In Shanghai, and elsewhere around the world, February heralds the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. And that means firecrackers and celebratory food in a fun, family festival filled with tradition
2015 is the Year of the Ram
If you happen to be in Shanghai during Chinese New Year, you can’t miss the festivities… quite literally. At midnight on Lunar New Year’s day, the sky bursts with colourful skyrockets, and firecrackers reverberate through residential lanes as local residents ignite vast quantities of pyrotechnics to usher in an auspicious year and scare away bad spirits, which, apparently, have sensitive ears. Fireworks can be bought from pop-up street stalls and everyone participates in the explosive fun. Alternatively, join local worshippers at Shanghai’s Longhua Temple, whose 3.3-ton bronze bell is ceremoniously struck 108 times to welcome the incoming year.
Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, or Chun Jie in Mandarin, is the country’s most important traditional festival. This year, it falls on 19 February and heralds the Year of the Ram, one of 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. The Spring Festival is traditionally a family celebration and the weeks proceeding it see the planet’s largest annual human migration: more than three-and-a-half-billion journeys are made across mainland China as people travel home.
Niangao – rice cakes traditionally eaten at Chinese New Year
This leaves cities like Shanghai – whose rural migrant workforce accounts for around 40 per cent of its population – feeling strangely deserted. Fruit stalls, noodle carts and boutiques might be vacated for several weeks, while many businesses operate shorter hours (it’s best to call ahead before visiting). On the upside, traffic is significantly smoother and hailing a cab is a breeze.
New Year lanterns decorate Shanghai
Feasting is a cherished part of the Spring Festival celebrations, either at home or, increasingly, in hotels and restaurants. Several generations gather to indulge in multi-course banquets of festive food. Fish, dumplings, niangao (Chinese New Year rice cakes) and sau mein (longevity noodles, symbolising a long life) are just some of the traditional New Year dishes loaded with auspicious symbolism due to their name or appearance. For a modern take on seasonal regional cuisine, celebrity Shanghainese chef Tony Lu serves dishes such as double-boiled abalone soup with wild matsutake mushrooms at Yong Yi Ting, his restaurant at Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai.
Banishing bad luck and attracting prosperity are enduring festival themes. While spring-cleaning is a vital pre-New Year ritual, resist cleaning activities during the holiday to avoid ‘sweeping away’ good luck. Another of the quirkier customs involves wearing red underwear if you were born in the current zodiac year as a talisman against misfortune.
A Chinese New Year dragon dance
The first day of the New Year is when families dress up in rosy-hued finery to visit relatives, bringing gifts of fresh fruit and giving hongbao (red envelopes) filled with money to children. On the fifth day, the Fortune God comes to town – and he gets a firecracking welcome from Shanghai residents eager to attract financial favour. The 15th day is known as the Lantern Festival and marks the final day of New Year. Romantic customs, involving parading paper lanterns and solving riddles, are rarely observed in modern Shanghai. However, it is a day to gather again with family and dine on tangyuan (sweet rice balls), which signify unity. After that, you’ve guessed it… time to blow up the remaining firecracker stash!
So 'Happy Year of the Ram', or as they say in Mandarin, Xin Nian Kuai Le! And where better to celebrate the occasion than at Mandarin Oriental, recently named Best Brand in China at the prestigious Hurun awards.
Amy Fabris-Shi is an Australian lifestyle journalist who has been based in Shanghai for more than a decade. She is co-founder of travel communications company Scribes of the Orient