This year I decided to formally end my 23-year-old informal ban on trips to the countryside during the Spring Festival holiday, and visited friends in two small Anhui towns to see what’s changed over all that time.
What I found was an interesting hodgepodge of the old and the new, with many traditions still alive and well, even as some get nudged out by encroaching modernization.
The last time I made such a trip was in 1991 when I was living in Hong Kong and spent the holiday with the family of a friend from Zhongshan, a small city in Guangdong Province. That trip was most memorable for its nonstop eating, starting with the traditional nian ye fan or New Year’s Eve dinner and then extending for the next few days, as we were stuffed continuously during numerous bai nian (New Year’s visit) trips to visit friends and relatives.
I didn’t consciously decide to halt New Year’s trips after that, but I avoided them, not only for the overeating but also all the other inconveniences that come with peak-period travel.
All these years later, eating was still a central part of my visits first to the town of Shucheng near Hefei, capital city of Anhui Province, and then to an even smaller town called Jingxian near the scenic Yellow Mountain area.
But what most caught my attention wasn’t the food, but rather the large number of restaurants and other shops that remained open throughout the holiday.
In previous times, even major cities like Shanghai used to shut down for the Chinese New Year, and it was nearly impossible to find anything open for at least the first three days of the holiday. That certainly wasn’t the case in either Shucheng or Jingxian, where many shops and restaurants were open throughout the festival. It seems the attraction of a few extra dollars is stronger these days than centuries-old tradition.
While many shops were open, one thing that hasn’t changed much was the lack of environmental awareness in these smaller places. Environmental protection and conservation may be hot topics in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but the concepts have yet to be discovered in these smaller towns.
My Shucheng friend proudly informed me before arrival that his hometown had just opened its first KFC, a big achievement for a town of that size. Following the big opening late last year, people were lined up at all hours to get a taste of the chain’s greasy fried chicken, reminding me of the opening of China’s first KFC in Beijing in 1987.
We passed the store a few times during my visit, and it was always crowded but not quite as full as my friend described. I wasn’t surprised that it was open throughout the holiday, but was somewhat startled to discover that this particular KFC was one of the grungiest I’d ever seen. The floor throughout the restaurant was streaked with mud, creating a general feeling of dirtiness.
That grungy theme was repeated throughout downtown Shucheng, where the streets were strewn with all kinds of trash tossed carelessly by people who treated the area as their personal garbage can.
I’ve written about this phenomenon before, calling it the “world is my garbage can” mentality. But I didn’t realize how much more serious the problem is in smaller towns than in big cities, where many people are more likely to throw their garbage in a trash can.
Similarly, awareness of air pollution was non-existent, especially on New Year’s Eve in Shucheng, where the fury of exploding firecrackers created a smoke so thick that it lasted well into the next day. I’m sure the PM2.5 index, which is closely watched in most big cities, exploded to the 1,000 level or higher at its peak there. Then again, I doubt anyone in these towns has ever heard of PM2.5, and I’d be equally surprised if the towns had air quality-monitoring equipment.
Transport was another area where huge changes were obvious, mostly in the many highways and modern roads that made travel much easier than in the 1980s and 1990s.
I took several scary trips, including one in which my friend’s brother-in-law drove like the maniacs you sometimes see passing everyone on the highways, even though most of us have never actually driven with one.
But despite the huge advances in roads, it was nearly impossible to get timetables and other information for the buses forming the backbone of transport networks for these smaller towns.
We tried the Internet, but quickly discovered it was a lost cause. Different websites contained conflicting information, and all of it was wrong anyhow. In the end, it seems, the only way to get such information is to go to the actual bus stations themselves, even though the information is easily available online in big cities like Shanghai.
On the whole, I didn’t regret my decision to finally lift my Chinese New Year travel ban after 23 years, and quite enjoyed the festive mix of family gatherings, crowded mahjong parlors, sightseeing and visits to farming villages to burn fake paper money for the ancestors.
I do wonder how long it will be before these places realize how badly they’re damaging their environment, and hope that a more modern mindset will also creep in for things like managing bus schedules and hotel reservations.
But at the end of the day, preservation of the festive mindset and the many customs during the Lunar New Year is what’s really important during the holiday. It seems that element of the holiday is still alive and well in the Anhui towns of Shucheng and Jingxian, and in similar small towns throughout China.