“Ritual is important to us as human beings. It ties us to our traditions and our histories.” – Miller Williams
Six weeks ago I spent, Chinese New Year’s in Kaiping (Hoiping), China. When I embarked on my year of living abroad, I knew I wanted to celebrate Chinese New Year’s in the city of my ancestral roots.
In China, the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival is the mother of all festivals and holidays.
Growing up in Canada, with the exception of my Mom, my family was rather indifferent surrounding the rituals and customs surrounding Chinese New Year’s. The only ritual that I participated in was not washing my hair on New Year’s Day as it implies washing away my good luck. I stopped this ritual in my late twenties when I hadn’t yet won the lottery.
Chinese New Year’s was basically a holiday that fell between Christmas and Easter without the benefit of a three day weekend. It was mainly an excuse for my family to share a couple of appetizing meals together.
I was excited at the prospect of spending Chinese New Year’s in China and to experience the celebrations within the country compared to my laissez faire approach back in Canada.
Chinese New Year’s, however means peak travel time. Peak everything. A few hurdles arose that I hadn’t expected. If you’re going to be travelling in China during Chinese New Year’s, you must factor in a few speed bumps. The following is my experience from my recent visit to Kaiping in February.
Just so I can finish on a positive note, let’s start with the cons first.
CONS OF SPENDING CHINESE NEW YEAR’S IN CHINA
1) Increased Travel Congestion
Kaiping is only accessible by bus. If crossing from Hong Kong, you’d be wise to buy your tickets a few days in advance. With smaller rural cities in China, I’ve been told that people buy bus tickets weeks in advance. Whether by bus, train or air, travel volume will balloon throughout China leading into the New Year.
Where everything bottlenecks is at China’s immigration at overland entrance points from Hong Kong into China. I opted against the overland option this time and flew directly into Guangzhou. Buses run from the airport to Kaiping via Taishan from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm daily or buses can also be accessed directly within Guangzhou city.
Regardless of where you are travelling to in China, expect increased travel volume throughout the country during this period. Meditate and find a “happy place” to deal with the crowds.
2) Hotel, Restaurant And Taxi Premiums
Hotels charge up to three times the standard rates during Chinese New Year’s. In particular, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and the 3 days after are the most expensive.
Book your accommodations far in advance if possible. Don’t wait or arrive as a walk in, hoping to negotiate a lower price. I doubt anyone will budge assuming that there is any vacancy at all.
Restaurants including street food vendors will generally charge a 20 % premium to all the food. In Kaiping, even with the surcharge, you can still get a meal for 15 RMB ($3 CDN) if you eat at local restaurants and street food vendors.
In Kaiping, taxis start the meter at 7 RMB and add a premium of 5 RMB for the holiday. During this peak season, taxi rides within the city will run between 12 – 20 RMB compared to the usual 7 – 15 RMB.
The food and taxi premiums will continue from anywhere between 7-10 days after Chinese New Year’s.
3) “The Hotel Booking Dance”
I often use Agoda.com or Hotels.com when booking accommodations for their ease, reliability and rewards programs. If travelling to a major city like Beijing or Shanghai during New Year’s, I’d recommend going this route. Once booked and paid online, your reservation is assured.
However, the major hotel booking sites don’t serve smaller sleepy towns like Kaiping. To book these smaller cities in China, you have to use a China based booking site such as Ctrip or Elong. I’ve used Ctrip before with no problems.
I was rather pleased to find a reasonably priced hotel on Ctrip and booked it immediately. My reservation was charged to my credit card, thus confirmed and secured. So I thought.
Two days later, a Ctrip agent in China called me in Canada stating that my reservation was now unavailable and if I wanted to keep it, I’d have to pay nearly double. The agent shamelessly asks if she could charge me the difference.
Like chasing my own tail in a circle, I spent the next 5 minutes to trying to understand what happened to my confirmed booking. Alas, this was the “Hotel Booking Dance”. Or should I say gouge.
In bewilderment, I told the agent to cancel my booking and to credit back my credit card. Thinking, the dance was under the directive of the hotel itself, I went back onto Ctrip the next day and booked a different hotel. Two days later, same phone call from China and same dance. Needless to say, I cancelled this booking as well.
With no attractive prices on Elong, I reserved a hotel on www.chinahotelsreservation.com . I then received a series of emails confirming my reservation, then an update with no availability and then a last email suggesting a different hotel at a further 60% premium. Since there was no credit card required to make the reservation, I simply never replied back to any of the emails.
At the witching hour, my friend in Kaiping booked a newly opened hotel for me just outside the city centre. The caveat being that the rooms had various themes to them. Not too unusual as I’ve seen theme rooms before at the West Edmonton Mall hotel. The price was right and I told her to book me the cheapest room which had a “Japanese” style theme: bed with no box spring, tables and chairs with no legs, low to the ground and Japanese artwork. My friend told me however that I’d have to move twice during my stay into other themed rooms due to the limited availability during Chinese New Year’s.
Upon arriving at the hotel, this is the sign that I saw outside the hotel:
As I opened the door to my room, much to my chagrin, I walked into a “Hello Kitty” themed suite.
As I slid in the key card to power up the electricity to the room, the curtains opened by themselves to romantic music playing.
Then it all made sense. This was a “lover’s hotel” for couples wanting a romantic getaway. The telltale sign was the bathroom with glass walls that were frosted only belt high: so that you can watch your lover shower I presume.
On the plus side, the beds were soft and comfortable; a rarity in China with beds tending to be very hard.
In short, for these smaller cities in China, you either pay the premium or as in my case, know someone who lives there that can help to provide more local options. If travelling to a larger Chinese city, book directly with the hotel’s website or through a reputable “non-China” travel booking site. Note: companies like Agoda sometimes offer cheaper rates (about 10%) on their phone apps as mobile specials. I’ve used the mobile app many times without issue.
4) Prostitutes “Cold Calling” Your Hotel Room
This travel point is directed specifically to male solo travellers and may occur outside of the Chinese New Year’s period as well.
During my second day in the lover hotel, I received a knock on the door just before lunch. I opened the door to a young girl in full battle armour: high heeled boots, mini skirt, plunging neck line with leopard print blouse and heavy make-up. Bold and gaudy was on the menu today.
Like a seasoned sales professional, she just assumed the sale and proceeded to walk into my room. I blocked the door and blurted out a reflexive, “Who the hell are you?” in English. She quickly put me on the phone to presumably her pimp or papasan whom I didn’t understand as he spoke Mandarin. I gave her back the phone and motioned her to leave.
I spoke to my local friends about this incident and they say that these working girls sometimes “cold call” hotels like this for business. Apparently this is common knowledge, albeit this is my first experience with such solicitation.
The next night at 2:00 am, half asleep, I opened the door to a different girl making a cold call. As I sent her away, I thought it peculiar, that I’d been solicited two days in a row. One time, a possible fluke. Two times, what are the odds?
I had my suspicions, that the hotel’s reception staff might have received a kick back to indicate which hotel guests could be potential customers for these girls. With this in mind, I went and spoke to the woman working the front desk about my last two cold calling incidents. I coyly asked if this happens a lot at this hotel or any other and indicated that it was bothersome.
Ironically, I wasn’t cold called again for the rest of my stay at the hotel.
PROS OF SPENDING CHINESE NEW YEAR’S IN CHINA
1) Excitement and Energy leading up to New Year’s
I arrived into Kaiping, on the eve of Chinese New Year’s. Unlike my previous visits, the energy of the city crackled. The anticipation of the New Year was evident.
Much of the pre-New Year’s activity involved preparations for a better year ahead; making one’s own home and life receptive to good fortune. Homes are cleaned and adorned in red papered signs and lanterns along with a variety of plants and flowers. New clothes are bought to usher in the New Year.
Cleaning away the old and making way for the new. This was a time of renewal and optimism. A fitting sentiment for my year ahead I thought.
I was invited by my friend Ling to have dinner on both New Year’s Eve and Day with her family. One the eve, I went down with Ling and her mother to the market to buy flowers and plants for the home. The market was at a feverish pitch with about only 4 hours left until closing. Each flower and plant carries a specific meaning for the New Year celebrations. For example, Ling explained that cherry blossoms are meant to attract love and romance into one’s life.
However, the one “must have” plant was the kumquat tree. Absolutely no one was leaving without this tree with the “tiny oranges” as it symbolizes good fortune, wealth and prosperity.
As the minutes pass, free market economics come into play. A waiting game ensues as people wait to see if the price of the kumquat trees fall. At some point the prices do fall but hit a baseline bottom. Seemingly in collusion, vendors who left early and didn’t want to slash prices further, destroy their remaining kumquat trees to hold the tree prices steady.
Similar to the last minute frenzy of Christmas in Canada, I was left exhausted. By about 6:00 pm, the streets resembled a ghost town. New Year’s Eve dinner was about to begin.
2) Deeper heart felt celebrations
Much of the New Year’s celebrations surround symbolism and rituals. My friend Ling admits that some of the rituals feel like rote. However, the practice of these traditional customs and rituals seem to give more value to the holiday or celebration and ultimately a deeper relationship with one’s own culture. Without the cultural rituals and historical narrative, New Year’s in China might as well be another Saturday night mah jong game.
There’s a certain reverence for the celebration; a need to do things right and not to forget the past and perhaps most of all an appreciation of what is important today.
While the table was being set for dinner, I noticed an extra setting was put out for Ling’s sister who was now living in Hong Kong. I remembered my own Mom doing the same over the years, adding extra dinner settings for my brothers when they lived abroad. These symbols and rituals help to reinforce what is important in our lives: family.
As I sat down for New Year’s Eve dinner with Ling and her parents, her Mom, Mrs. Jang, disconnects the handset of the landline telephone and asks us to turn off our smartphones. Not just mute our phones, but power them off. There was to be no interruptions during dinner as this time is meant to be earnestly shared with family and loved ones. As a child Mrs. Jang, said they had no phones but it was understood that during dinner on New Year’s Eve, she was not to visit their neighbors and vice versa. Family is always the focal point.
The type of food served also bears significance and meaning. A virtual replica to my Mom’s New Year’s Eve meals, the dinner included a soup with black hair-like seaweed (when pronounced sounds like “prosperity”), fish (when pronounced sounds like “surplus ”), boiled or steamed chicken (notion that anyone could afford it) and noodles (which represent longevity thus aren’t supposed to be cut when served).
It’s also considered bad luck to use knives on New Year’s Day, so extra food is prepared on the eve to be eaten the next day as well.
On New Year’s Day, most stores are closed except some restaurants. The day’s main festivities take place at the People’s Park in the center of town; with a carnival like atmosphere and plenty of street food available activities include concerts, exhibits and many activities for children.
However, the most fun activity was blowing off firecrackers. The ritual of lighting firecrackers is believed to ward off demons and evil spirits. Fireworks as well as firecrackers can be purchased right in the park. Frankly, the firecrackers seemed dangerous with varieties including the tiny lady finger crackers to the larger, louder and more explosive boomers. Adults and children played alike with luckily no one getting hurt.
As night fell on New Year’s Day, the main attraction was the harbour where an extravagant fireworks display was held. With only about 100 meters from the fireworks launch pads in the harbour to the mainland, the firework displays seemingly hovered over you with explosions loud enough to set off car alarms.
Would I recommend spending Chinese New Year’s in China?
Yes. With any major holiday or festival, cost and stress of travel increase. However, experiencing these major celebrations in their native countries is well worth it.
Perhaps, a by-product of living in a multi-cultural country as young as Canada (147 years), one can only appreciate and experience the various cultures piecemeal. Enriching as this may be: to have exposure to a variety of cultures, the full impact of a celebration and its culture is elusive.
If you are anywhere in China during Chinese New Year’s, I encourage you to blow off some firecrackers and eat some long life noodles.
“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Have you ever celebrated a major holiday in its country of origin? I would love to hear about your experience.