I wrote this piece five years ago, but it still rings true. If you miss the holiday atmosphere in January, after Christmas and New Year’s Eve, then you should be in China.
It was early afternoon, and the little Luwan Food Store in Shanghai was belching out patrons left and right. We felt the squeeze as we waited in line for the sesame seed/walnut powder. I was taken by one man who bought two large containers, and slipped them into a black valise that seemed more fitting for someone in the secret service. The people behind John and I impatiently nudged us forward.
The ladies behind the counter just beyond that — the one for Chinese tonics and herbs, everything from ginseng to swallow saliva — bustled back and forth, handing the remedies over to customers in the smart, glossy red packages. Even the tea department brewed with energy. Several men hunched over a counter displaying an assortment of dried and cured leaves in a spectrum of greens, browns and black.
When John and I returned to Huaihai Road — the “Fifth Avenue” of Shanghai — we plunged into a odd gallery of late-season holiday decorations in the store windows. Tinsel, Christmas trees and images of Santa Claus all contradicted the reality that Christmas was already over. Even department stores broadcasted Christmas carols in the background.
This is January in China’s big cities: still frosted with holiday flavor, and still a consumer frenzy that would rival the Christmas shopping season.
It’s not surprising that Santa lives on in January. Christmas may be holiday climax in the West, but in China, it’s simply a buildup to Chinese New Year, the most awaited holiday of the year. Here, the holidays are one big long extravaganza that begins in December and doesn’t end until those firecrackers drop and the new lunar year arrives. Western holiday decorations, from trees and wreaths to Santas and snowmen, have been quietly embraced by China’s growing cities as a part of that great anticipation.
But it’s not just the holiday that brings momentum. According to traditional Chinese medicine, winter is the best season to boost your nutrition through herbs and tonics. You can’t avoid the red Chinese dates, dried lychees and longans, and black sesame/walnut powders in store promotional displays, reminding customers of the nourishment patterns of old.
Still, these are simply a preamble to the real attraction — the high-end Chinese medicines. The boxes alone are the closest thing to art you’ll find in the supermarket. Even browsing the choices feels like visiting a museum — the museum of Chinese medicine. The expiration dates aren’t 1,000 years old; but many of the remedies go back that far, if not more. Ginseng, royal jelly and bee pollen, caterpillar fungi, swallow’s nest and saliva, and sheep placenta, to name a few. These sit side-by-side with newer formulas, secret herbal amalgamations smartly packaged, their names hypnotically droning over the TV airwaves throughout the season. They’re just capitalizing on the most filial expression of the season — giving Chinese medicines to mom and dad, grandpa and grandma.
Gift-giving in China, however, isn’t the big seasonal conundrum. The real problem is getting home, or traveling, in a country of 1.3 billion people. On the days approaching Chinese New Year, train stations feel more like refugee camps, the ragged silhouettes of migrant workers squatting around the entrances, waiting hours, even days, just to board the next train home. Airports jam with China’s rising middle class, challenging the notion that plane tickets are somehow more readily available during the holidays.
January in China is fierce, with enough fire to seduce you into believing dragons are real. As Western countries return the holidays to that dusty box in the attic, China has only begun to light its candles and firecrackers.
As for me, I will watch “the dragon” with pleasure from my favorite Chinese New Year travel destination: the bedroom. Happy Holidays everyone, with plenty of sleep and relaxation!