The city is emptying of people. The roads are clearing and the crowds on the subway trains are thinning. People push through the tunnels pulling suitcases and carrying red boxes of fruit. You can feel something in the atmosphere, it's lighter than usual. Perhaps the extra space makes more room for more smiles. Red lanterns are going up, and branches with pink blossoms of synthetic silk deck the entrance hall of our building.
I called for gallons of water to be delivered today, but there is no delivery until the third of February. The city will shutter until then. The tree lined streets of the Former French Concession will be empty for a good week.
Chinese New Year feels different than it did ten years ago. Back then, in the days leading up to the holiday, fruit stalls popped up out of the dusty sidewalks. Stands selling all manner of explosives appeared next to construction sites. Men far from home lugged imitation jute sacks through subway tunnels on the way to the train station. We woke up from weekend naps to the crack and pop of fireworks that echoed in alleys, as if people were testing out the potency of the year’s batch. Then, on the eve of the New Year, a barrage of celebratory explosives that continued the whole night through, bang bang bang all over the city, in front of gates and entrances, echoing out of the narrow lanes and alleys.
The next morning the streets were empty and cold, littered with red paper and exploded boxes of fireworks.
The week that followed continued on with explosions sounding day and night.
It was lovely. And exciting. And maddening. And slightly dangerous. I got shot in the leg by a stray explosion. It burnt through my jeans and I still bare the scar. But it was also compelling in the way that the exoticism of a foreign traditions can be. Living though a Chinese New Year celebration in Shanghai felt really like being in another place. And now I’m back here ten years later, I’m longing for that exoticism, that excitement, the streets red with detritus of fireworks, staying up all night watching the whole city glow, that feeling of difference of place and culture.
Several years ago, there was a stampede and several people were crushed to death. And before that, fireworks in Beijing caused an iconic skyscraper to catch fire. And there are always injuries caused by a stray cracker. Now, fireworks are restricted. We don’t see as many migrant workers trudging though the streets. Sidewalk stands are forbidden. Construction sites are now skyscrapers. There used to be two subway lines, and reckless men who drove motorcycle taxis, and road side bicycle repairmen. Now there are 16 subway lines and big box stores and no motorcycle taxis within the inner limits of the city.
We privileged interlopers long for the time before when we could for a moment misappropriate some of that cultural authenticity. We want exoticism, that experience of feeling something truly different, before returning to our houses with central heating and dishwashers and minivans.