Chinese capital welcomes Year of the Rooster with breath of fresh air
Beijing letter: While most still leave the city for Chinese New Year, traditions are shifting
Donald Trump rooster statue in Taiyuan, Shaanxi province: The advent of the new US president has been a huge conversation topic, especially as there are fears about what direction the Chinese economy is headed in. Photograph: Jon Woo/Reuters
Seen from the window, the colossal condominium being built within a crane’s reach of your correspondent’s apartment stands empty in the freezing Beijing air as though abandoned for years, not just the days since the mass exodus marking Chinese New Year.
It’s a 24/7 construction site. Floodlights filter through the blinds and trucks rattle our building, so the peace and quiet – while the builders return to their ancestral homes far away – is something to be relished.
This year is the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese zodiac, and lunar new year falls on Saturday. The skyscrapers and financial centres empty and people flock instead to more traditional pursuits.
It’s eerie to see this city of 21.7 million people so empty, but lunar new year is always one of the best times to be in Beijing. Most of the city’s 5.6 million cars are off the road, and those people who are out are making unhurried visits to relatives to bring boxes of fruit, baijiu liquor and red envelopes stuffed with cash for the kids.
The pollution has held off for a couple of days, though residual smog from factories on high production ahead of the shutdown means it will be back.
This week has seen millions on the move ahead of new year, making 2.5 billion journeys by road and millions of air and rail trips as people wend their way to the the provinces.
The city feels like it used to 20 years ago before economic growth really kicked in. This feeling is heightened by the presence of thousands of ride-share bikes, the latest trend to sweep the capital.
City of pushbikes
While the old-fashioned image of Beijing is of a city full of pushbikes, the rise of the car seemed to have consigned the bicycle to the scrapheap of history. Start-ups such as Mobike and Ofo, however, have put tens of thousands of two-wheelers back on the streets.
A welcome addition to the city’s transport options, they differ from the Flying Pigeons of yore – these new ones have sleek designs and GPS.
They will be seen outside the temple markets where, even in fiercely secular China, people still pay tribute to gods, immortals, and legendary figures such as the Monkey King.
For those who choose to stay in the city, and there is a growing number, signs that people are following tradition less slavishly are emerging.
One newly-married friend is hosting his wife’s parents this year rather than visiting his parents in Jilin province. An only child, he would traditionally be required to bring the whole family to the ancestral home and his wife would be forced to honour her mother-in-law.
“This year it will be different. Interesting,” he says, smiling. “I will take my parents on holiday overseas later this year, they seem to prefer that idea.”
Many have mixed feelings about the journey home, to villages and towns where they will clean their parents’ houses and make jiaozi dumplings with their families.
For the migrants, men and women, working on the building site it is the one time of year they will see their children, who are often being reared by their grandparents.
For women in their late 20s it is a challenging journey too, as they face bitter disappointment from their parents when they arrive home without a husband – these are the sheng nu or “leftover women”.
One of the great contemporary images of this year’s Spring Festival, as the holiday is also known, is the huge Donald Trump rooster statue in Taiyuan, Shaanxi province, a golden-plumed fowl which gets even the hand gestures spot on.
The advent of the new US president has been a huge conversation topic, especially as there are fears about what direction the Chinese economy is headed in. “The economy could be bad in the Year of the Rooster. Trump is against China,” said one young professional named Jing, echoing a common view.
However, Beijingers seem particularly pleased with their new mayor, Cai Qi, a close ally of President Xi Jinping. He has promised to “clean out” and give the city a boost, focusing on the “arduous tasks” of combating pollution, traffic congestion and improving waste treatment.
As they crow to greet each new day, roosters are generally seen as an auspicious animal – they scare off bad spirits, and chicken blood is sprinkled around houses believed to be haunted.
At the same time (full disclosure: I am a rooster myself) they spend a lot of time scrabbling around in the dust trying to get enough to eat, so they fall way down the pecking order, excuse the pun, when it comes to zodiac animals.
For all that, roosters are faithful and ambitious, but also fated to live a “hard life”, as the building workers on the neighbouring site can attest.
Xin nian kuai le and may the Year of the Rooster be prosperous and healthy.