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What To Do When Your Apartment Catches Fire at Chinese New Year

 Firstly, it’s a good idea to spend Chinese New Year at home so that when a stray fircracker whizzes off and into your pile of washing you can put it out before, you know, the whole buiding catches alight. Now luckily it wasn’t our house that caught fire, but an apartment in a friend’s complex where we spent the evening lighting our own 14kg of firecrackers. Beijing had 160 building fires at Chinese New Year, Shanghai hasn’t released their figures yet but you can bet it will be right up there given the number of old buildings and the tons of explosives going off in every doorway, alleyway, laneway and roadway in town. When it comes to letting off firecrackers it seems like the closer you can set them next to a building, the better. 
The security guards in the apartment complex had given tacit approval for fireworks by laying down a series of old doors on the ground for use as a sort of  launch pad. Of course, everyone ignored these completely and set off their fireworks in the middle of the garden, which now looks like the site of a nuclear test. The crackers were exploding very close to the buildings surrounding us on three sides, but no-one seemed that bothered until I noticed a small fire on the balcony of one of the 10th floor apartments. I grabbed one of the guards and pointed it out to him, and for the next ten minutes he and the other guard walked up and down the garden, looking up, and apparently hoping it would burn itself out of its own accord, or the owners would miraculously come home at ten minutes before midnight. 
Suddenly the blaze was serious as the balcony glass doors exploded, shattering glass, and the fire took hold inside the apartment, belching thick black smoke. The ceiling was just caving in as the guards appeared, galvanised into action now. They were in the next-door apartment, throwing buckets of water around the wall dividing the two balconies, and doing bugger all to actually put the fire out. People on the upper floors had now noticed the blaze and were looking out of their wondows with increasing alarm. There seemed to be no evacuation taking place or any kind of alarm raised – this is China after all – there are no fire alarms, no smoke detectors and certainly no ceiling sprinklers. Just as I thought we would have to run in and start banging on doors to get people out someone busted down the apartment door with two big extinguishers and put the fire out. Thankfully no-one was hurt and no other damage was done but I felt so sorry for the family who would come home from their celebrations to find their apartment completely gutted.
All the while the fireworks continued down below unabated. The fire was just a mere diversion from the real business of the night, making as much noise as possible. I filmed a short video to give you an idea of  it all.  The best fireworks come in big, big boxes, from carton-of-beer size containing about 50 fireworks, to refrigerator size, with over a hundred yun-hua  (flower style) fireworks. The men drag the boxes into the centre of the warzone, pushing past dozens of other smaller fireworks exploding all around them….one stray spark and there goes your arm…What you do next is to light the fuse, with your cigarette,  and run to a safe distance. Ten metres is considered safe by most Chinese. 

I stood and watched then, half-terrified, half-excited, as the coloured explosions whizzed all around me, next to me, overhead, underfoot, bang, whizz, bang, crackle, BANG, BANG, < BANG>< BANG>! and the shockwaves from each big firework hit me in the chest again and again and again. By now I’m partially deaf from all the explosions and it’s like a warzone, total chaos, with sensory overload from the lights, the bangs, the smells, the gritty confetti in your eyes and up your nose.
An hour later, the fireworks were still in major full swing, but it’s 1am and we’re heading home….as we left the buidling the fire service truck arrives, lights flashing, but they’re way too late….guess it’s their busiest night of the year. Happy Chinese New Year everyone! Hope your homes are free of housefires and stray firecrackers!
Our Chinese New Year….a taste!

New Year’s Eve Dumpling Feast

The first firecrackers began before the sun had even poked its head over the top of my building. They’d been lit in the lane behind our house, and as a way of being woken from a deep sleep it had about the same effect on my central nervous system as, say, close range artillery fire, and about the same level of extreme jumping-out-of-bed adrenaline rush, the kind when your legs move you before your mind even knows what’s going on. When my mind caught up, with the phrase ‘What the…..Chinese New Year!’ I was already halfway down the stairs.

Other than these sporadic outbursts of firecrackers, Shanghai is eerily quiet. No traffic, no horns, no whistles, no bicycle bells. Everyone’s at home, getting ready for a big dinner tonight, or out of town. The first job of the day is to get to the wet market before it closes early, because tonight I am making enough jiǎozi 饺子 (dumplings) to feed sixteen. Actually, I’m just making the fillings, and then I’m planning on showing the other fifteen people how to stuff and fold the dumplings, which is way easier than doing them all myself!  

It’s going to be a very social way to spend Chinese New Year’s eve, sitting around gossiping and filling dumplings, and quite a traditional Chinese way to spend the evening. All of our Chinese friends get misty-eyed when they think about being back at home, sitting around a big table with their families and making jiaozi together. 

Last year, our Chinese friends Steven and Maria (not their Chinese names, as you might have guessed) took us home to their house and their mothers taught my whole family how to make jiaozi. To my surprise, the stand-out jiaozi-maker turned out to be my husband, who has no interest in Chinese cooking whatsoever. So on these jiaozi occasions, he gets the job of Head Teacher. Every family has their own, often quite different, recipe for jiaozi filling, and I’ve given the one taught to me by Steven’s mum below – it’s a beauty.

Firecracker store, Nanchang Lu

The second job of the day is to stop by the firecracker store and stock up for tonight before they sell out. There is already an alarming supply of firecrackers on my dining table, provided by the guys in the office downstairs, who assure me that it is perfectly safe to keep them inside the house. Sure. So now we have a whole arsenal sitting in the house, and I can’t quite believe I’m going to let my children take part in a wholesale firecracker extravaganza, I’m an Emergency doctor, for god’s sake, I’m supposed to be responsible about these things. In my hometown, the sale of fireworks is completely illegal. But this is China, and you can do whatever you like. Mind you, it will be the collective Dads who we set out on the sacrificial altar of explosives to light the damn things, not the small children who have fingers they may later need

A small selection of our fireworks…..

I look for the safety instructions on the box of fireworks, turning it over and over without seeing anything. Eventually I find it, but it’s so small you might as well not bother.

Ah…. there it is!  Kneel down before the almighty firework box, don’t smoke over the top of it, sing it a ballad then run away, and afterwards, dispose of your blown-off fingers in the bin.  Got it.

So here’s Steven’s mum’s recipe for for jiaozi, with a pork and vegetable filling popular in Shanghai. Next week I’ll give you a recipe for a vegetarian filling with shitake mushrooms, delicious!

Dumplings – Jiaozi


  • 200g pork mince
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • dash white pepper
  • 2 tsp finely chopped ginger
  • 3 finely chopped scallions
  • 2 tsp Shaoxing wine
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • half small bunch of coriander, finely chopped including stems and roots
  • 300g chinese greens, finely chopped (choose any of bok choy, gai lan, spinach leaves, cabbage)
  • 50 circular dumpling wrappers


  •  In a large bowl combine pork and all other ingredients except the chopped chinese greens
  • mix well to combine, then stir 100 times around the bowl (no kidding! it gives the filling a smooth consistency!)
  • add the finely chopped greens and mix well
  • refrigerate until ready

Making the Dumplings

Place a teaspoon of filling in the centre of a wrapper

Dip a finger in water and then run your finger around the edge of the wrapper

Fold the wrapper in half and pinch together at the top

Starting from the unsealed right side, pleat and press the opening closed

Repeat the same action on the left side

The finished dumpling looks like a Chinese money bag. Of course.

If you’re not feeling dextrous, these dumpling presses can be cheaply bought in cookware stores

Place a wrapper on the opened press

Squeeze it closed

Open it to find…

A perfectly formed dumpling!

To Cook

  • Bring a large pot of water to the boil
  • Gently lower 6-8 dumplings at a time into pot, cooking for 3-4 minutes or until dumplings float to the surface
  • Drain and place in bowls

To Serve

  • Chinese black vinegar for dipping
  • Sticky Black Onions to accompany (recipe follows below)

  • Any vegetables can be used: my last Chinese teacher’s family favoured carrot and baby celery, our Shanghainese friends favour a combination of green Chinese vegetables, and I’ve eaten some great dumplings filled with a combination of pork and several kinds of mushrooms. 
  • The meat to vegetable ratio is usually 1:2 by volume, feel free to use more meat if you want a denser, meatier filling
  • Use any minced meat you prefer, pork is traditional in China so that is what I’ve used, beef, shrimp or chicken will work equally well if you prefer those.

Sticky Black Onions

This is a great accompaniment for dumplings, with the sticky charred sweetness of the onions setting off the soft savoury dumplings perfectly. Thanks to our friend Li Jiayi for the recipe.

  • 2 large white onions
  • 2 tsp oil for frying
  • 3 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 cup Chinese black vinegar
  • slice onions lengthwise into curved strips
  • heat cooking oil in a wok over medium heat
  • fry onions, stirring regularly, until dark brown and beginning to char around edges
  • add sugar and stir constantly for 1 minute
  • add vinegar and stir constantly until reduced and sticky