Saturday, January 24, 2009

My Alley and Chinese New Year

The alley behind our building is a glimpse into daily life in Shanghai, a place where old and new world collide. There are no cars but thousands of pedestrians and bicycles filter through this narrow passageway each day. The streets are filthy, scraps of paper, plastic bottles and lettuce heads are scattered.

I watch as the lady selling fish throws a bucket of water into the street, choking the antiquated sewage system with the scales and guts of the fish she just sold. The heads are not disposed of but rather sold to those who appreciate its delicate meat. A woman approaches the man selling roosters and, interrupting a woman who was speaking to the man, pushes her aside and points to the roster she wants. The man grabs a rooster, plunges it into a cauldron of boiling water, pulls it out, slices the neck, and scrapes off its feathers into another drum. The wind sweeps away a handful of feathers and they scatter in the road, collecting and swirling as roaming alley cats swipe in the hopes of catching something worthwhile. The butcher, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, wipes his brow with his hand and continues to hack away at the meat. He does not wear gloves and I note that he forgot to squirt some disinfecting Purell on his palm (note the sarcasm). The meat is laid out and the stall has no false ceilings, allowing dust and dirt particles to settle on the meat. A woman walks up to the stall, picks up a slab of meat, inspects it, bring it to her husband across the road, he then handles-pulls-and-inspects the meat, rejects it, and she tosses it back on the butcher’s wooden board.

He claims to sell beef but I doubt this is true since my friend photographed the slaughter and skinning of a dog on this very corner.

Dangling above the vendors are dozens of dried fish and chickens. The chickens have been pressed flat before being salted and dried, and they have taken on comic features, resembling the rooster from the Road Runner cartoons. The former range from 1-6 feet in length and are hooked onto the window sills with bits of string. The heads are dried and hung separately, and their eyes seem to peer at the baskets of swirling water snakes and snails found below. The baskets share the road with burlap bags of frogs whose bounce diminishes with the passing of the day.

The garbage collector peddles by, collecting and weighing items as he passes. He draws his cart behind him, filled high with stacks of paper and even a small refrigerator. Children run behind him, tossing pebbles and shouting recriminations. His muscles bulge under the strain and he looks straight ahead, a glimpse of sadness reflected on his face that has been aged by the sun.

There was no activity in the alley the day of Chinese Lunar New Years Eve.

Days before the New Year, however, every family was busy giving his home a thorough cleaning, hoping to sweep away any bad fortune to make way for good fortune. People often paint their doors red and decorate them with paper-cuts and couplets, symbolizing themes such as happiness, wealth and satisfactory marriage with more children and better s-x. People are even encouraging to wear red clothing and as a result, there are dozens of overstretched red underwear hanging from the makeshift clothing lines along the road. But the silence found on the roads today was a bit disconcerting.

That evening I waked home after enjoying a dinner party at my friend Clancey’s home. The 4 inch heels - which had seeming so fetching earlier that evening -were, after a 75 minute walk, about to be donated to the nearest garbage bin on the road. I limped along on roads that were normally rife with horns honking, thousands of cars racing, vendors shouting, and the daily cackles of life vibrating. I normally have to look-both-ways-run-and-pray before crossing the road whereas tonight I stood in the middle of the road watching. It seemed like a war zone since the streets were virtually abandoned except for two groups of people a) those setting off firecrackers and b) those or running away from the pyromaniacs-in-training. The police laughed as the 6-packs of roman candles that were stacked in the middle of the road were lit by the flick of a cigarette of someone passing, unknowingly causing an explosion and a cacophony of car alarms. The few cars and scooters that had taken to the streets swerved to avoid the sparks and explosions.

The dust began to settle in my throat. I watched as children searched piles of firecracker shells in the hopes of finding one that had not been detonated, their parents too consumed by the communal sense of celebration to take notice. Perhaps the government could limit to the explosion of ungodly quantities of techni-color gunpowder but only allocating ONE FIRECRACKER per family?

I made it home and climbed onto our terrace where I could see the fireworks stretching towards the Bund. I started to film but suddenly - yelp - had to return inside to avoid the firecracker fragments that were falling onto my feet. Yes, on the 21st floor. I pressed my nose to the glass and watched as the firecrackers competed with the millions of lights emanating from the created-by-a-comic-illustrator-from-the-1950s skyscrapers and the 50 story high futuristic electronic billboards.

After having had lived in Johannesburg, I associated bangs and booms with gunfire and its respective criminal. As such, sleeping was impossible and I tried to read in bed. This also proved impossible. I tried to watch some television but even at a maximum volume with the television actually vibrating, I could not hear the dialogue. I was left with no option and trudged to the sink to fill my balloons with water.

The city began to awake the following day and with each day, the activity on the streets increased. On the last day of the lunar spring festival one assumed the dragon has already been scared away. It seemed that the celebratory agenda still has milestones that needed to be reached and the explosions continued. I was startled by the simultaneous explosion of thousands of firecrackers while making dinner and the stir fry catapulted onto the ceiling, crawling down the walls like millions of spiders onto the floor. At the same time, my husband’s passionate and indignant shouts (directed towards Federer who was losing the tennis match) alternated with the staccato sounds of the last few fireworks. 

There are a number of traditions associated with this evening and I was amazed at their ability to multi-task; while guessing the riddles found in the lanterns, they set off firecrackers with one hand while eating yuanxiao (rice dumplings made of glutinous rice flour with rose petals, sesame, bean paste, jujube paste, walnut meat, dried fruit, sugar and edible oil as filling) with the other.

Since the last day is called Lantern Festival and is meant to show respect to the Buddha, people carry lanterns and allow them to drift into the sky. I had hoped that this would be done silently, without the accompanying cacophony of the firecrackers, so that neither Buddha nor the rest of the neighborhood would be disturbed. However, people did not feel that their firecrackers had paid proper homage to the Buddha and a few seconds after the first explosion, they set off a thousand more. And this continued every five seconds for the next six hours. It was lucky that I was not in a chatty mood.

1 comment:

jupiter family said...

Happy New Year!

2009 Fireworks shows