Chinese New Year is a time of noise, colour and strong alcohol. I remember ‘newbies’ in Shanghai asking me where is good to go to experience it. Where are the big parades, performances etc? As anyone whos spent a year here can tell you, the only thing the city offers is reduced taxi queues and empty restaurants.
The real New Year is to be found in the countryside. Fireworks are central to the CNY experience, but have been banned in the city since 2016. The original tale is of villagers banding together with exploding bamboo to scare off a beasty from attacking the houses. Yan Village can only be described as utter pandemonium at midnight as every household spills forth light, noise and colour into the night’s sky. We prepared a feast for 40, including a full house at Skywells and Selina’s family joining the fun. Some regular favourites made an appearance: Selina’s 86 year old grandfather teaching guests how to paint New Year banners, bashing hot rice to make 糍粑 cakes and a dumpling class with Selina’s evergreen mother.
A great/ terrible (delete as appropriate) part of the festival is its longevity. This year, we were invited on day five to join the dragon lantern parade in nearby Qiuxi village. The previous mayor of our town is from there, and is a friend. He goes back every year to see family and invited us along with him. By day 5 we were at the final day of time off work, and were down our last three guests families. All came along.
The night began like any other – a huge table of food and Baijiu. Some brief small talk gave way to immediate and aggressive toasting. I firmly believe attack is the best form of defence and vigorously went about making sure everyone at the table felt the power of my warm cheer. If they are still reeling from drinking with you, they wont have the energy to launch their own attack. Its obviously a high risk strategy – to give a toast you have to drink – but village dinners are often quite quick affairs, and I knew this one wouldn’t last long as we were on dragon duty. We were soon ushered off into the night.
The first hint of what was about to happen was the piles of firework boxes we had to step over to get to the square. A hundred of us gathered and were given a segment of the dragon to hold, with a lantern on top, attached to a large head and tail at each end. The locals were confused and worried that us soft foreigners wouldn’t be up to the task and promptly handed out cigarettes just in case. The head was hoisted into the air, and we followed suit. Men next to us were shouting to run – and we were off.
What happened next was a fountain of noise and colour which must compare closely to the Normandy beach landings experience. Hundreds of fireworks were released simultaneously and ceaselessly for 2 hours as we winded our way around the stream, over bridges and through all the alleyways of the village. The fireworks in the air meant the sky was constantly bright with colour. Smoke filled the air. The noise was indescribable. I’m loathe to put videos up here as iphone microphones are just not cut out for this. Long chains of firecrackers were let as we passed. Often they’d be going off under our feet as we walked. After the tenth one has sent a hot piece of rock flying into your head, you stop noticing. I pointed out to my fellow dragon carriers were I could see lit firework boxes we were stepping over, about to go off. A good sport was following us with a helmet and a high vis jacket just in case he was needed.
As we wound our way on, I can only say it got a bit oppressive – the noise levels, the sulphur hanging in the air. It felt like a real achievement to have done and been a part of. It was a sensory overload which was more overwhelming than Glastonbury, riding a helicopter for the first time being in an IMAX cinema. We found the time for some light tom foolery on the way to keep spirits up.
Each segment of the dragon is owned by a house in the village – and 3 were taken back to the mayor’s house. The returning heroes are given food, alcohol and a pat on the back. A massive thank you to the people of Qiuxi, Mayor Zhan and Matthias and Adam – dragon brothers in arms till the end.