Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lantern Festival

Last night was a rainy evening in Xiamen. But it was also the night when we finally went and wandered throughout the great displays of lanterns not far from our apartment.
Indeed for the past month we have observed construction of large and colorful displays on the little flat and probably artificial island in the middle of the (artificial?) lake on Xiamen island – including two huge dragons with their long tails right in the middle of the water! Preparations for the Chinese New Year we thought. We were surprised to see it was still there at the end of the holiday time and it is still beautifully lit every night… We had been traveling and on jet lag and I am ashamed to say too lazy to venture there.
So it was really time to enjoy the scenery despite of wind and rain. After all, they would probably be dismantled any time now. So here we went. Quite interesting indeed. There must have been 100 or so very large structures. The funny thing is that they are actually all “advertising pieces” promoting the latest real estate developments here in Xiamen or things of that sort. They pretty much look like the floats at the Thanksgiving Parade on Fifth Avenue, except for the fact they are hollow structures lit from inside… giant lanterns indeed.
Of course traditional themes are being explored, dragons and cute little mouses (this year’s astrological animal), but I really enjoyed the originality and beauty of some less traditional ones like these women running and the nice Chinese garden with flowers (photo above).
But I would disappoint my loyal readers, I am sure, if I did not add a bit of history to my posting… So here it is: the Lantern Festival marks the end of the celebrations for the Chinese New Year on the 15th day of the lunar year, on a full moon. It is a celebration of lion and dragon dances, fireworks, eating rice dumplings and of course lanterns. I also read that an essential part of the Festival is “guessing lantern riddles”. Riddles are posted on lanterns which visitors try to guess. If they guess right, they’ll receive a small gift from the lantern owner!
And the origins of this Festival? Well, it is amazing to see that there is nothing – it seems – in China which doesn’t have about 2000 years of history! And the Lantern Festival is no exception. It dates back to legends of the Han Dynasty over 2000 years ago. The funny thing – somewhat similar to what I found about the legends of how silk was discovered – is that you can read different legends in different articles, all stating very authoritatively that “this is THE legend of the Lantern Festival”.
One legend reads that an emperor from the Han Dynasty ordered to light lanterns in the imperial palace and temples to show respect to Buddha on that day, as he had heard that Buddhist monks were lighting lanterns as they were watching the remains from the cremation of Buddha’s body and worshipping Buddha.
But I love the other legend even more… Here it goes. The Jade Emperor in Heaven was very angered at a town for killing his favorite goose, so he decided to destroy the town with a storm of fire. A good fairy heard about the plan and warned the people to light lanterns throughout the town. From Heaven, the village looked ablaze. Thinking that his goose had already been avenged, the Jade Emperor did not execute his plan. From that day on, people celebrated the town being saved by lighting lanterns in the street… on the first full moon of the year… Isn’t it a wonderful story?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Expats of the world

Fascinating people… whom we have met in the past few months. There is something truly fascinating about being in places like China and meeting all sorts of people with intriguing life stories to share. And may be they truly have more interesting stories, or may be – and very simply – we just take the time to listen to their stories. In Canada and in the US, of course we would not talk to a stranger in a restaurant, or have supper with someone who just posted a comment on your blog, but being abroad, and in a country where being a foreigner is written on your face, we do. We notice Westerners like ourselves, we strike a conversation, we look for opportunities to meet and share experiences.
And today “this is their stories” like they say on TV… There is Mark and Tina, living in Xiamen, another American-Canadian couple here for a couple of years, him working in a subsidiary of his US company, her being remarkably dedicated to learning mandarin at the university. We simply met one night – the famous “Blind date at the Orient” - because Mark has posted a comment on this blog. We read each other’s blogs all the time and we have promised to go for some karaoke night soon (something we HAVE to do before leaving China!). Then there is Marie-Frederique and Tom whom we met through an “expat lunch”. She is a painter, a life-time expat from France who lived in a few African countries and her husband Tom who is from Romania. They decided one night – just like that – to move from the US to Xiamen and start a new business adventure! Xiamen looked like a “nice enough place to live” and labor would be cheap in China. After 2 years, they have 40-50 employees - painters and Photoshop people - and they mass-produce paintings for Target and other major US retail store and hotel chains (including her famous “chefette” which I am sure I saw somewhere in a retail store in Montreal!). Their office is just fascinating to visit: more sophisticated than anything else in Xiamen, with nice sitting area, kitchen and art gallery (virtual visit here). There is hundreds of new artwork being literally created every week… totally overwhelming… And our very international group (her and Tom and my husband Ed and I) enjoy sharing a quiet supper together! Then still in Xiamen, there is Ann and Michael, and their 3 children. Blogging was also our connection. They are here from the US for one year. He is teaching philosophy at Xiamen university and she is taking care of the children and blogging about their lives, their kids’ life at school and their interesting travels throughout China - for the pleasure of all of us. We met once and had a really nice time walking throughout the campus and enjoying a very local lunch (but delicious!). I enjoyed the small streets and the very active life around the university, very different from our “expat” neighborhood. And I love her husband's story, the symbol that no one should ever give up in life in the face of adversity, especially young people. Her husband Michael actually left community college, worked 3 years in a kitchen, went back to school, and now has a PhD in… philosophy! Quite extraordinary indeed. Last but not least in Xiamen, in the same apartment building as us, lives a business man (I have to ask him for his name!), originally from Savoie, France, living in Hong-Kong, married to an Asian woman, and responsible of a new Wyndham hotel in Xiamen. With his young son who is studying in the US, we all sat together one night at the local Australian-owned cafe to share the traditional Tuesday night “two-for-one” pizza and beer, and had one of these wonderful conversations which has you travel around the world in minutes…
My last story is the one from Sanna and Tom, originally from Sweden, who live in Beijing with their 3 children, him working as the communication director for Nokia.
We met under the most unusual circumstances! Remember last October… when we trekked for 4 days in Bhutan. This was a unique experience, not shared by many. Indeed we met 2 people only every day (a lot fewer than climbers of the Everest experience!). So you can understand my surprise went I read Sanna’s comment on my blog! “I think we met in Bhutan… I recognize your tent… we did the same trek in October”. And indeed we had met … and met again in Beijing for the most wonderful and unusual evening. Just because of that blog posting, we had decided to meet again. For one evening, and one evening alone, we were transported far from the crazy life of Beijing to a very peaceful and very beautiful Swedish home. We truly could not have felt more in Sweden if we had been in Stockholm! It was before Christmas, in a secluded quarter for embassy people, which looked just like an American suburb. And we had such a wonderful time: Christmas tree with Swedish decorations, fire in the fireplace, hot spice wine, and lots of memories from Bhutan which we all shared on that night…
So “expats from the world”, thanks for all these wonderful moments!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Year of the Rat

Or may be I should say “the year of the mouse”, like I read in a China Daily newspaper’s article (sounds “friendlier”, no?).
In any case, the “year of the rat” is everywhere around us… to my great surprise. The phenomenon is probably nothing different than any other year, but it is definitely something new and surprising for me, living the experience of my first Chinese New Year.
Of course, I have known about the 12 Chinese zodiac signs. I knew that people’s zodiac sign depends on the year they are born (based on Chinese lunar calendar of course).
And the coming year, starting February 7th, is the “Year of the rat”. What I did not know about is how present these signs are in people’s lives. A lot of products are designed and purchased with the illustration of the zodiac sign of the year. Places are decorated with these illustrations, like these paper illustrations hanging in hallways and at registration desks in Xiamen airport… hundreds of them (photo above)!
Many articles are written. China Daily had a fascinating full-page article on the subject a week ago.
It explains that the rat/mouse is the first of the 12 zodiac animals in the cycle of 12 years (for the fascinating story of how the rat came first, read Mark and Tina’s blog).
The article also describes the 4000-year old emotional attachment Chinese people have to the animal. Images of the rat first appeared on bronze ware in the Shang and Zhou dynasties (4000 years ago) and then in the Han, Sui, Tang, Ming and finally Qing Dynasty (1346-1911). It also mentions how ancient Chinese actually had a love-hate attitude toward the rat, depicted in history as mean, greedy and disgusting, but also worshipped for its unusual reproductive capabilities. Images of mice or rats in households were a symbol of fertility and prosperity – even though people also feared them, as the rodents damage houses, spread diseases and spoil the food.
Well, the rat is still the symbol of fortune and prosperity and everyone, and even the US Treasury, is trying to cash in on the Chinese craze for “luck and prosperity”! The US Treasury has in fact issued some $1 and $2 notes with serial numbers that start with the lucky 8888 number to welcome the Year of the Rat.
And Hong-Kong Disneyland has designed the Chinese character for fortune (fu) in the shape of a little Mickey Mouse! Actually Hong-Kong Disneyland is trying hard to capitalize on the Year of the “Mouse”. Afterall, its famous hero Mickey Mouse is… a mouse! Hong-Kong Disneyland has not been as successful as anticipated in the past few years, and the park is hoping to connect Chinese culture to Disney for better success this year, and is launching a major promotional campaign of the park and its famous mascot.
If the rat is the symbol of fortune, it is also the symbol of leadership. The rat is indeed seen as a natural leader, hard-working, ambitious and energetic. Rats this year will be the kings of the world!
So, what can we expect for the Year of the Rat? “a seemingly quiet year on the surface, but full of tensions underneath” (says Raymong Lo, a feng shui master who has predicted the fall of Gorbatchev in 1991 and the Nasdaq crisis in 2000).
And who will be the next president of the US?... John McCain whose Chinese zodiac sign is… the rat! … interesting!
Some of the anecdotes in this posting come from 3 postings of China Books Blog and one posting from Tout sur la Chine (in French) on the Year of the Rat.
Post-scriptum: I am trying to know from my Chinese friends if the word for rat and for mouse is actually the same in mandarin… Anyone has the answer for me?