I first encountered Chinese New Year in 1991. I arrived with my friend Toby in late February about a week after New Year's Day. We were walking in a busy, shabby street in Fuzhou, guided by Mrs. Guo, a teacher.
The weather was warm, savoury-smelling food was being cooked in the shops, there was a stink from the drains, and there were people sitting on stools washing clothes or mending bikes or just drifting about while cyclists and the odd motorbike wove around them. Then everything changed.
An elderly man in an army-green jacket and rolled-up blue trousers strolled down the steps of his shop and threw something into the street. In that moment everything – the people, the cyclists – seemed to slow down. There was tremendous bang. Then another. Then the deafening crackle of gunfire. Toby and I took cover.
A second or two later, we realized that no-one in the street had turned a hair. No-one screamed or shouted. We stood up, feeling embarrassed. “What was that?” I asked. Mrs. Guo said: “That's for Chinese New Year.”
From the 1990s through to 2016, these elderly men have always been around. It's not all elderly men – it's just a particular type that does their firecrackers a week after everyone else or a week before.
I grew to love New Year fireworks and the exhilarating sight of a whole city lit up with colourful flame and dense smoke. The scene is quite different to British fireworks, which are always set off on Guy Fawkes Night (November 5) and mostly at specific locations. Chinese New Year, however, involved random and intense displays that last for hours and hours.
I used to cycle out with my elder daughter on the back of my bike, coats on, to see the displays and smell the cordite. After about midnight on New Year's Eve, when the TV gala show had finished, we would all be in bed, but the roar of fireworks would continue.
We would fall asleep anyway because the noise had become constant. Silence would fall at about 1 a.m. But at 6 a.m., one of those old men would wake everyone in the whole block with his own firecrackers, and I would want to shoot him.
The most exciting day for me was after the holiday. I used to work in the Beijing Kerry Centre and cycle home to Fangjia Hutong. On Chu Wu, the fifth day, Beijingers would set off as many fireworks as on Da Nian Ye, and do it in the streets. Cycling home had the thrill of escaping through a "war zone", without the danger.
Spring Festival is a time to see Chinese people at their best. My wife and I used to go down to Shanghai on New Year's Eve to be with her family, and the feast at my in-laws home was always tremendous. My wife's parents would avoid arguing; and nine of us would have a lively and happy feast.
Unlike Beijingers, Shanghai people don't feel the need to eat jiaozi (dumplings) for New Year; we started with salt-fish and other cold starters, through twenty dishes, ending with sweet, colourful Babaofan (a sweet rice cake). Not everyone I knew relished the New Year holiday. “What's so great about hanging around at home doing nothing?” one of my colleagues said after I admitted I liked New Year.
Lanterns are seen on the streets, February 3, 2019. London's Chinatown is ready for the Chinese New Year celebrations, the Year of the Pig. /VCG Photo
But as a foreigner, there is no pressure on me to do anything helpful. And having no blood relatives in China meant there was no-one I could offend by not visiting. Even better, when the more distant relatives started showing up, I was allowed to wander off on my own or with other spare foreigners. I once spent a whole morning in a café near People's Park in Shanghai reading a book about the Attila the Hun. Wonderful.
The Chunwan TV gala is still a staple of New Year's Eve, although families tend to have it going in the background rather than watching carefully. We would be talking or eating or sending text messages, which later became WeChat messages, while the show was on.
And like many of my Chinese contemporaries, I found much of it tedious but particularly enjoyed Feng Gong's bit. In about 1994, a friend sent me the video of the Gala on a VHS cassette, sent by post, and I wrote down a cross talk sketch in which Feng Gong explained to his colleague why women were better than men. I did it by pausing and playing, pausing and playing – it took days because there were so many cultural references that had to be explained to me, but it made me appreciate the genius of the dialogue. A decade later I was lucky enough to work with his niece for a few years and so learnt many fascinating things about the preparation for the gala.
The Gala also brought us, in 1991, the mighty Da Shan. He was the archetypal comedy foreigner in China and provided the country with the yardstick against which all other foreigners were measured for the next 20 years. Of course, like everyone else, I felt that each gala was worse than the previous year's, with the exception of the time when Wang Fei sang her ethereal hit “Legend.” In reality, the gala isn't getting worse; it's our tastes that have changed.
Chinese New Year has a similar spirit to Christmas – no-one is quite sure why we do it, but it's in our blood. We have to prepare for it weeks or even months in advance; we have to be with relatives, we have to put ourselves through a certain amount of pressure; we like to do things in a certain way and we don't like changes. I don't really hate the details of New Year at all, I enjoy them. Except those old men with the firecrackers.
(By Nicolas Groffman)