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Seven Must-Dos at Nanjing’s Lantern Fair

If you’re looking for buzz, excitement and a festival atmosphere, come to Nanjing! For the last few days I’ve been having a ball at the famed Nanjing Lantern Fair, where it seems everyone is celebrating Spring Festival (the first fifteen days of the Chinese New Year) in noisy and colourful style. 

We ended up in Nanjing largely by default, perhaps because it was the only destination we could get tickets to without sleeping overnight at Shanghai Railway Station. Please don’t feel unloved, Nanjing, because we had a great time! Spring Festival is the worst possible time to go anywhere in China you can’t get to by bicycle, with tickets at an absolute premium as everyone travels home to be with their families. 

At Spring Festival time Shanghai can feel a little like a ghost town – there’s a mass exodus of at least a third of its population, and everything is closed. Although the quietness makes for a nice change, it’s not how people imagine Chinese New Year to be – loud, exciting and buzzing with people. Nanjing, on the other hand, has atmosphere to spare with the Nanjing Lantern Fair bringing people from all over to the streets around the Confucius Temple. Here are seven reasons to get yourself there before the Lantern Fair ends on February 6.
1. See Some Lanterns
Nanjing’s Lantern Fair is a riot of colour and craziness, with all kinds of things you could never imagine fashioned into a lanterns. Cheerful bees. Drumming dragons. Giant candlesticks. It’s all here, and runs every night until the fifteenth day of Chinese New Year, February 6, the day also known as the official Lantern Festival. 

You can find the action in and around the Confucius Temple area, along with a worrying number of fire trucks and firefighters in bright orange jumpsuits, pump packs strapped to their backs and surrounded by extinguishers. I guess ‘be prepared’ is a good motto when you’re surrounded by thousands of metres of temporary wiring.

For a really great view, take one of the pleasure boats from the dock opposite the temple and cruise the canals decked with amazing lantern arches.

2. Try Your Luck on the Money Tree
Well, actually this tree standing outside the entrance of the Confucius Temple is correctly called the ‘Tree of Health and Wellbeing’, but we all know that what everyone wants more than anything else is to be wealthy. Why else are the leaves painted gold? 
The aim of the game is to stand underneath the tree and throw a red-ribboned ‘wish’ up into its gilded leaves so that it sticks there. Ribbons can be purchased nearby (everyone knows you have to spend money to make money, right?)

3. Buy a Battery-Operated Musical Dragon
Or a dragon balloon, or a dragon lantern. But you gotta have a dragon to carry around through the crowds in this, the Year of the Dragon, and the larger and more unwieldy it is the better. These fellas play a cheerfully unrecognizable tinny tune and light up fiercely when you flick the switch, and they last about as long as a toy from inside a cereal packet, but hey, would it be a carnival novelty if the novelty didn’t wear off? Or wear out? Or give you a small electric shock?

4. Eat Something Sweet’n’Sticky on a Stick
Bing Tang Hu Lu 冰糖葫芦, these irresistable shiny red treats, are Chinese toffee apples made with red hawthorns covered in a crisp layer of red toffee. The hawthorns, or haws (山楂 shānzhā)  look like apples, but taste quite sour and are a perfect match for the crispy toffee which shatters into sticky shards when you bite into it. You’ll probably still be picking pieces off your coat the following day but these are seriously good. Plus, they have small seeds you can spit on the pavement and feel really authentically Chinese as you do so.

Or have some regular old cotton candy (miánhuā táng, known to me as fairy floss) or an amazingingly intricate toffee version of your Chinese zodiac animal made on the spot by a toffee artist.
5. Visit the Confucius Temple

If you’re looking for a  a quiet and spiritual experience away from the press of the crowds, don’t go into the Confucius Temple grounds during Lantern Fair because it’s a riotous continuation of what’s happening outside with the additional attraction of puppet shows, musical performances, and a whole lot more lanterns depicting famous scholars and pals of Confucius.
6. Buy Yourself a Lantern
The Lantern Fair is where all of Nanjing’s lantern makers show off their wares, and from 10 yuan you can have your own handmade lotus, rabbit or dragon lantern in every possible colour. I’ve still got the ones I bought two years ago. Put a tealight inside for night-time use.

7. Make a Balloon Seller’s Day

It’s compulsory to purchase a balloon at the Lantern Fair, judging by the sheer number and variety of novelty balloon items for sale. So make a balloon seller’s day and buy a whole flotilla of them – there aren’t many opportunities in the year for balloon sellers to make a lot of money, and the Lantern Fair is the pinnacle of their balloon-selling bell curve .
Balloon bunch of grapes? Balloon backpack? Balloon Sponge Bob? Go on, you know you want one, and if it hadn’t been for a bright blue Angry Birds balloon I might still be searching for my two children in the crowd.

Nanjing Lantern Fair
Every day and night until February 6 (incl)
Confucius Temple Area
G trains run every hour from Shanghai Railway Station, 90 minutes. 
220 yuan adults, 110 yuan children.

The Year of the Dragon. In Red.

Best wishes for health and prosperity for everyone in the Year of the Dragon! As I walked through Yu Gardens this week watching the frenzied preparations to hang thousands of lanterns for the coming Lunar New Year tomorrow night, everywhere I looked was the same strong, vibrant Chinese red. 
Red symbolizes happiness in Chinese culture and is always the colour of joy and celebrations. It inspired me to find all my favourite red images from the last year, from all corners of China (I really covered some ground!) and put them together for you. Enjoy!
L: washing seats, Shanghai stadium
R: Drum Tower, Xi’an
Sliding sled seats sit on a frozen lake, Beijing
L: A small boy sits outside his mother’s hairdressing shop, Miao village
R: Lucky red underwear for New Year, Tongli
Cheap wigs, Qibao

L: Opera singer, Tongli
R: Night chicken feet and giblet vendor, Qian Dao Hu
Toffee strawberries, hawthorns and other fruits for sale, Nanjing
L: Peek into a Chinese home, Tongli
R: lanterns for sale at Shanghai’s Commodities Market

Bicycles, Shanghai. ‘Standard Integration, Transparent Operation’
L: Elderly worshipper, Longhua Temple Shanghai
R: Elderly early adopter with mobile phone and mountain bike, Beijing

L: Travelling home for Chinese New Year, Shanghai Railway Station
R: Transport for a family of four Kyrgyz, Lake Karakul
Dancing Miao women, Langde
L: Temple deity, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan
R: Young Kyrgyz girl near Tashkurgan

Hundreds of single votives hung together to create the character shou 寿 ‘long life’, Tongli temple
L: Scented handmade decorations for Dragon Boat Festival, Shanghai
R: Sweet peanut cake, Xian
Temple, Nanjing
L: Carefully painted fire hydrant, Shanghai
R: Gate to the old city, Lijiang

Pair of ancestor paintings, Tongli

L: Tiny carved wooden deity, Qibao
R: meat for sale at the wet market, Shanghai

Firecracker Seller, Nanchang Lu, Shanghai
L: A tour group of workers from a costume factory in Northern China dress up in cabaret costumes whilst visiting a small Miao ethnic village. No, I have no idea why.
R: Prayers at the Confucius Temple, Shanghai

Unbridled joy on a battery-operated wheelie horse, main square, Kaili
Gong Xi Fa Cai!


Happy New Year! Congratulations, and be prosperous!

Charcuterie Ducks, Eels, and Kidneys: Chinese New Year is Coming!

Well, if there are rows of flayed ducks lining the streets, then it must be Chinese New Year. The whole city has been transformed into an enormous outdoor charcuterie – every footpath is lined with makeshift wooden frames covered with the oddly attractive looking bodies of drying ducks, head and feet intact, tiny ribcages on display. The ducks are tagged around the neck or one webbed foot with the name of the purchaser so that when they’re ready (five or six days, in cold dry weather) they can be collected.

Look up as you walk and instead of ducks you’ll see doorstop-sized hunks of pork, soaked in brine and drying in the cold winter air, pierced with bent wire coathangers and hung alongside the week’s washing.

There is a terrific do-it-yourself aspect to all of this – just the same way my mother still makes her own Christmas puddings every year, many families in Shanghai follow in an age-old tradition and make their own dried goods for Chinese New Year.

Back in Shanghai watching the Chinese New Year preparations hot up, I can tell you there is a world of dried meat involved. I’ve been trawling the internet for hours trying to get to the bottom of the whole dried fish, dried duck, dried pork, dried sausage and dried chicken thing, but needless to say there will be thousands of years of tradition and a deep degree of symbolism behind it, much more than I could ever understand. I guess it tastes pretty good too.

The fish I can understand, because the word for fish (鱼 yú) sounds just the same as the word for prosperity or surplus (余 yú). So you should eat some fish, not all of it mind, and you’ll be sure to have a surplus of wealth in the new year. The favoured fish around town is an alarming looking giant eel, split neatly down the middle, flattened like a skateboard and strung up on a clothes rail in the street to dry, like an enormous sharply toothed silver sail.

My neighbours, previouly unknown to me as charcuterie experts, have been drying ham and stuffing their own strings of Chinese sausage for weeks now, draped over their balcony rails or hung neatly under their air-conditioning unit for protection. I’m unsure what kind of protection the exhaust vent from an airconditioner box offers, exactly, but it is a neat place to hang stuff. 

The sausage is pleasingly attractive, all knobbly with hunks of meat and large pieces of fat. The butcher shops have taken to hanging theirs in festive red and white garlands strung between telephone poles or conveniently placed trees outside their shops, where the passing traffic can see their wares and the sausage can catch a few fumes for extra flavour.

What I really love though, are the ducks. The first time you walk outdoors and see the weirdly flattened shovel shape of a drying duck it is rather confronting to those of us accustomed to having our smallgoods prepared out of sight and away from inclement weather. 

Why outdoors? Well, I suppose it’s partly a question of space, and finding somehwere with good airflow – the charcuterie experts among you will know about that. If there was plenty of space to be had in a city of twenty million people, why would you decide to hang your ducks under a high-voltage transformer to dry, for instance? One short-circuit and…..boom! Charcoal.

Next to the ducks hang funny little strings of baubles, but on closer inspection they turn out to be drying hearts, kidneys and livers, out of reach of the neighbourhood cats. Not a thing is wasted, everything can be rendered tasty.

My Chinese friends tell me that seeing ducks and eels out to dry is the seasonal equivalent, for them, of seeing Christmas trees appear in the shops for us. It means a time of delicious food and togetherness is coming and you can feel the goodwill and excitement building out on the streets. In less than a week, families will come together, cook wonderful meals and share the news of the last year with each other. And some dried eel.

The Lantern Festival

Just wanted to share with you some of the psychedelic joy of this year’s Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival marks the LAST DAY of Chinese New Year celebrations, and just for a change there will be bazillions of fireworks and another rash of house fires to light up the night.  
Legend has it that the lanterns were originally intended to venerate Buddha, way back in the Han Dynasty more than 2000 years ago. There’s also the story involving a jade emperor, a crane, a band of villagers, and a fake fire, but it’s so convoluted I’m going with the first explanation.
Last year we spent the Lantern Festival in Nanjing, walking along the old city wall, visiting the lantern market and eating heaps of great festival food. And because it fell on a weekend we shared the experience with a million or three Chinese people, which was claustrophobically fun, but that sort of intensity is really just a once in a lifetime only. This year, we went to Yu Gardens before the actual night of the festival to avoid the crowds. Not wholly successful, but the atmosphere was amazing, and the lanterns, as always, were totally OTT.
Like this one. Every year, Pepsi creates a wild and wonderful New Year lantern using Pepsi cans as the main building material. Genius. I can’t imagine how they came up with that one. I think this year’s Pepsi-eyed tiger/lion/dragon is a big improvement on last year’s lame efffort, but did anyone tell them it’s the Year of the Rabbit? At least it’s large, dazzling, and an opportunity to showcase their new fruit juice drink, which I believe is the drink of choice of tigers/lions/dragons.
Over by the Huxintin Teahouse there is a panoramic moving lantern display with an Emperor, and a lot of……stuff. Lilypads and the like. I’m guessing this is supposed to be a Chinese legend of some description. It could even be the story of the Emperor, villagers, dead crane, and fake fire, but that is just a wild stab in the dark on my part.

And don’t forget to buy your rabbit ears and flashing, singing, battery-operated rabbit toys. Enjoy!

Shanghai Street Food #16 Crystal Sugar Hawthorns Bīng Táng Shān Zhā 冰糖山楂

I have the worst firecracker hangover headache today. After six nights of interrupted sleep, I can tell you that my Chinese neighbours’ favourite times to let off fireworks are –

1. Ten minutes after I fall asleep
2. Half an hour before I usually wake up 
3. Between 1am and 2am

I can’t fool them by going to bed later and getting up earlier, or by turning out all the lights and pretending I’m not home. What I really need, other than coffee and aspirin and about 10 hours more sleep, is a double-glazed apartment 50 floors above the ground, where the muted sound of firecrackers fifty floors below will be no louder than the coffee machine starting up. 

Also, I wish that the f***er whose car alarm goes off beneath my bedroom window EVERY SINGLE TIME a cracker goes off, will come home to find the battery dead (oh! I wish!!) and all his pot plants dead, and the paint on his car pockmarked by falling debris. 

Enough ranting. On to food. At least Chinese New Year comes with some fantastic street snacks that make up for all the sleep deprivation. After years of shift work I can tell you that it’s not coffee that wakes up your brain, but SUGAR. These sugary little beauties are called Crystal Sugar Hawthorns (bīng táng shān zhā 冰糖山楂and I wish they were available all year round, but that’s what makes them so special

Hawthorns are a member of the rose family and the red berries are the size of a large, round, rosehip. Eaten raw they are incredibly sour and quite astringent, but rolled in oil then confectioner’s sugar and left to dry gives the crunchy, sour hawthorns a crisp sweet white crust. Like a miniature sugared toffee apple. 

They’re quite hard to find, I bought mine from a tiny stall at the Yu Gardens. 5 yuan/bag.

The Shanghai Street Food Series
Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

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

Spring Festival Pilgrimage

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.  

Yī lù píng ān!  Safe travels!

Red Underwear for Rabbits

All the internet buzz this week about Ophiucus, the ‘new star sign’ of the Western zodiac, has had everyone’s astrological knickers in a major knot. (you can read this simple explanation of why you don’t need to change your star sign, followed by pages of entertaining loony comments)

And speaking of knickers, did you know that Chinese New Year is coming in less than a week, and 2011 will be the Year of the Rabbit?   How is that related to knickers??
Well, if you are born in a rabbit year, tradition dictates that this year, your year (which rolls around once every 12 years), you should wear red knickers. Every day for a whole year. For luck and auspiciousness, of course, and to turn all your whites pink.

Never able to let a good sales opportunity go begging, the Commodities Market today was a sea of red lanterns, red hong baos, and red knickers. Ladies, mens, kids, all in standard issue China red, one size fits all. You can have red knickers with fireworks on the front, cartoon characters, or a map of China with a loveheart. All tasteful, and colourfast guaranteed.

In case you have never heard of the Chinese Zodiac (中国十二生肖 Zhōngguó shí èr Shēngxiào), you can look at this table to see what zodiac animal you are, what your characeristics are, and when you’ll be wearing red undies next.

2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939  
Gracious, good friend, kind, sensitive, soft-spoken, amiable, elegant, reserved, cautious, artistic, thorough, tender, self-assured, shy, astute, compassionate, lucky, flexible. Can be moody, detached, self-indulgent.

2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940   
Strong, self-assured, proud, noble, direct, dignified, intellectual, fiery, passionate, decisive, artistic, generous, loyal. Can be tactless, arrogant, demanding.

2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941  
Deep thinker, wise, mystic, graceful, sensual, creative, elegant, calm, strong, constant, purposeful. Can be loner, possessive, self-doubting, distrustful, cold.

2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930  
Cheerful, popular, quick-witted, earthy, perceptive, talkative, agile—mentally and physically, intelligent, astute, flexible, open-minded. Can be fickle, arrogant, stubborn.

2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931   
Sincere, sympathetic, mild-mannered, shy, artistic, creative, gentle, compassionate, understanding, mothering, peaceful, generous, seeks security. Can be moody, indecisive, pessimistic

2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932    
Inventive, quick-witted, inquisitive, flexible, innovative, problem solver, self-assured, sociable, artistic, competitive, objective, factual, intellectual. Can be egotistical, arrogant, selfish, deceptive, manipulative, cunning, jealous, suspicious.

2005, 1993, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933    
Neat, meticulous, organized, self-assured, decisive, conservative, critical, perfectionist, practical, scientific, responsible. Can be over zealous and critical, egotistical, abrasive, proud, opinionated.

2006, 1994, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934    
Honest, intelligent, straightforward, loyal, sense of justice and fair play, amicable, unpretentious, sociable, open-minded, idealistic, moralistic, practical, affectionate, sensitive, easy going. Can be cynical, lazy, cold, judgmental, pessimistic, worrier, stubborn.

2007, 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935   
Honest, sturdy, sociable, peace-loving, patient, loyal, hard-working, trusting, sincere, calm, understanding, thoughtful, passionate, intelligent. Can be naïve, over-reliant, self-indulgent, gullible, fatalistic, materialistic.

2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936    
Forthright, intense, meticulous, charismatic, sensitive, intellectual, industrious, charming, eloquent, sociable, artistic, and shrewd. Can be manipulative, vindictive, self-destructive, critical, scheming.

2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937   
Dependable, calm, methodical, born leader, patient, hardworking, conventional, steady, modest, tenacious. Can be stubborn, hot-tempered, narrow-minded, materialistic, rigid, demanding.

2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938   
Unpredictable, rebellious, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, generous. Can be restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, selfish, aggressive, moody.

(adapted from Wikipedia)

25 Days of Shanghai Christmas: Dec 20 Stuck For a Gift? Give a Hong Bao!

Can’t think what to get someone special for Christmas? Don’t stress, follow Chinese custom and give them a big red hóng bāo 红包, a red envelope filled with cold hard cash. Isn’t it interesting, that we describe cash like this, suggesting it is emotionless and impersonal. Giving cash in China has none of the negative connotations  we ascribe to it, in fact, for most people it’s far preferable to have a hong bao than a gift. I mean, a gift is really risky isn’t it? What if the recipient doesn’t like it?  But everyone likes cash! Giving out hong baos must be the most stress-free way to complete your Christmas shopping, but personally, I’ve found it very difficult to give hong baos – it goes against the western tradition of gift-giving I grew up with and it feels thoughtless and uncaring.  Eventually it took a story about a friend’s Chinese mother-in-law to finally convince me it was OK to give hong baos. Last Christmas he spent ages laboriously making her a hand-made card, to show just how much he respected her and how highly he thought of her. She opened the envelope, pulled out the card, and after looking at it for about a nanosecond went back to the envelope to make sure she hadn’t missed the cash inside it. As his wife explained, she would rather have had a hong bao than a hand-made card any day.

There are a few rules to observe though. Hong baos are appropriate for birthdays, weddings, Chinese New Year, and Christmas, if that’s your thing. Your cash should be in crisp new notes, bank fresh, and whatever denomination you can afford, multiples of four are bad luck (the word for four is similar to the word for death), multiples of eight are really lucky, and rounded numbers are preferable. So 800 yuan would be the perfect gift, but 40 yuan would be like a double slap in the face.

And because next Chinese New Year (peak hong bao giving season) is the Year of the Rabbit, rabbit themed hong baos are popping up everywhere. Whatever design you choose, stuff it with money and then hand it over. Recipient stisfaction guaranteed.