Welcome To Hell: Chinese Lunar New Year Travel Madness

Looking for a nice, quiet place for a late winter holiday this week? Then why not celebrate the Lunar New Year in China, along with a billion plus new friends, many of whom will hit the road to see family members during the chunyun or spring festival travel season that runs from about 15 days before Lunar New Year’s Day, which falls on February 10 this year, for 40 days.

Chinese New Year is the one time of year when everyone returns to their home villages to see family members and it’s been called the largest annual human migration in the world. If you think Disney World is crazy at Easter, you’ve never tried to get anywhere in China during the height of the chunyun season.

According to Xinhua, China’s state news agency, the Chinese will make 3.41 billion trips during the holiday season this year, up from a paltry 3.16 billion last season. In 2012, China’s trains carried more than 80 million passengers across a two-week span during the chunyun. Years ago, I spent a month traveling by train across China, from Urumqi to Shanghai in the summer, and the boarding procedures seemed like chaos personified to me. But during the New Year season, it’s not uncommon for serious melees to break out as harried travelers scramble to board and exit trains.

According to the Financial Times, train tickets are in such high demand during the holiday season that whole trains can sell out in seconds on the Internet. So companies have developed “ticket snatching” plug-ins that help Chinese travelers game the national railway ticket website. Why? According to NPR, the ticket site got 1.4 billion hits in a single day last year and crashed several times.

Some Chinese who can’t get train or plane tickets find creative ways to get home for the holiday. China Daily reports that one adventurous soul took a scenic route home, using “48 buses, a ferry, a free ride and his own feet to carry him 660km to his home town.” And a Ph.D student at Fudan University in Shanghai managed to cobble together a route home by buying eight separate train tickets.

But scoring tickets, fighting the crowds and breathing in near-toxic pollution is just part of the hellish Lunar New Year travel experience. Legions of young Chinese who have moved to cities also face social pressures when they return home to see their families.

It’s traditional to exchange red envelopes with cash inside and there’s pressure to demonstrate one’s status by laying down the yuan equivalent of Benjamins. And according to The West Australian, single Chinese career women with no imminent marriage plans have taken to renting proxy boyfriends to take home for the holidays, to avoid the awkward, “when are you going to get a boyfriend” questions. In Jiangsu province, male escorts were commanding as much as 2,000 yuan ($308) per day for their services.

The Chinese zodiac calendar works in 12-year cycles and the Year of the Dragon will give way to the Year of the Snake on February 10. The Year of the Dragon is an especially lucky year; the BBC reported last year that births would likely rise 5% in China during the auspicious year. There is some speculation that China’s economy could falter slightly this year from a post-Dragon hangover.

But the Year of the Snake might not be as dicey as it sounds. In the West, the snake is a symbol of deceit but not in China. People born in this year are said to be intuitive, graceful, introspective and refined. However, they are also viewed as manipulative and scheming and can also be excessively proud and vain. The last two snake years were tumultuous ones, in 1989 there was the Tiananmen Square massacre and 9/11 came during the last one.

Huffington Post Canada consulted Paul Ng, a philosopher and who opined that the Year of the Snake will be a great year for the travel industry.

“This year is favourable to [travel by water] because it’s the [year of the] water snake. I’ve said that cruise boats will do well this year and the aviation industry will do well as well,” Ng told HuffPost Canada Travel.

If you’d rather not brave the crowds to experience Lunar New Year madness in China, my colleague Reena Ganga has written a nice piece on where to enjoy this holiday Stateside.

[Photo credits: Harald Groven, Padmanaba01, and rickyqi on Flickr; AP]

Foods of Chinese New Year, Hong Kong-style

The Chinese are the butt of a lot of jokes for their propensity to eat “anything.” While a wee bit of an exaggeration, it’s true that the national diet is more diverse than that of the Western world. The combination of thousands of years of poverty, numerous wars, the rather imperial tastes of various ruling dynasties, thousands of miles of coastline, and a diverse geographical and climatic landscape make for a highly regionalized and complex cuisine.

Food, then, is an intrinsic and incontrovertible part of Chinese culture, perhaps no more so than during the weeklong celebrations of the Lunar New Year, which begins February third. And if there’s one place that knows how to throw down, it’s Hong Kong. The city is hosting it’s annual Chinese Lunar New Year (CNY) festival February 3-17th, and in honor of the Year of the Rabbit, I thought I’d give a little breakdown on the culinary side of things.

Quick history lesson: As this isn’t a political dissertation, let us just say that many residents of Hong Kong don’t wish to be called Chinese, which doesn’t change the fact that this article is on CNY. As you likely know, HK is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the mainland, after this former British colony was returned to China in 1997. The term “Hong Konger” generally (but not legally) refers to someone originally from HK, but Wikipedia informs me that the more generalized “Hongkongese” is catching on amongst the Western press. I didn’t see any mention of this being considered offensive, so I’m sticking with it. Please feel free to comment and provide a correction if I’m mistaken).

[Photo credit: Flickr user jinny.wong]I had the good fortune (fortune being a theme that repeats itself endlessly during Chinese New Year) to be in Hong Kong for the festivities a few years ago, and it proved a fascinating crash course in Chinese culinary culture. I actually went to eat my body weight in dim sum, but found myself pleasantly sidetracked by an orgy of New Year’s foods. I also learned it’s hard to dislike a place where the standard (translated) greeting is “Have you eaten yet?” My inner eight-year-old was also delighted to discover that, while “Gung Hay Fat Choy” may mean “happy new year,” “fuk” means “prosperity,” and “yu” means “abundance,” or “surplus.” Fuk yu! Hee.

New Year’s is a time of elaborate banquets, rituals, and symbolic foods and dishes, some of which may only be offered during this time. Oranges have long been associated with good fortune in China, because the word orange sounds similar to “ji,” which means good luck. Colors are also emblematic. Red apples or oranges adorned with red ribbons are ubiquitous, because the color is equated with happiness, while vegetables such as celery, spinach, and lettuce with the roots attached symbolize vitality. Homes and businesses offer a “tray of togetherness,” filled with candied lotus seeds and roots, water chestnuts, winter melon, and coconut, as well as paper lucky money pouches containing chocolate coins.

In addition to various activities that correspond with the spiritual aspects of CNY, the Hong Kongese go all out when it comes to holiday meals. At the beginning of the week, the Yau Ma Tei fruit market in Kowloon (one of HK’s best dining districts) is packed with shoppers, primarily wives and grandmothers, who come to purchase ingredients for “family reunion dinner.” Celebratory foods include sweet dumplings filled with lotus paste or crushed nuts and coconut; lin gou, a sticky rice cake; barbecued (cha siu) pork meant for offerings at Buddhist temples; pig’s trotters or tongue; black land moss (a fungus representing wealth), and carp (profitable year ahead).

The first day of the new year is vegetarian, as the plants are believed to store good fortune in their roots. Each subsequent day has a different theme, and corresponding foods that must be offered. The second day, for example, is the Day of Commencement, in which lavish meals featuring seafood and poultry are served, in order to encourage a productive start to the new year of employment. Speaking of seafood, try taking a ferry to nearby Lamma Island for a beachfront feast, where you choose your own seafood from dazzling displays.

Yau Ma Tei during this time is a special treat. Tofu vendors hawk great blocks of bean curd, live poultry and seafood are chosen and dispatched to order, butchers pushing wheelbarrows loaded with whole pig carcasses weave through the crowd, and dumpling vendors pinch off pieces of dough and deftly fold them into savory bundles.

There is also a collection of food stalls adjacent to the market, where you can feast on roasted meats, cheung fun (rice noodle sheets) stuffed with prawns, or congee for less than the price of a Happy Meal. For more cheap eats, don’t miss out on a bowl of HK’s famous wonton noodles; Mak’s Noodle Ltd. in the Central district (77 Wellington St., 2854 3810; there are also outlets in other districts) is the bomb and will set you back just a few bucks.

The best way to experience traditional new year’s foods, however, is to wrangle an invite to someone’s home, or gather a group for a banquet at one of Hong Kong’s better Cantonese restaurants, such as Tai Woo (locations in Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui–which has a concentration of fine-dining restaurants–and Shau Kei Wan), or Super Star Seafood (Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui). I love them both, and they’re 2010 winners in HK’s Best of the Best culinary awards. Both restaurants also have good dim sum although they aren’t traditional dim sum houses.

Hong Kong draws visitors from around the world for what is dubbed the International Chinese New Year. There are temples to visit, an over-the-top parade (best described as the bastard child of the Disneyland Main St. Electrical Parade, Superbowl Halftime, and an Asian game show), but it’s the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour that is truly one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever beheld.

That stunning harbor, combined with the seemingly endless array of places to eat, drink, and shop; bustling streets pulsating with neon, and abundance of five-dollar foot rubs make HK a great place to spend a couple of hedonistic days, no matter what time of year it is. You can always start your new year’s resolutions when you get home.

For more information on Hong Kong and ICNY events, click here.

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]

Lunar New Year souvenirs

Lunar New Year falls on Valentine’s Day this year.

While hunting for souvenirs in Seattle’s Chinatown last month, I spotted these cute tote bags that feature the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac ($20).

I caught up with the designer Joyce Wan at New York City’s International Gift Fair last week to learn more about Wanart, her five-year-old collection of greeting cards, infant apparel, and canvas totes that are still screen-printed by hand.

It turns out that Wanart’s Zodiac Zoo line is not just a lucky Chinatown find, but is actually carried in several museum shops nationwide, including the Field Museum in Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

“It’s exciting to have my products in the museum that I visited as a kid,” said Wan, who was born and raised in Boston. With a studio and workshop now in Union City, N.J., Wan recently expanded her collection to include a kids’ book based on some of her travels around the world (Chronicle Books, $13).

For the Year of the Tiger, Wan has also created infant bodysuits cleverly packaged in a clear Chinese take-out container (from $24). Can you say adorable?

If a museum near you doesn’t carry Zodiac Zoo products, you can order everything at Wanart.com.