Saturday, December 30, 2006

Holidays in China

I did a bunch of reporting for a WSJ Weekend section piece on celebreating the holidays in Asia. I enjoyed the work and did some good stuff but most of it ended up on the cutting room floor. Here it is, vignette style... some of it would have ended up in my last column had I known it wasn't going to otherwise run.


Not all Chinese are enamored of the nation’s growing interest in Christmas. “It’s not real,” says Dong, an English teacher who lived in London for five years and enjoyed the Christmas season there, finding it full of a spirituality sorely lacking in his home country. ”Starbucks, McDonald’s and Christmas are all the same to most people here – they just like foreign things. People don’t understand what the holiday means. It’s just fashionable, big fun.”

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The small but close-knit Jewish community in Beijing also gets together to celebrate Chanukah.

“It’s really exciting to meet Jewish people all over the world who share the same traditions and come together to celebrate Chanukah with them,” says Ilene Marks, an American who lives in Beijing. “It’s not isolating to be such a small minority – it actually breeds more togetherness.”

“It has also helped my kids feel special in a good way,’ says marks. “There are just a few Jewish families at their school and the teachers there embrace the diversity of the international student population, including Chanukah. I went into both of my kids to explain Chanukah to kids who largely had never heard of it.”


Last year, a giant menorah was lit atop the Great Wall last year, a collaborative effort between the Israeli Embassy and the Chabad House of Beijing (an outpost of the orthodox Lubavitch sect, which has 2,700 centers around the world).

“It was the first public Chanukah display in modern China,” says Chabad House Rabbi Shimon Freundlich. “The Chinese government was very enthusiastic about it as a means of developing the relationship between China and Israel.”

This year, a menorah was lit in downtown Beijing near the popular and beautiful Houhai Lake.

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Just a few years ago, Western expats in China had to search high and low for Christmas trees. They were available in just one or two places, with a very limited choice of trees. Virtually no decorations were available and people who really cared brought them from home, or had them sent over.

“We moved to Shanghai in 1998 and there was one little place that had a small supply of Christmas decorations,” says Jacqui Cameron, a California native who now lives in Beijing with her husband and three sons. “In 2000, there was a change and trees appeared at the flower markets and then every year since then there has been more and more of a Christmas presence in China.”

Christmas came to Beijing a little bit later; just three or four years ago, you could barely find a tree here. There has been an explosion in Christmas items the last few years, due to both an exponential increase in Western expats and a growth in the number of Chinese celebrating the holiday.

“Every year it increases a little bit and that makes it a little easier for me,” says Cameron, who has lived outside of the US for 10 years. “I like seeing it all. I think about it more and feel the absence when there’s not Christmas decorations to look at.”

Cameron lives in a largely Chinese housing compound with just a few decorations. She enjoys driving through the large, Western-dominated compound across the street, which is strung with thousands of watts of Christmas lights.

“I think I actually celebrate the holiday more here than I would at home,” she says. “I feel an obligation to participate in it more f r my kids because I’m not home. Because I don’t go home for Christmas I feel I have to establish tradition for my kids, like I had. And I feel that it’s all on me to do. In the states, you go to the mall and it’s there. You drive down the street and it’s there. The schools make a big deal out of it. Here, there is so much less of that so I feel a big need to take it all on myself.”

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At Beijing’s massive Lei Tei Flower Market [I need to verify the English spelling], signs of Christmas are everywhere. Inside and outside the sprawling building, temporary stores are set up to sell trees and decorations. And while many Chinese customers were browsing on a recent evening, Mr. Wen, the owner of one outside Christmas theme stall says that business is worse than he anticipated. He says that 80 percent of his gross sales go to foreigners. A lot of Chinese browse and quite a few buy, but they pick one or two small items, because they want a little sign of Christmas. The foreigners, he says, spend much more money, buying large trees and multiple decorations.

“Most of the Chinese who do want to buy anything have some overseas experience or else they are buying them for office or hotel decorations,” says Mr.Wen. “Those places feel like they need them,”

Just around the corner, at another Christmas store, Tommy Zhang and a work colleague were looking at trees, though they had no desire to have one in their own homes. “I have a PR company and we represent a large state-owned bank that wants a tree,” Mr. Zhang explained. “They are putting on a holiday show in a theatre for the family of VIP customers. They will be dancing to the music of Romeo and Juliet and they want two trees to make the right Christmas mood.”

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People in the U.S. often fret about putting the Christ back in Christmas. Such angst doesn’t exist in China because Christ was never really there; the holiday is gaining popularity amongst young Chinese and it is virtually devoid of religious meaning.

Michael Bolton singing Christmas songs blasts through a PA, wafting over the sidewalk in front of Beijing’s Pacific Century Mall. Chinese customers walk around, admiring the large, even garish Christmas display, which features three live Santa Clauses who complement two mannequins, wire reindeer, complete with nameplates around their necks and large white faux church complete with imitation stain glass windows showing Jesus and Mary and other religious imagery. There is even a manger scene, but the browsers don’t seem to understand or note any difference between Santa Claus, Prancer and Baby Jesus.

A Chinese family poising in front of the church laughed when asked if it had any religious significance to them. “No, said the mother, who didn’t want to share her name. “It just looks so beautiful. We come here every year to take pictures.”

The display has been there for three years.

Inside the mall, there are signs declaring “Merry Christmas” and Happy New Year and a few Christmas trees scattered around, but there was no palpable buzz. The stores were fairly empty on a Sunday two weeks before Christmas.

Zhang Zheyu was shopping with her six year old daughter Liu Jing Lan, who was clutching a stuffed Olympic mascot doll, while her mother held a box of four more similar doll sin a bag.

“These are her Christmas presents,’ she explained. ”She picked them out – not surprises.”

Mrs. Zhang says she has celebrated Christmas for two years, first going to her Canadian English teacher’s house, then decorating her own after Liu learned about the holiday at her bilingual school nd asked for more decorations.

“We like to make the children happy and it is a fun holiday,” she says .”It’s not a religious event for us, but a time to have nice and pretty things and get toys for the children.”


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While more Chinese are celebrating Christmas it is still essentially an optional holiday. People make vague plans and talk of getting together to meet some friends, go shopping or out for a meal or maybe visit a church, which is still an oddity in China.

"It depends on my feelings, if I have a very happy mood, I might really celebrate Christmas, if not, well, it's not a Chinese holiday anyway,” says Beijing resident Kelly Zang. “Most of the people have to work on that day, so it's ok without any celebration.”

Last year, one friend surprised her with a gift and she returned the favor with a scarf, but she remains unsure if she wants to exchange gifts this year. “maybe, maybe not.”

The big gift-giving holiday in China is Chinese New Year, which falls this year at the end of February. Then people will give each other the only truly acceptable gift – red envelopes filled with money.

Still, Christmas is at least inching beyond the Chinese elite. The sprawling Sunhe Market sits nearby many of Beijing’s largest expat-oriented compounds, northeast of downtown Beijing, but is a world apart, filled mostly with low rent stalls and frequented by few foreigners.

Two weeks before Christmas, there was no sign of the holiday inside the teeming stalls, but outside a lone vender sat in the parking lot selling somewhat sad-looking artificial Christmas trees and cheap decorations.

He smiled when asked if his customers were foreign or Chinese. “Zhong-guo ren [Chinese people},” he replied. “Before, Chinese people didn’t know Christmas but now they like it. Some like it – and they buy trees.”

He admitted, however, that his business wasn’t all that brisk, surely nothing compared to the real live conifers being sold at three or four spots just a mile up the road at the expat-dominated shopping plaza.



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