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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

China Journal I: Chinese New Year celebrations from a Beijing expat’s perspective

Anyone who has ever lived in close proximity of a Chinatown knows that February is special. Throughout the entire Chinese speaking world the Spring Festival, better known in the West as the Lunar New Year, is celebrated with a vengeance. This year I, a Londoner turned wannabe Beijinger, experienced the transformation of Chinatown by Leicester Square into a bustling cascade of lion dancing, red paper lanterns, fire crackers, drums, steaming dumpling stalls, and golden upside-down posters with the character for luck, putting the word “kitch” to shame in all the good ways fresh in mind. Needless to say, the prospect of spending my first spring festival in Beijing had me jumping up and down like the proverbial kid in the candy store. However, I was in for a few surprises.My first wake-up call came about two days before the festival when I went outside to stock up on vegetables and suddenly realized that the city was completely empty. Beijing is a city of 17.5 million permanent residents, and just like any other cosmopolitan city, a large number of these have moved here from other provinces. What makes Beijing different in this respect is that all of these immigrants have their once-a-year opportunity to return home and see their families at exactly the same time. The result? Ghost town. Sure, there were fireworks, lanterns, and tigers (the zodiac animal of the year) in all shapes and forms, but the lion dancing took place on TV rather than out on the street. My favorite dumpling man had also long since closed shop and gone back to his family in Guangxi to make dumplings for them instead, along with every single dumpling maker in the district. Before long, I found myself running about town in desperate search for that intense, festive atmosphere I experienced last year in London.Fortunately, a few days after New Year’s eve my rescue came in the shape of a temple fair. Temple fairs are an old spring festival tradition in Beijing, and there were plenty to choose from. A celebration at the Olympic centre featured sports-themed fair while traditional foods, crafts, and acrobatics were to be ound at the Changdian Temple. In the end I went for the fair at the Temple of Heaven, mostly because the fair was built around a re-enactment of a sacrificial rite which took place there every spring festival throughout the dynastic era.The re-enactment turned out to be an abundance of brightly colored silk, fake waist-long braids, and enormous loudspeakers pumping out pompous orchestral music. In short, highly reminiscent of historical re-enactments in Europe, or medieval fairs in the States. Being born and raised in Norway, the world capital of pretentious re-enactments of various Viking battles with their adjacent markets, costumes, and general atmosphere, I should have felt right at home. But seeing these cheap Qing dynasty “knock-offs” in stark contrast to the beautiful Temple of Heaven felt strangely more disconcerting to me than the aforementioned Viking re-enactments which are much closer to my own culture.Although dynastic China is irrevocably gone, and several periods have entered and left the stage since its fall, there is still only a decade between the last sacrificial ceremony that took place at the Temple of Heaven, and the carnival of today’s re-enactment. This in turn is preceded by approximately three thousand years of cultural consistency; A consistency which was one of the main reasons why I initially fell in love with China.As I watched the disengaged audience of Chinese families, many of whose grandparents and great-grandparents would have been alive when the last dynasty fell, I couldn’t help but feel that this history was too immediate, but at the same time too old, to become Sunday entertainment for bored grandparents and children on sugar-highs. Somehow, this re-enacted rite of spring evoked an immediate sense of loss of a culture that I have never belonged to. I finally got my dumplings, but the bustling joy of Chinatown remained absent.At the end of the day, I guess the Chinatown celebrations of Chinese new year throughout the world follow the global expat community rule of traditional celebrations in the sense that they are more intense, more nationalist, and bring out a stronger sense of community than their equivalents at home. The Chinatowns are like stock cube versions of the real China. Just add water and, voila: instant Beijing. And as to the sacrificial rite, I may have sold it a little short. The costumes may have been fake and the audience may have been alienated, but five days later, spring magically came.Oda Fiskum has a BA in Chinese from SOAS in London, and is currently studying Chinese theatre at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. She is co-founder of, and director at the Elephant In The Room Theatre in Beijing.@caption: Dolly Duck and her Dynastic Disney Princess at the Temple of Heaven’s spring festival fair in Beijing.