Flower Street Fun

When most foreigners think of Chinese New Year, they think of fireworks, Dragon Dances, and egg rolls. Though there are fireworks in abundance, I’ve never seen the famous Dragon Dance (though we have witnessed many Lion Dances), and have to go to America if I want an egg roll. For native Chinese, Lunar New Year means family, food, and pretty decorations…much like many of our western holidays. One of their (and our!) favorite traditions is Flower Street. Whether they are set in narrow alleys or sprawling squares, for three days leading up to midnight on Chinese New Year’s Eve, these bouquetted boulevards are sure to be thronged with a press of people, a plethora of posies, and  tons of toys for the patron’s purchasing pleasure. :)

Many people will meet up for a meal before going to the market. Hot pot and BBQ are both popular choices, because they allow people to sit around a warm pot or grill (remember, the indoors is usually unheated, and it can get cold), chat, and leisurely fix their food to suit their own fancy.

Our friends had found a Groupon-style deal for a BBQ grill, and we thoroughly enjoyed the unique experience.

As we chatted, we grilled thinly shaved pork and beef, small steaks, chicken, sardines, eggplant, sausages, green vegetable #9 (not sure what it’s called in English or Chinese), and mackerel steaks- all seasoned to perfection with cumin, garlic, soy sauce, and numerous other sauces.

Though it may not have been what westerners would think of as BBQ, we gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up.

With happy bellies, we made our way to the Flower Street at the sports center- the largest Flower Street in GZ. What a spectacle it was!

We knew there would be a huge crush of people once we went in, so I told the ladies to keep an eye out for the white hat bobbing above the crowd and follow that. It pays to be tall sometimes.

I think this imposing gate guardian would agree.

The square leading up to Flower Street was massive, teeming with people, and lined with beautiful traditional decorations.

In a nod to China’s long history of celebrating this lunar holiday, they had set up mobile museums displaying traditional artifacts and historical tidbits.

From here we took a deep breath and waded into the crush of people. Please excuse the quality of some of my shots. Not only was it night time, but sometimes the only way I could get a picture was to hold the camera over my head and shoot.

Did I mention that there were a lot of people there?

Flower Streets are a conglomeration of time-honored “lucky” items, beautiful flowers, fun toys and food. While we don’t believe in luck, it’s interesting to understand the mindset behind these traditional items.

No, these are not lemons with udders. They symbolize “five generations under one roof.”

A bunch of these would symbolize the giver’s desire for your family line to continue and prosper, and for all of its members to love each other and live in harmony together.

Having this in your home would show a desire for success in your career. Each tier represents a promotion, until you’re the big boss at the top of the pyramid.

Some things are tied to accumulating wealth, because of their visual resemblance to money-

Oranges look like gold coins…

…and pussy willow (at least in its natural, undyed state) looks like silver coins.

This unique pitcher plant is given to families hoping for children.

Peach blossoms are traditionally put in the homes of single ladies to advertise the need for a husband. Many friends are encouraging me to buy some this year…

…but I decided I didn’t need them to meet my Mr. Right. Or is he Mr. Wong???

Not all flowers are “lucky.” Some are just lovely; these are my favorites!

Hu die hua (butterfly flowers) are both popular and expensive.

It’s easy to see why these beautiful flowers are so coveted.

I thought these azalea bonsais were stunning…

…and the paperwhites delicate beauty and sweet fragrance make them another perennial favorite.

You’d think with these and many other flowers perfuming the air, the Flower Street would be a pretty nice-smelling place to be. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Hanging over everything was a really dreadful stench. I kept checking the bottom of my boots, looking to see if we were near portable outhouses…but I could not figure out where that horrible smell was coming from. Then, it dawned on me. Check out the food vendors.

After all, their offerings were, shall we say, a little out of the ordinary?

The Tibetan BBQ guy, dancing to the rhythmic beat of the music as he tossed and turned his meat skewers, checked out okay.

Here we find the culprit- a huge mound of chou dou fu- aptly translated as stinky tofu. I won’t go into details about how it’s cured, but sufficed to say I plan to stay away from it.

Ah, this is much more our speed.

This is all-natural cotton candy; no artificial colors or flavors. It’s practically health food.

To make it more fun for the young and the young at heart, vendors hawk everything from balloon sculptures…

…to hand formed clay models…

…cutesie accessories…


…blow up hammers (which many boys/men were having way too much fun with)…

…giant fake candied fruit sticks…

…and Do Re Mi?

Probably  my favorite part was the red lanterns swaying in the trees overhead…

…aren’t they magical?

Flower Street is a fun blend of old and new; traditional and whimsical– a great place to go to experience the full effect of the pageantry of this country and the warm, joyful spirit of its people.




A Sense of Community

The longer we live in China the more we realize that Americans and Chinese approach life from different perspective. The American viewpoint is individual, whereas the Chinese viewpoint is communal. When we first arrived we often wondered “Why?”

Why do people here go outside in their pajamas?

Why do girls clean their boyfriends’ ears in public?

Why do people ask us how much we pay for rent or how old we are?

Why are there generational names by which they call strangers the same thing they call their family members?

Why do the ladies in Bible study wait to “go together” after the lesson even if they are just riding the elevator downstairs and then taking different buses?

Why are we constantly offered advice, especially about how to take care of our young children?

Why do the elderly still have friends from grade school?

And the list could go on (and on and on and on….)!

The answers to those questions would have many facets, but a common thread would be that Chinese live in community with others. You might wonder if this is part of being a Communist governed society, but I don’t think that has much to do with it. One contributing factor is likely that China has a long and varied history, which is shared by all people. It is not a “melting pot” of different cultures but rather a very homogenous society. While we Americans treasure the diversity and differences various ethnicities and races bring to our collective, my Chinese brothers and sisters value their shared roots, their well-known history, and their national pride. In America it tends to be “all about ME” whereas in China it’s “all about US!”

There are situations where we may tend to question that thinking, and, in truth, it is not always a good thing. However, our passion for individualism at the expense of the common good is not always healthy either.

Another reason for this mutual life would be sheer numbers. Masses of people living in high-rise buildings next to high rise buildings; crowded villages with open courtyards where people gather; cities of millions…. Many people plus little space equals cooperative lives!

Our purpose in having this blog is not to criticize our host country. We will share the good, the bad, and the ugly things we see to some extent, because every nation has its warts and we would be remiss not to mention some. However, neither will we be disrespectful of a country, which has welcomed us in and given us so much- including a daughter, two daughters-in-love, and many friends. With that in mind, I’m not telling you the downside of this equation, but highlighting the positives I see in this mindset.

• The elderly are included, respected, and not set aside.

• No need to worry about what others would think if they knew this or that, because they do know!

• No preoccupation with privacy

• Lack of self-consciousness

• More opportunities for the gospel

• Crimes, at least petty crimes, tend to be punished immediately within the community rather than before a court of law resulting in greater hesitation to do it next time!

• Less loneliness

• Within one’s own circle, people tend to take care of each other with a system of mutual support. (i.e. In your circle you have a doctor. You have made him sticky rice dumplings for Dragon Boat Festival. When you get sick, he will contact a friend in the medical field of specialty you need and help you get proper care.)

• If you don’t know or forget someone’s name, you can just call him a generational name!

• You know what relationship someone has with another by the name used. (There are special names for “younger sister’s daughter” or “grandmother on my dad’s side”. It’s very complicated to learn but once you’ve learned it you can save all that explaining of who’s who!)

• Safety in numbers

I am sure there are others, but those are off the top of my head. I’ve mentioned it briefly earlier, but one funny aspect of this is the “yiqi zou” idea, or “going together”. In America we see it a little in the example of ladies going to the restroom at the same time, but in China you see it continually. People just prefer to do things together. Recently I saw this during Dragon Boat Festival. Let me depart for a moment to explain this holiday so you’ll understand the context.

Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. This year it was June 23. Legend has it that Dragon Boat Festival memorializes the patriotic poet Chiu Yuan who committed suicide by attaching a large rock to himself and jumping into the river. Chiu Yuan is said to have been the primary advisor of the Chu kingdom, making him the target of jealousy, which resulted in slander. When an interloper killed his king, Chiu lost his position and went to the countryside to write poetry. There, he is said to have met a peasant who didn’t care about the country but only about himself, so the disillusioned Chiu jumped into the river to drown. (Seems drastic but you know those poetic temperaments!)

According to the story, all the neighbors came out in boats to seek the fallen Chiu. (You see, they KNEW he had done this AND they came to help him!) They threw sticky rice pyramids (called zhong zi) into the river to attract the fish to keep them from eating his body, and they also beat drums to scare predators away. Somehow a dragon entered the story so villagers poured white rice wine into the water to make the dragon drunk, causing him to leave poor Chiu alone! Later, a drunken dragon-fish flew up out of the water with shreds of Chiu’s garments hanging from his whiskers. Thus began the festival today called Dragon Boat Festival!

What does all this have to do with communal living? Here it comes! This year, we live along the river, so we enjoyed watching the long, thin boats practicing the week before the event.

Local companies sponsor boats, as does every little village that can muster a crew to man one. The long, skinny watercraft can hold about fifty passengers most of whom row, but there is also one at each end of the boat yelling a cadence to keep the tempo, people who toss firecrackers in the water ahead, and, of course, a pair or two of drummers. Down river a short distance, we could see two gathering points for boats, which we hoped meant that we would see a race on the actual festival day.

But much to our surprise, there was no competition nearby. Guangzhou has one huge race featuring entries from all over the surrounding area. So why were they meeting outside our window? Yi qi zou! All the boats from this district- and there were tens of them- left at the same time to go down to the race. So though we got to enjoy the excitement of the continual drums and firecrackers all week, when race day came we only saw them join together and leave as a group! For us, it seemed anticlimactic.

But for our neighbors, this translated to great fun as huge numbers gathered around the river, cheering, shooting off firecrackers, and just generally giving their friends and colleagues a big sendoff. After all, what are holidays for except to gather together in community, making noise, eating traditional foods, and just hanging out? This is only one example of people going to great lengths to “go together” but I hope it demonstrates the idea at the same time as it educates you regarding one of the more popular celebrations of the year. At any rate, it provided me with a chance to post a few of the photos taken from our window, showing that there really was a plan behind my convoluted posting.