Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Our first Chinese New Year

We arrived back into China from the Philippines on Chinese New Year’s eve. What a contrast.  For the last week we had been experiencing hot, humid days, perfect for swimming and just lounging about the many lagoons and pools of the resort. Often too hot to sit in the sun we generally stayed in the shade – and still managed to put some colour back into our long since faded suntans.  Nights were warm and balmy – usually just warm enough to require a little bit of air conditioning. And now we were in Nanjing, on the airport concourse waiting for the bus, 10pm at night, snow on the ground, minus 3 deg, and despite us putting on our jackets the freezing breeze is cutting through our clothing.
In the distance we can see occasional flashes of light but that’s not unusual in this land where everyone has access to fireworks at all times of the year, using them for celebrations and to mark the passing of loved ones. The bus trip is uneventful and we arrive in the street about 3 kilometres from our apartment. That’s too far to drag the suitcases so we walk to the nearby main intersection and wait for a cab.  It’s cold. A cab stops. We finally arrive back to our apartment …… and wish we had left the floor heating on.
Every now and then a flurry of fireworks is heard in the distance. Fortunately our double glazed windows keep out most of the cold and the noise. While we’re waiting for the house to warm a little (A-C is going full blast) we settle to watch a bit of TV. Before we know it, it’s close to midnight. Those flurries of fireworks are becoming more frequent.
Now I’m sure almost everyone who’s reading this will have some kind of memory of childhood cracker nights  and perhaps the occasional bonfire; Queen’s Birthday, Independence, Guy Fawkes, whatever. Remember those little skyrockets? Put the stick in a bottle, light the wick and get away quick? Or the ‘flowerpots’ with their cascades of colour, the roman candles that sent bright balls into the air for 10 or 20 metres.  Maybe you remember other western New Year’s eves – with their city-wide fireworks. Sydney is always spectacular with its Harbour Bridge backdrop. And then there’s Paris, London, New York all telecast to the world. Spectacular displays all of them.
Then let me tell you they all pale into insignificance compared to what a city of 9 million individuals, each with their own supply of major fireworks can do.  You see while fireworks seem to be freely accessible to all Chinese throughout the year, generally they are not very evident in the shops. But leading up to New Year, like it used to be in my younger days, the shops are full.   And the fireworks – these are not the little skyrockets, flowerpots and roman candles.  These are big. Starshells come in boxes of 12 or more, the size of a case of Fosters. Light one wick and they go off in succession.  There are industrial sized cannon shells that can rise to hundreds of metres before loosing their bursts of colour, clusters of noisemakers, Whirling wheels … and all available in bulk to the entire city. Our small corner supermarket down the road sells them from a 50 ft container load parked outside.
And all this has been saved for one 30 minute period of absolute, sheer insanity.  Outside our apartment men light big boxes of mayhem, oblivious to the cars they stand between. The sky glows with continuous explosions of colour. Not confined to one display area, these come from the parks, from between buildings, people’s patios, tops of buildings, in the street, traffic islands. Little children share the thrill of ‘light the wick - get away quick’.  Fathers hold tiny babies while having their turns at sending off howitzers of noise and stars.
We’re tired, but there’s no chance of even thinking about going to bed. Inside our double glazed apartment we can’t hear the TV.  And finally, after an hour, it begins to subside. We go to bed and sleep.
Next morning it is strangely silent. The snow has covered the city in a muffling blanket of white.  It is cold. We spend the day indoors.  And then the snow begins to melt. And as it melts, exploded boxes, empty cannons, stains of black and brown powder are revealed along with all the other detritus of exploded fireworks. Red paper and cardboard mixes with the snow, littering the footpaths and forming its own coagulated version of crimson papier mache in the gutters, under the trees and shrubs and on the footpaths.  So passes Chinese New Year 2010.