Chinese New Year 2017

A few weeks ago Matt and I celebrated the arrival of 2017 in a small cafe-bar in downtown Shanghai, with buy-one-get-one-free cocktails and pizza. We managed to eat without booking a table, and the streets were largely quiet at midnight.

It might have been a bit more lively on the Bund, but we found that December 31st is a bit of a non-event in China; most expats travel home – or elsewhere – for Christmas and the locals register the new year using a different calendar altogether…

Today, 28th January 2017, is the first day of Chinese New Year according to the lunisolar Chinese calendar; Xīn Nián Kuài Lè (新年快乐) – Happy New Year – everyone!

The Year of the Rooster

Each CNY is characterised by one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac and today we transition from the Year of the Monkey (animal #9) to the Year of the Rooster (animal #10).

People born in the Year of the Rooster are honest, energetic, intelligent and confident folk. So far so good, but any existing roosters (born in 1993, 1981, 1969…) may want to take extra care not to walk under ladders or engage in other risky behaviour – the year of your sign is believed to be one of the most unlucky years of your life.

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Party like it’s… 2017 (in China)

For most people CNY means a week off work and catching a bus/ train/ plane (delete as appropriate) out of the city to visit family. Depending on your age, marital status and level of career success, this annual gathering may be something you look forward to or something that fills you with dread; I could write a whole blog post on this (and probably will at some point!) but here I want to talk about another CNY tradition – the Annual Office Party and Banquet.

Imagine the Annual Party is a pie, and you cut it into thirds; one part is a corporate ‘Thank-You’ to employees for a year’s hard work (complete with awards, gifts and an after-party), one part is a New Years’ Eve celebration (complete with rooster-themed team videos), and the remaining part is a crazy cabaret-style talent show (complete with near professional level acts and dances performed by employees).

My experience started off like this:

Internal Comms Manager: Emma, would you like to be the MC (compère) for the Annual Party?

Me (internally): Oh my god! I’ve never even held a microphone before; there’ll be hundreds of people and lots of VIPs. What if I look ridiculous? What if I say something ridiculous? Will I have to speak Chinese? In public? What will I wear? Will I have to dance? What if I fall over? What if I forget my lines? What if I have to dance, then forget my lines, then fall over, then say something ridiculous in Chinese?

Me (externally): Erm, okay.

Fast forward a few weeks and,  well, this happened…

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Between four of us we hosted – in English and Chinese – a fantastical, elaborate evening of toasts, performances, prize draws and competitions. And given I’ve never done anything like this before, I have to say that it went pretty well!

‘Passionate Red vs. Mysterious Black’

It took me a while to wrap my head around our theme for the evening, but essentially ‘Passionate Red’ represents the lucky colour of Chinese New Year, and ‘Mysterious Black’ was a homage to Friday 13th (黑色星期五)- the night of our party. Colleagues were assigned to either the Red Team or the Black Team depending on their functional area and dressed accordingly. This led to some pretty special outfits…

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We kicked the evening off with a traditional Chinese meal  -a wide variety of cold dishes on the tables to start, then wave upon wave of hot foods  (not that the MCs had much time to eat; there was too much ceremony that needed mastering… my dinner consisted of 2 prawns and a mushroom), and of course some festive toasts to the New Year (we did find a bit of time to do a toast. Priorities).

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Gam-bei!

And then we moved on to bit that everyone had been waiting – and rehearsing madly – for… the team performances!

There were four rounds of performances, with each round pitting a Red team group against a Black team group. After each round, the audience voted which of the two they wanted to send to the Finals…

No pressure.

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This is an office party….

The red versus black theme was wholly open to interpretation, resulting in eight colourful, crazy performances thematically linked only by their inclusion of red, black, and some form of creatively choreographed dance routine, a kind of mass homage to the cult boy and girl bands of the 1990’s.

Rock bands went head-to-head with Victoria’s Secret-style angels and James Bond was pitted against Snow White. On the same stage, we saw our colleagues transformed into Peking Opera stars, Storm Troopers and what I think was the Angry Birds (although I can’t be sure!). Some highlights below…

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This is still an office party……

Voting was by QR code and after each performance a Mexican wave of i-phones rippled across the room.

 

The final vote was for Best Performance, and the four semi-finalists waited with baited breath and wine-in-hand for the winner to be announced…

5, 4, 3, 2, 1… The Amazing Tron Dance! This was a seriously spectacular performance which involved a total blackout and a group of dancers who had flourescent LEDs weaved around their outfits. They danced to techno music and had other group members (dressed entirely in black) help them perform maneuvers that made it look like they were floating and flying and so on. I have no idea how they managed to rehearse this in the office (!)

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Best dressed was well deserved

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Although you would have thought the four good looking folks below would have given them a run for their money!

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I had a brilliant time, it’s unlike anything that I’ve ever experienced before and the effort and energy that people put into their performances and outfits was beyond impressive. It also had a kind of collective positivity that you don’t always get at events back home – it was a really great way to signify the transition of one (work) year to the next (work) year. I’m looking forward to seeing how they’ll top this next year !

 

祝大家新春大吉 Happy Chinese New Year!

– Emma

Elephants

It’s been a long few weeks between this and my last post. Partly because I’ve been struggling with how to write about this subject, and partly because I’ve been too drunk, lazy and fat over the Christmas period to type coherent sentences.

What follows is a bit of a sort of loose mashed-up allegory of an aspect of life here. Hopefully it’s reasonably clear what i’m talking about…

This was the first Christmas in our 5 years together that Em and I have been in the same place, so we used our Asian foothold to enjoy a Thai Christmas. Emma writes far better travel blogs than I (and my below-par standard of my photography means I have no interesting, i.e., in-focus, photos to share) so i’ll let her cover the details, but as a seguay to what i want to talk about here just let me tell you about a couple of the highlights…

Instead of turkey dinner, we ate barbecued crab and green papaya salad. Instead of snow, we had beaches. Instead of Christmas trees, we had palm trees. Instead of a boxing day hangover nap, we had massages. Instead of reindeer, we had elephants. Instead of Santa, we had larger, fatter elephants with beards.

We saw loads of elephants actually. They were everywhere. Speaking of elephants, instead of ‘larger, unaddressed issues’…

When we first considered moving to China, one of the main concerns we had was – and bear with me – the well documented elephants in the rooms of large, densely populated Chinese Tier 1 cities. Only these elephants had tendency to occupy the air for extended periods. A bit like…

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Disney’s Dumbo. An elephant that occupies the atmosphere.

We’d heard via the popular media that airborne elephants can have a somewhat negative impact on quality of life and if you hang around them long enough they can impact on your longer term health.

The cause of this problem is fairly well documented. Elephants are normally found in places like jungles, plains or woods; but when people burn those natural resources to – for example -generate heat for their homes, or to power factories or cars then it disturbs the elephants causing them to rise in large quantities in the air. For many days in the year you can’t detect their presence, but they definitely are more noticeable during periods where there is more burning than usual (depths of winter and height of summer).

You will already know that as sociable creatures, elephants engage in herd behaviour. When there are enough being displaced or where there are particular weather conditions, large herds can migrate towards population centres. Sometimes the herds can be visible in the atmosphere for several days; though reprieve is available when it rains (because the airborne elephant is fearful of getting wet).

The days on which the herds aren’t a problem outnumber those really bad days by a sizable margin across the year, so on balance it’s a pesky issue but not one which makes us consider leaving our new adoptive home. The seasonality means that these beasts can make some of the months disproportionately worse than others, so you get a bit of concentrated disruption. When it’s bad, the effect can be considerable. I find it makes me really quite drowsy, while others report heavy coughing, phlegm and so on. Visually the airborne elephants turn into a kind of fog which has a yellow tinge as though it’s been shot through a retro Instagram filter.

A high volume of elephants may mean you need to change your behaviour on a particular day. So, if you plan on going out for a jog and encounter heavy, flatulent beasts floating about in the way, you will need to rethink your plans.
There are a few tried-and-tested strategies that a Shanghai resident can adopt when the elephants become problematic.

  • Firstly there are apps that provide a daily report on the concentration of elephants in your local environment. These are great as they give you a recommendation first thing in the morning as to whether or not you need to take precautions that day.
  • Secondly, everyone is by now aware that elephants are afraid of mice. However, mice are notoriously difficult to train, and may attract unwanted cats. It’s actually underappreciated that elephants are rather frightened of ninjas (the silent Japanese assassins). You’re therefore able to limit the impact of the problem by buying a mask and adopting the appearance of a ninja. Unlike those worn by the ancient cadre of silent killers from feudal Japan, modern ninja masks come in a variety of colours and styles. It turns out that elephants are equally terrified of the ‘Broken-Britain-Hoody’ ninja or the ‘face-condom’ ninja, as they are of ‘using Paddington Bear as a nosebag’ style ninja.
  • Thirdly, we use Air purifiers in our apartment which are made in Sweden (ironically the Swedes have no problem with atmospheric elephants, but are nevertheless experts in this area). The purifiers make a loud humming noise that must prove unpleasant to animals with large ears (I’ve not seen the data to back this up, but we’ve not had any rabbits or fruit bats in the apartment so it’s probably true). If any are not put off by the noise, then they are certainly caught by the filters as the air is passed through the purifier which which takes out all but the smallest of elephants.
    These three strategies don’t address the root cause of the issue (stopping putting elephants in the atmosphere in the first place) but solving that issue is a global matter and one which I can’t really go into in this blog.

In summary then, the elephants are a problem (and it’s not good to have them in the air in the first place), but it’s not a deal-breaker for us living in Shanghai and there are a few means to manage it.

Finally, one day when the elephants were out in force, I decided to paint the scene from our window. You can’t see any elephants in the picture, I realise that, but they’d just left the picture, leaving the gaseous fog you can see in the painting in their wake.

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The biggest challenge for this one (which I did using similar technique to the alleyway painting) was to keep perspective and to get the atmosphere and colours right. I chose a view that didn’t have anything particularly significant in it (no landmarks I mean, and no people) as the environmental effect was what I was looking to capture. In the background I needed to pick out some of the modern skyline in the haze, but contrast it a it with the higgledy-piggledy older structures that are closer to our apartment (and a feature of the french concession).

Right, done. My next blog will be more straightforward, I promise. Probably about cheese. Actual cheese. Not cheese as a euphemism for the long-term cultural and economic consequences of the one child policy, but the edible stuff you get when milk goes hard.

– Matt