China’s Party Apparatus

China First Capital blog post -- Qing dynasty peach bowl

Christmas has passed, but the reindeer antlers are still out in force. At my local supermarket in Shenzhen, the checkout team began sporting plastic antlers in late November. We’re a long way from the North Pole, and even farther, culturally, from the parts of the world where Christmas is traditionally celebrated. But, if there’s a party going on anywhere,  the Chinese want to be part of it. 

It’s not just the reindeer horns. A good 30% of all other shops’ sales force, as well as restaurant wait staff, are wearing those droopy red Santa caps. Most lobbies of the larger office buildings have Christmas trees, lit and ornamented. Mine also has a small crèche, that looks like a gingerbread house big enough to sleep three adults.  

Incongruous? Sure. But, one grows inured very quickly in China to things that don’t seem to make a lot of sense culturally. Red wine is increasingly the drink of choice among urban, upwardly-striving Chinese. Never mind that most of the wine is domestically produced, and has a thin, sour watered-down flavor a bit like salad dressing, and doesn’t compliment well the salty and spicy foods favored in much of China. 

Other examples: pajamas are occasionally used as outdoor-wear in China. The slowest-moving trucks on China’s expressways tend to putter along at one-third the speed limit in the left passing lane. Many ads for infant formula feature fat blond-haired babies. 

Christmas in China does not involve gift-giving, carol-singing, church-going. It’s a reason to decorate buildings, wear odd outfits, and send tens of millions (by my guesstimate) of SMS messages wishing other Chinese “圣诞快乐” ,literally “Happy Holy Birth”.  Santa Claus? His plastic likeness is plastered everywhere. In China, though, he is known as “圣诞老人“,or “Holy Birth Old Guy”. 

Not only is Christmas part of China’s holiday calendar now, so is Halloween in some of the bigger cities. But, it’s a Halloween celebrated only by adults wearing scary costumes to restaurants and bars that night. There’s no candy, no trick-or-treating. 

Much as China’s government still describes the economy as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, there’s a lot of my daily life here that can be understood as “Western civilization with Chinese characteristics”. Much is broadly familiar, but most things have a strikingly and singularly Chinese flavor. 

Thursday night is New Year’s Eve. It’ll be my first in China. Logic tells me it should mainly pass unnoticed. Chinese New Year, which falls this year on Valentine’s Day, is the most important holiday of the year, and is so deeply engrained in the consciousness that when Chinese say “next year”, they usually mean some time after Chinese new year, which has no fixed date on the Gregorian calendar. It begins either in January or February, depending on cycles of the moon. The New Year holiday lasts seven days in China. 

So while there’s no cultural imperative to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I do expect restaurants, bars and shopping areas to be unusually raucous on Thursday night, much as they were on Christmas and Halloween. Like a college fraternity, China seems determined to seize any excuse to throw a party.