during the festival period. Lucky words are favored such as an ‘Year of peace and unity’. This hanging sign says something about having a year of abundance.

To avoid accidents people refrain from using sharp objects and even go so far as to avoid putting any rubbish outside.

Money is the traditional gift from elders in the family to unmarried youngsters. This carries the hopes of the older generation that the younger ones will be healthy and free from trouble during the forthcoming year. As red symbolizes luck the money is given in red envelopes.

This shopping mall had a display with red packets being blown about inside. On our part we are expected to give our Ayi a months’ salary as a bonus. Fortunately for us Amy comes only half a day a week; some families find this expensive! Mind you Amy is so good I don’t begrudge it.

The Spring Festival Temple Fair is a folk culture event. This is where you can see stilt walkers, boat dancers and the lion acrobats who seem to defy gravity with an astonishing nimbleness. It is when they throw the small children into the air that my heart is in my mouth.

At school with all the concerns about the corona virus our CNY assembly was canceled but the performers walked through the corridors so that all the children could still see them.

The 15th day brings the first full moon and this point symbolizes the start of spring. Known as the Lantern Festival people gather to eat sticky rice balls, admire the beauty of the lanterns and to solve riddles. This part of the festival originated from the sacrificial celebrations of ancient courts and temples.

The main feature of the Lantern Festival is the Dragon dance. In China, the dragon is a divine creature that represents auspiciousness while also being the master of wind and rain. The dragon dance is not only to seek the dragon’s blessing but also to wish for a good harvest in the coming year.

The food is sumptuous and meals can last anything up to 6 hours! I was gifted some of this

It’s a type of sticky rice called 8 treasures. It symbolizes abundance and it is huge so you feel absolutely stuffed after eating it!

The streets and malls are highly decorated, just like we do at Christmas. This is outside our apartment

Lots of events have been cancelled this year due to the virus. All public gatherings are banned. It’s a worrying time. The Lunar new year in China is the world’s largest mass migration as people travel to be with family.

Let’s hope that the disease is contained and that the world can return to normal as soon as possible. The rat is the first animal of the Chinese zodiac and symbolizes new beginnings. Let’s hope that we are not ushering in a whole new era of pandemic!

Hi Hot Pot

On the eve of Chinese New Year’s Eve we finished school at lunchtime so my team took Kevin & I out for a meal.

The Hi Hot Pot is an extremely popular venue and bookings are recommended well in advance to secure a table.

This is a restaurant with a difference. As well as the food you can also have your nails done as part of the price

And have your shoes polished

Some branches also give head and should massages at the table (but not this one unfortunately)

And as for the food itself it was a veritable smorgasbord. You basically choose a soup which is kept hot and you cook the meat, fish and veg of your choice in it. We had a tomato one and a chicken and mushroom one.

As you can see there was LOADS.

Here Kevin is eating the green one (which I thought tasted like grass) which is healthy for your skin.

Helen and Amanda had squid (not my thing)

And we all had hot soya milk with some fried dough dipped in

As well as all that I was fascinated by the robot trolleys which the kitchen dispatched from time to time to deliver extra dishes to a table. They stopped if anyone came near them.

And then we had a noodle making demo and dance. You can see the robot trolley waiting in the background.

What an amazing cultural experience! We are totally stuffed now. And we even received good luck charms as a gift.

We cannot believe our good fortune.

Baby, it’s cold outside

We came to China knowing that we would have winter here. We were actually looking forwards to having seasons again after the year long relentless heat and humidity levels in Thailand. Don’t get me wrong, the heat was lovely but sometimes a bit much especially when you have to work in it!

Anyway, we knew that it would get cold here but then again, we’re British. Weather is our thing. We have done cold before. We will be ok. Obviously we needed our winter togs and we managed to dig some jumpers etc out of storage and schlep them over here at Christmas, which was great We had to invest in new coats though but that’s ok. The fake market here had loads on offer.

We actually like a bit of cold weather and have traveled to Iceland before now and with the right kit you can wrap up, keep warm and venture out into any weather. We’re British after all? We do all sorts of weather all the time!

And what did we find when we got here? Yes it does get cold, the temperatures do drop and sometimes to zero. Yesterday it was 6 and today it is forecast to be 3 degrees all day.

It is a nice crisp cold, not the infernal dampness that characterized our stay in the north west at Christmas. Although it can and does rain here. It’s not the pervasive depressing damp of home.

But… and it is a big BUT, the cold is great as long as you can get out of it. One thing which China doesn’t do very well is central heating!!!!! Or at least not in our building. We have a two-bedroom flat which is quite spacious by Shanghai standards with only one heater and a blower at that!!!

This behemoth of a machine is both air conditioner in the summer and heating in the winter. There are no draught excluders round the door and no double glazing; do you get the picture?

Now you would think that a country capable of building bullet trains which travel in comfort at 400 kph could also put timers on their heaters…but no. Something as simple as being able to have the heating come on for half an hour before you get up in the morning to take the chill off the air just DOESN’T HAPPEN. Some of the luxury housing complexes here do have underfloor heating but not us.

So this means that we wake up to perishing cold. We sprint across freezing floors and jig around waiting the 7 minutes for the warm water to come through in the shower. It’s tough, like living in pre-war conditions. And we are so not used to that (1st world problems!).

The Chinese are ‘hard’, their attitude is to put more clothes on! And I guess that the rest of the world should be grateful that the vast population here is not burning fuel and discharging even more CO2 into the atmosphere with winter heating.

On the plus side the monster heater does heat the main room up quite well and if we leave the bedroom door open it warms everything evenly. We have just had to invest in extra blankets for the night times.

It makes me laugh though when we do venture outside and see all the scooters. Here people don’t wear leathers for winter biking. Instead they wrap themselves in special Biker duvets. These come in quite a range of colours and designs.

This one is very colour co-ordinated

At the start of winter in ancient China, the Emperor would take a shower and eat no meat before performing the ‘welcoming winter’ ceremony with his court.

Legend has it that at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (AD25-220) “medical saint” Zhang Zhongjing saves many people from a typhoid epidemic and their wars from being frost-bitten at the start of winter. He cooked mutton, hot peppers and herbs to dispel the cold and to increase body heat. He wrapped these ingredients into a dough skin and made them into an ear shape. Since the, people have learned to make the food which became known as a ‘dumpling’. Today in China there is still a saying “eat dumplings on the start of winter or your ears will be frost-bitten”. Personally I am happy to eat dumplings all year round as they are delicious.

Technically spring is due to arrive at the end of March this year but traditionally the Chinese New Year festival, which is happening next week, also known as the Spring Festival, heralds the first day of spring on New Year’s Day. We are skeptical about that but looking forwards to the start of the warmer weather soon.