When it first started, I was not amused. Chinese New Year’s Eve may be a time for celebration for the locals, the start of a hard-earned week-long holiday, but for me and other foreigners in Beijing it was just another working day, and I was sitting on the sofa after dinner trying to focus on some niggly work, wallowing in that unique sort of martyrly grumpiness you feel when you think the rest of the world is having fun and you’re not. Initially the explosions weren’t quite frequent enough to elicit anything other than a few muttered expletives, but by 10pm my brain was getting seriously knocked about. I huffed, put away my laptop and looked out of the window. What greeted me was a bright pink firework – in my face. There was a firework exploding outside our 21st-floor window, so close that I could have almost touched it. ‘What the…’ I looked down. In the middle of the six-lane road, I could just make out a small concentration of shadow and smoke that suggested where the firework had come from. Where there’s an impromptu street firework, there must surely be people, who are most likely – if Brits are anything to go by – young, drunk and loud, and doing their best to get their toes blown off. But all I could see was a smattering of no more than five figures on the pavement, dressed in dark, sensible clothing, standing perfectly still. I knew that in China, fireworks are supposed to ward off evil spirits in time for the New Year. It was a task, evidently, to be performed in a manner most sober, in every sense of the word. By this time on New Year’s Eve, central Beijing was drained of cars, as everyone had left to make their long journey back to their home provinces; but every now and then, a stray vehicle would pull up to a set of firecrackers in the middle of the road, and wait patiently for them to finish before driving around the sprawling red coil. At one point the notorious chengguan inspection officers drove up in a van, the way they occasionally do in major commercial areas to scare away street vendors and rickshaw drivers whose modest livelihood is technically illegal, and I thought they might have something to say regarding issues of public safety and the use of explosives in the middle of a boulevard. But the van simply sat there for five minutes, before cruising lazily off. Suddenly, a whistle, fizzle and a pop came from 200 metres down the road. The purple streams danced madly in between two skyscrapers and its smoke temporarily hid the bottom half of the famous Guomao building in the distance. Then to the far left, fluorescent colours started spilling out from every gap in the jungle of buildings on the other side of the road. Soon, I could see at least ten separate fireworks going off at any one time. Gold machine-gun ones going off around the corner were reflected on the uneven glass of the office block opposite, and a shower of green and pink fell on the huge iPhone billboard straight ahead. In between the colourful, soaring fireworks, there appeared to be single-explosion ones going off at ground-level, with isolated heart-shuddering booms and blinding flashes of yellow-orange light, that made me think this was the closest I would hopefully ever get to experiencing a war zone. At Chinese New Year, the urgent directive that gets bounced around the Beijing expat community is ‘get the hell out’. The whole city shuts down, it’s really boring, and February is the coldest and smoggiest time of year. Last year, we duly followed the advice and sunned ourselves to crust in Thailand. But this year, DD drew the short straw in his team at work and we had to stay in town in case of emergencies. And what we discovered was that the city really does shut down for a week, with only the odd expat-targeted restaurant or shop, plus a few hard-working taxi drivers, available to keep us fed and entertained at the level of convenience we take for granted. The main collective activity happens at temple fairs, where the smell of incense and rubbing of statues for good luck reveal the spiritual, symbolic aspect of Spring Festival. Though things can get a bit too symbolic, with doctors reporting a surge in C-sections just before the end of the Year of the Horse, deemed a good animal sign to be born under, and start of the Year of the Sheep, considered rather crap. But irresponsible surgery aside, Chinese New Year had started with a kind of bang we hadn’t quite expected. As midnight approached and the fireworks increased in number and intensity, we sat in our bedroom in darkness, perched on the freezing cold window sill and looking out with drinks in hand, our heads flicking from side to side as if we were watching a tennis match. There was no one looking out from the buildings opposite – the lights and TVs were on as if this were just an every day occurrence. Perhaps it was only the foreigners in our building who sat in dark windows, gawping for hours on end and trying to take a thousand bad photos on their iPhones. The fireworks went on long after we snuck into bed at half past midnight, and would continue to scare the hell out of me and pets by going off at random times throughout the days that followed. But they were truly wonderful to see – beautiful patterns of light spraying out from between skyscrapers, with no urgency, sequence or pattern, with enough time and space to appreciate each individual firework, and enough intimacy to feel like you’re part of it. The whole thing was so very amateur, so very ad hoc, and so very genuine. And this in the most soulless of areas, the business district with cold facades and vast stretches of concrete. You can only imagine how much more lively, if dangerous, it would have been in the mud streets of rural villages. I’d take this any day over watching the London Eye disappear under noise, smoke and glare on a TV screen, convinced that everyone else was having fun and I wasn’t. There was, unfortunately, a downside to this marvellous spectacle. After the most pleasant blue-sky day we’d had all year, an evening of fireworks going off around the city for five hours caused the pollution to go up to hazardous levels the next day. In Beijing, we miss the smog so much when factories are closed and cars are off the road that we like to create our own.
Copyright © 2015 followingdrdippy