GUARDIAN This won’t make me popular north of the border, but here goes anyway: Hogmanay is for wimps. There, I’ve said it. If you want to play with the big boys during new year celebrations, you’ll have to travel a lot further afield than Scotland; and you can forget the end of December, too. Six thousand miles and February will get you the real deal.
There are few things quite as full-on as the Chinese new year. Rather than a frenzied, be-kilted piss-up crammed into one night, the festivities last for two glorious weeks, from new moon (tomorrow) to full moon. Tradition dictates a rigorous schedule of family-oriented events: a big feast on New Year’s Eve, dealing with the ancestors and in-laws for a couple of days, schmoozing the God of Wealth on day five, and hanging out with your mates on day 10. It’s topped off with a lantern ceremony on the last night. But, like the rest of China, the traditions are changing fast and these days are only strictly observed in remote, rural areas.
I joined the tasselled (rather than tinselled) revelry to see in the Year of the Pig in Pingyao, a beautiful and ancient walled city in Shanxi province built during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It’s a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon kind of place; picturesque tiled rooftops sweep down into lanes and courtyards, ruined mansions and willow-patterned pagodas appear mysteriously out of the icy mist, and extraordinary, cantilevered gate-houses loom on the horizon.
Western tourists are something of a novelty in Pingyao; it’s geared to the domestic market, which makes it all the more interesting. After dodging a local television crew who were pursuing me for a spot of exotic colour, I was invited to the festival preparations in a local hotel. A fierce fire raged in the courtyard to entice good fortune and prosperity, bright red and gold couplets (good luck messages) were pasted around the doors, and complicated paper cut-outs (like fanciful doilies) adorned windows. Dumplings were being made and I was expected to join in and demonstrate my culinary skills. About 30 clapping and snapping people surrounded me, cheering and photographing each misshaped dumpling I produced, and I began to feel like a celebrity at a garden fete or a contestant on The Generation Game.
My new year’s feast was held in a small private dining room at the top of a local restaurant with a group of sophisticates from Beijing. Private dining is de rigueur in China and feels decadent. Huge amounts of food (read noodles and pork, lots of pork; the only porcine dish I didn’t scoff during my stay in Shanxi was the one made with his squeak) was washed down with the local hooch. Chinese white wine is a misnomer; also known as green bamboo, it’s 45% alcohol by volume and lethal. We toasted prosperity at least 10 times, and got more than a little shaky.
Chinese new year is synonymous with fireworks. The street outside was like a war zone. Red fire-cracker ammo belts three metres long were thrown into the roadside, and enormous roman candles, bangers and tiny rockets went off constantly. The noise was incredible. I stood on the pavement and loved every second as the city was thrown in and out of silhouette by distant incendiaries. A gaudily lit pagoda outlined in strings of green lights illuminated boys nonchalantly launching small rockets from their gloved hands. It was a pyromaniac’s dream.
Defying tradition, the lantern ceremony began on the first day rather than the last. A garish tunnel of fairy lights fed revellers into a large courtyard where they warmed themselves by a huge fire. Enormous, surreal articulated models filled an adjacent compound. Gargantuan babies clutching fish, rats getting chummy with pandas, helicopters, spaceships, galleons, a trio of gods and other assorted creatures were constructed in lurid materials over cane frames. They were automated and moved jerkily like fabric fairground attractions. Lion and dragon dancing was promised, but the lights failed; the crowd, now chilled to the bone, stampeded for the exit.
I decided to move on to a tiered auditorium hung with red lanterns and full of people sitting at tables smoking, drinking and chatting, which was the setting for a series of revue acts put on for Chinese tourists; it was a wonderful amateur hash, a raucous oriental pantomime complete with bubble machine.
Back to the relit lantern ceremony, where the dragon eventually arrived – a wonderful beast with satanic red eyes and a swirling, sinuous body. The crowds were pushed back as the dragon whooshed past spitting fire. (OK, it was a roman candle, but we won’t quibble.) The whole shambolic gig came away at the seams, but it was heartfelt entertainment.
On the way back to my hotel, I checked out the neighbourhood’s only funky bar. It felt like a beach bar, except the weather was arctic; the entrance had a secondary door of thick plastic, such as you’d find outside an industrial freezer.
Pingyao International Financier Club is a peculiar name for a hotel. The yuppie tag derives from its location; the city was the birthplace of modern banking and known as the Wall Street of the East until the early 20th century. The hotel is like a miniature Shrager, in that the reception area is the centrepiece. Instead of the plastic found elsewhere, the outside doors are cloaked with padded purple satin curtains like eiderdowns; the interiors are chic, but you need to keep your coat to hand, as temperatures outside the bedrooms never quite get above freezing.
On day two, cheap plaster Buddhas and Prosperity Gods were arranged on the ground outside the city walls. A crowd threw cane hoops at them in a bid to bag a deity. Nearby was a bizarre freak show. Trestle tables piled up with desiccated road-kill and pickling jars filled with unrecognisable creatures looked like a macabre WI market. Some cages housed a live menagerie that included chickens, a peacock without a tail and hairy beaver-like animals. Two girls behind me took one look and ran out shrieking. I followed their lead.
Pingyao is like a low-tech, ancient theme park. It’s strangely Victorian, the pantomime revue and freak show belonging to another time. Yet there are modern overtones: street vendors don’t bother shouting their wares, they use megaphones with a recorded cry on a loop that sounds oddly synthetic.
A few hundred miles to the east is Shanghai and another world. The contrast couldn’t be greater; from the bumbling simplicity of the ancient to the sleekness of the new ultra-city. I wasn’t prepared for the scale: 22 million people cram the megalopolis and vast swathes of the cityscape have been rebuilt sky-high over the past 15 years. The ugly-beautiful modern parts look as though they were designed by a 1950s comic book illustrator; this is a 21st-century city that Buck Rogers would recognise instantly. The only thing missing is personal jet-packs, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they arrive.
In Yuyuan district – an old part of the city where buildings are punctured with bamboo washing poles that look like acupuncture for the architectural – the lantern festival was 10 times the size of its country cousin’s and a hundred times gaudier. All the shops and stalls were selling seasonal boxes of oranges and biscuits, the packaging as polished as anything you’d find on Bond Street. Thousands flocked to the markets and made their last festive visits to a Buddhist temple marooned in the hubbub of the city. But after only a week of celebrations the urbanites were already thinking of getting back to the desk or building site.
Shanghai is a city that likes to shop and eat; apart from the customary New Year’s Eve family banquet, the entire population seemed intent on getting out on to the street to do what they do best; and to hell with tradition. The opulence was dazzling. Brown South Sea pearls the size of marbles jostled in shop windows with gobbets of green jade and diamond rings. Mink was the fur of choice for well-clad ladies.
It’s also a city of extremes; you can pick up 10 imitation Mont Blanc pens for a fiver in the fake market, and a meal can cost less than a coffee from Starbucks. I visited a grotty, steaming cafe and had some of the best food of my trip, washing it down with a bottle of Beijing Two Pot – a liquor of startling 55% ABV potency. This feast for two, including the firewater, cost less than £3.
Shanghai works best at night. Futuristic electronic billboards 50 storeys high, wishing the populace season’s greetings, have come straight out of Blade Runner. Neon-lit beauty salons and massage parlours are everywhere. For 60 yuan a blind man mauled my feet in what was simultaneously the most agonising and refreshing pedicure of my life. Dodgy bars are full of cardsharps, and whole streets of tailors are ready to run up suits for pennies at any time of day – or night.
But perhaps the single most striking thing about both Shanxi and Shanghai is the accessibility. I speak no Mandarin, except a few pidgin phrases I picked up along the way, yet found them easy to navigate.
Xin nian hao, as folks will be saying soon. Happy new year.