Chinese New Year, like Christmas, is a time to be with family, to return to your home village to celebrate. Every Spring Festival, the millions of rural migrants who live in Shanghai, many working as labourers and domestic workers, make their way to the four corners of China to be re-united with their families, often after a year or even years apart. They may have been working in Shanghai without a chance for a break, fathers away from children, mothers away from babies, husbands and wives separated. Back home the grandparents and older extended family are caring for the children – sending them to school, cooking their meals and tending to them while their parents work in the city, far away.
The point of departure for many is Shanghai Railway Station, in the city’s North, so I visited there on Friday morning to get a glimpse of this very busy annual pilgrimage. It’s only 9am, still early, but the homeward-bound arrive, on foot, by bus and by subway, in their thousands, spilling out onto the station’s immense stone forecourt with a year’s-worth of luggage, and gifts for family back home – wine, fruit, clothes, and shoes.
Suitcases are few and far between, an unnecessary expense – instead luggage is stuffed into rice sacks, hessian bags, buckets and those ubiquitous red, white and blue checked bags; slung over shoulders, carried on bamboo poles, or dragged along as best as possible.
Train tickets can be almost impossible to get at this, the busiest travel time of the year, and those waiting for the few scant cancelled seats sit patiently on boxes, bags and buckets and wait it out.
This couple are returning home to Fujian Province, in the south, but their train doesn’t leave for another ten hours. They seem to have already exhausted all their small talk, and all they want now is to be home again to see their grown-up children.
Some just while away the hours as best they can. These four friends, all from the same village, have been working together on the same building site in Shanghai. They left work and came straight to the station, still in their workclothes and covered in concrete dust, but again, their departure is hours away with little hope of a cancellation on an earlier train. So they’ve set up a temporary card table on someone’s bag.
Those with tickets struggle through the turntiles under the weight of their luggage. I just don’t know how it all jams onto the trains….
There is another class of traveller too – those who want to show off their big city success, so the hicks back in the village know that they’ve really made it, Shanghai style. Fake sports cap – check. Fake Ugg boots – check. Fake Samsonite suitcase – check. Fluffy black ear muffs bigger than your head – check. Just don’t try and tell them that your migraine-inducing coat is on-trend, because no-one’s gonna swallow that lie.
And the male version – fake Nike satchel, fake Pierre Cardin jacket, freshly coloured and permed hair, Hello Kitty bag – check, check, check.
But really, when you’re going home, all you need is a bucket or two. Especially if it’s a souvenir bucket with the Pudong skyline on it.