Monthly Archives: February 2016

Feb 11

Spring Festival is different in small cities

By Mitchell Blatt | China , Travel

Riders rested their heads on tables or put their legs up on their partner’s lap while they stretched out on hard seats. Those without seats crowded on the floor or on small folding chairs outside of restrooms. We were on a train, somewhere between Bengbu and Nanjing, at just after 2 am on the way back to our places of work after Chinese New Year break.

Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, brings people from the big cities where they live and work in to the towns and villages they grew up in. It’s the one week of the year that Shanghai is quiet and empty while cities in nearby Anhui like Bengbu and Dangshan are alive. It’s the one week of the year Shanghainese might actually miss the “out-of-province” people some of them ordinarily feel superior to.

“The city couldn’t function without migrants,” a Shanghai-born man said two days before New Years while looking for a mechanic to fill up his flat tire and finding all of the shops closed. As for me, I wrote a few days ago about how most of the small restaurants are closed except for those run by Hui minorities.

So I decided to see how things were in a small city north of the Yangtze River. On my way to Xuzhou on Spring Festival Eve, the man sitting in front of me on the train mentioned his hometown Dangshan, a county-level city at the northernmost tip of Anhui. The bus to Dangshan went over bumpy roads by barren, dusty fields and two-story buildings with chipped paint. About 2 hours and 100 km later, we arrived outside Dangshan train station.

small house (copy)

A guesthouse around next to the station cost about 70 RMB (compared to over 200 RMB for almost any hotel room in Shanghai) a night for a passable room with internet and toilet. Down the street, actual restaurants were open serving food. Most of the restaurants there seemed to be open.

I had spent the morning of the first day of the new year in Xuzhou, where I watched retired locals perform a pangu dance for which their Railway Folk Troupe was paid by a mall.

The lady playing the matchmaker was the most spirited of them all.

The lady playing the matchmaker was the most spirited of them all.

The previous night, Spring Festival Eve, rowdy young men lit made-for-export fireworks and threw them, like grenades, into the river running through the city, and watched them explode, lighting up the water with a flash. Once one of them set off a firework upside down, sending everyone to the ground to dodge the multicolored sparks that shot up off the ground. As this was all happening, an old guy sat, completely calm, on a railing a dozen meters away. No one ever said Spring Festival is completely safe, but no one got hurt in the short time I observed the relaxed display of booms and bangs either.

Vendors sold made-for-import fireworks (with English-language warning labels) on the bridge. Roads were covered with red paper from exploded firecrackers.

Vendors sold made-for-import fireworks (with English-language warning labels) on the bridge. Roads were covered with red paper from exploded firecrackers.

There can be some more fireworks expected during Lantern Festival on February 22. Here’s my video of Lantern Festival in Beijing from 2014:

Being in Xuzhou, however, I missed seeing young men kowtow to their elders on the first day of Spring Festival. It’s an ancient tradition that is not observed much in the cities now, as families are far apart and neighbors don’t know each other. But in the old days, and still in many villages and small towns, the men go from door to door and get on their knees and bow to grandparents.

Kowtowing photo, provided by Dangshan middle/high school student.

Kowtowing photo, provided by Dangshan middle/high school student.

The tradition of kowtowing reflects how important family and ancestors are considered in Chinese culture. (There is also a tradition of kowtowing to the graves of deceased ancestors during Qingming Festival.) After the young ones bow, the elders give them red envelops containing money—from a few hundred to a few thousand yuan, ordinarily. For children, that money is often deposited into savings accounts for tuition. Now Chinese kids can still get red envelops and new pairs of clothes even if they don’t do the kowtowing. “Little emperors,” indeed.

Kowtowers would walk from one house to the next.

Kowtowers would walk from one house to the next.

Overall, the Spring Festival traditions I did see or hear about all appeared to be going stronger in the countryside. The leader of the Railway Folk Troupe, Zhou Xiangxi, told me that folk arts like pangu were born in the countryside and that he and his fellow retirees were trying to keep them alive, as, “It is slowly dying.”

The high school students who showed me pictures of the men in their hometown kowtowing said it only happens anymore in the countryside, and my friend in Shanghai said his son would think it was strange if he told him to do it.

Dangshan is right on the edge of the modernization and tradition. In between the major roads, you can find crisscrossing alleyways where brick and stone courtyard homes house groups of families.

inside house (copy)

On the edge of the city, you can see new apartment towers being built. In the south, a manmade lake is being filled up, where ancient-style walkways were built over the water, and friends and lovers hang out and fly kites. A young man who just broke up with his girlfriend invites me to drink a beer with him on the bridge.

kites (copy)

chinese park (copy)

There’s still no McDonalds, KFC, or Starbucks. The closest they get is Dikos, a Chinese chain of fast food chicken restaurants with a presence in smaller cities, and DBS, a hamburger joint whose logo has a striking resemblance to Burger King’s. (The closest Starbucks is in Xuzhou.) After dinner one night, a woman bemoaned the fact that there was no Haagen-Dazs. For better or worse, the new pleasures of consumption are what many Chinese want.

shanzhai (copy)

There are so few foreigners that three people at three separate places mentioned the “black English teacher” to me.

***

Journey Home
There is a high-speed rail station opening later this year that will make it much faster to travel to Xuzhou and Zhengzhou. For now, I was left to purchase a hard seat on a train that left at 9:40 pm and arrived in Nanjing at 2:30 am. Others had to purchase standing-room only tickets. One woman going to Kunshan (near Shanghai), although she was able to purchase a seat, had to pay for a ticket for the whole length of the journey from Zhengzhou to Shanghai, because all the tickets allocated for local trips had been sold out.

When I arrived at Nanjing Station, the long journey still wasn’t over. The line at the taxi stand was long, and just one taxi came in five minutes of waiting. I ended up getting a taxi by walking down the street outside the station, where a taxi driver picked me up along with another person. It was in violation of the regulations to pick up either of us so close to the station, let alone both of us at once. “The regulators are sleeping,” the driver said. “I wouldn’t have done this during the day.”

The driver was just responding to high demand and low supply. Even many of the taxi drivers went to their old homes during Spring Festival. By Monday, everyone else will be back wherever they are working, and everything will be back to normal.

More pictures

Red lanterns, a symbol of Spring Festival.

Red lanterns, a symbol of Spring Festival.

red lanterns (copy)

Lamb on sale.

Lamb on sale.

Why is Kyrie Irving's jersey on this Chinese milk carton? LeBron too expensive?

Why is Kyrie Irving’s jersey on this Chinese milk carton? LeBron too expensive?

Feb 09

Where to eat at during Spring Festival? Hui noodle shops are still open.

By Mitchell Blatt | China

If you are spending Spring Festival in Shanghai or Beijing, you might have noticed signs up on the doors of almost every small restaurant and shop announcing they are closed because they returned to their hometown for the holidays. A lot of large restaurants are closed, too, as staff returned home.

Where to eat for the lazy or incompetent who can’t cook at home?

Not to worry: Hui and Uyghur restaurants are still mostly open. Hui and Uyghur are two ethnic groups from the west, whose members are mostly Muslim, who have opened a lot of halal restaurants specializing in noodles and lamb meat across the country.

In Shanghai, there is a Hui noodle restaurant near the north square of the train station. The owners put many photos of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, where the famous Lanzhou pulled noodles originate from, and posters explaining local dialect. They didn’t go to Lanzhou for Chinese New Years because they don’t celebrate it, workers said. Instead, they celebrate Hui New Years in the early summer–around June.

(According to an article by Zheping Huang in QZ.com, one-tenth of all Lanzhou noodle restaurants are run by Hui from the Hualong Hui Autonomous County in Gansu.)

Josh Summers, editor of Far West China, writes that Uyghurs don’t typically celebrate Spring Festival either, instead celebrating Noruz, the first day of spring, in March.

Now I’m in Dangshan, a small county-level city in northern Anhui, and a lot of restaurants are open here, because many of the owners are locals who didn’t have to leave to be home.

Feature photo by Sigismund von Dobschütz from Wikimedia.

Feb 07

Why Taiwanese cheer for Team Japan in baseball

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Travel

A few weeks before I went to Taiwan, I was sitting in a noodle shop in Nanjing, China when a young man started a conversation with me about how much he hated Japan. China had held a heavy-handed military parade a few months before to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan in World War II, and Nanjing was the site of one of the worst brutalities in the Pacific theatre. The Kuomintang (KMT) government that remains in charge of Taiwan until May 2016 instructed schools to teach that Nanjing to be the legitimate capital of the Republic of China (Taiwan), according to a 2013 Taipei Times article.

In the crowd at the Japan vs. Mexico baseball game (part of the WBSC Premier12) in Taiwan’s functioning capital, Taipei, it felt more like I was in Japan. Down 0-1 in the bottom of the second, Japan hit a home run with a man on first to take the lead, and the crowd stood as one and cheered. Some waved Japanese flags. Many wore jerseys of Japanese teams. A few groups in the bleachers even chanted in Japanese. If you want to see the difference between Taiwan and China, a baseball game isn’t a bad place to look.

Earlier that week, I watched as Taiwanese independence activists protested Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeuo’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which was the first such meeting of KMT and Communist leaders since the end of the Chinese Civil War. “Japan is better than China,” more than one protester told me. Even the Kuomintang’s occupation, which included 38 years of martial law and more than 10,000 dead in the February 28 Incident, after fleeing the mainland at the end of the civil war, was worse than Japan’s, some said. “The Kuomintang brought the army,” a Taiwanese scientist who has held low-level government posts summarized to me on a trip to the U.S.

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Back in China, I showed some of the pictures of the Taiwanese baseball fans holding Japanese flags to Chinese people at a hostel who cringed in disgust. It is true that some of the fans, goaded by me, brought a political consciousness to baseball. When I asked a group of young men who were standing and cheering, “Who did you think is worse, the KMT or Japan?” He Jiahui, said, “When Japan was here, the country was developed. When the KMT came, everything was crazy again.”

There is no need to worry about offending KMT supporters, one of his friends joked, because, “KMT people don’t watch baseball since it was brought here by the Japanese. They just watch basketball.”

A Taiwanese resident from Japan.

A Taiwanese resident from Japan.

Underlying the posturing about history is a dispute about the status of Taiwan’s sovereignty. The KMT broadly supports eventual reunification with China, as they believe in a version of the “One China” principle and hold fast to the idea that the Republic of China remains the one legitimate China. The opposition, led by the DPP, believes that Taiwan ought to be independent in an of itself, not reunited with China, and that having good relations with Japan could maybe, hopefully, on the wings of a prayer, help them achieve their goal.

Two study abroad students root for their respective countries.

Two study abroad students root for their respective countries.

However, many people supported Japan just because Japanese baseball is so strong. The Japanese baseball team is perennially one of the best in the world, and the Japanese baseball league is more exciting than Taiwan’s, many fans said.

Indeed, Wu Jumei, a woman who was wearing a Tokyo Swallows jersey, said, “I like Japanese baseball, not the Japanese national team.”

Hu Jiarong's collection of Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks uniforms. The Hawks, of the Pacific League, won seven Japan Series championships, including in 2014 and 2015.

Hu Jiarong’s collection of Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks uniforms. The Hawks, of the Pacific League, won seven Japan Series championships, including in 2014 and 2015.

Japan lead until Mexico’s Torres hit a two-out single in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 5. But Japan came back in the bottom of the ninth, loaded the bases, and drove in the winning run with a hit. After the game, the Japanese players bowed to the fans.

Namura Makoto came all the way from Japan to watch his team play and found unexpected welcome amongst the Taiwanese fans of Team Japan. In fact, he ended up leading the cheering in his section, teaching the surrounding spectators some Japanese chants. They sang a song—“So oh oh oh ley…”—and shouted “Gambari!” (which means “Go!” or “Jia you!”).

It was his first time in Taiwan, and he said, “I’m very surprised so many Taiwanese support Japan.”

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More from Hu Jiarong's collection of Japanese baseball memorabilia.

More from Hu Jiarong’s collection of Japanese baseball memorabilia.

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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.