The image I had of Spring Festival – or Chinese New Year as I knew it before I moved to the Middle Kingdom – was off dramatic fireworks displays and acrobats dressed in flamboyant dragon costume's. I enjoyed Spring Festival like this in 2008 in Beijing. My buddy Ossie and I were en-route to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia and had stopped off in the capital to catch our flight and to grab a few beers in the process. We sat upstairs in Rickshaw – a tremendously popular expat bar in Sanliturn – and watched one of the most spectacular fireworks displays I have ever seen. There were giant bright explosions filling the skies above every district in the city. We could look down to the pavement on Sanliturn Lu and watch local youths set off scores of firecrackers and rockets, which set the night sky aglow and left the street engulfed in smoke. Further south, Chaoyang looked as though it were experiencing an air raid as the sky filled with bright explosions and smoke. It all went on for over an hour and was absolutely breathtaking.
I enjoyed the display in Beijing tremendously. It was dramatic powerful and fantastically concerted – it seemed everywhere was exploding. However, as wonderful as it was, I cannot say it was typical of my experiences of the Spring festival celebrations. The celebrations I saw in Tianjin tended to be far less organised, far less spectacular and on a far smaller scale. The vast majority of the fireworks that were set off tended to be done by individuals or families. It was a strange situation. In many ways the celebrations often were private affairs in which a family got together to enjoy the festivities as a group. Yet, simultaneously, they were very public as the whole area could see the results.
To illustrate my above point, let me paint a picture of a celebration I witnessed in 2009. It was late in the evening before Spring Festival. My favourite bar was closed for the holiday, so I was at home watching a DVD, when I was disturbed by the sound of all hell breaking loose outside. It genuinely sounded as though heavy artillery had begun an assault on Tianjin. It was so noisy that I had no chance of hearing my DVD, so I pressed pause and went to watch the fireworks from my window. I was expecting to find a large group of people outside or some form of organised display. Instead, I found the intersection outside my apartment deserted, save for a father and his young son. The father was lighting the fireworks and the son was standing transfixed watching them explode above them. They were completely alone. It was a beautiful moment that I was very pleased to share in, albeit from a distance.
Sadly, not everything was as impressive or as poignant. Spring festival also meant I would be in for a heavy dose of sleep deprivation. China is a nation of early-risers. It is not unusual to see people practising Tai Chi in their local parks at 6am or earlier. The trend was particularly clear during Spring Festival. On almost every day during the week long holiday, I would be awoken by a cacophony of bangs and cracks at scarcely past 6. Whenever this happened, I would be sorely tempted to open my window and scream at the perpetrators. However, my poor Chinese and the biting winds outside meant that I usually held my tongue, sought out my ear-plugs and tried to get back to sleep.
Unlike the dramatic pyrotechnics that dominated the Beijing skyline, most fireworks set off during the holiday were of a far less impressive scale. In fact, most of my neighbours were happy with a simple line of firecrackers. Almost everyone had them and would set them off to enjoy the machine-gun like sound that would shatter the local atmosphere. However, I was always bemused at the way they were used. The vast majority were set off during the day. This, to me, seemed a total waste. The acoustics were impressive, but on a visual level, they made little impact. The sparks they gave off did not register during the day. Instead, all you got was a small cloud of smoke drifting away from the street. When released at night, they were far more impressive. A neighbour of mine set a strip off in the courtyard behind our apartment. It looked and sounded like a tow armies engaging in an intense fire-fight. Sparks flew everywhere and the sound ricocheted off the surrounding walls. It was truly fantastic.