The Ox Year: From Under the Bund

By Jonathan Chandler
Exclusive to The Wild East

The New Year of the Ox was heralded in Shanghai by silent shuttered shops and six days and nights of fireworks, often in the middle of the road with at least one taxi catching fire briefly before dousing the flames.

One huge string of semtex was detonated right outside my sixth floor window at 4.30 a.m. one night.

Apparently the celebrants (or perpetrators) were targeting the only “yang-gui-xr” (foreign devil) who lives in our old crumbling block on Wooloomoochi Road. Meanwhile during the dalight, rain and cold weather kept the streets empty save for the fruit basket vendors and firework stalls that were set up on the pavements.

On Wednesday I was a guest at a well-appointed hotel which turned out to be a Home for Aged Senior CP officials. The place had massive ballrooms, bowling alleys, KTV rooms and banqueting halls and was thronged with very old men in simple suits and three generations of progressively younger and more fashionable family and friends. My group had two retired High school headmasters from Shanghai – old Party stalwarts, mixed family members and the Jay Chou bouffant-styled hair of the young Taiwanese visitors. The food was orgiastic with free flowing red wine (French), and bai jiu, our brand was the fiery spirit favoured by the former Chairman MZD himself.

On Thursday night I attended a Taoist-cum-Buddhist (though ecumenically all-welcoming) ceremony of blessing and prayer for abundant good fortune at swissotel. The rite started at 11.00 pm and went on till the stroke of midnight when after an hour’s chanting and processing throughout the building, down into the lower basement staff canteens and up to the top floors, into every office and even the fire safety room, a massive series of ear-bleedingly loud explosions rent the air. When the smoke and ear ringing had cleared, the chanting was coming to an end. Standing at the rear of the motley bunch of about a dozen staff and guests I was over-generously sloshed with holy water by the abbot from the nearby Jing-An Si temple accompanied by a sudden loud variation of the Om mani Padne Hum chanting. I had the feeling the Master sensed I needed a bit of extra watery exorcism to wash away my personal demons and some.

Then it was over, and I collected my tiny wallet which contained a photo of my daughters, a piece of favorite medicinal tonic and my credit cards from the tray of personal objects that had been placed by the attendees on the altar before the start of the ceremony for blessings and auspicious gilding. (Deftly thereby, I had covered family, health and wealth.)

I was left to walk home alone through the war zone that was Shanghai on the fourth night of the New Year. Clutching my box of preserved fruits and auspicious pastries from the altar, I trod warily, strangely light of heart, through the soft rain and low dense sky eerily lit by the city wide fireworks, smoky: a real purple haze.

So the old traditions return in ever greater force after the harsh half century of erasure.

Recent years have seen Tomb-Sweeping Day, Dragon Boat Day and the Mid-Autumn Festival rising phoenix-like from the charred fossils of the Little Red Book chaos that was the Cultural Revolution and which ended just over thirty years ago. Most of the temples nearby had not survived the upheavals and Jing An Si temple is still under reconstruction.

The fireworks continued unabated blasting the bad stuff of the dead year out of the sky and I reached Wooloomoochi Road, centre of the firezone. I walked up the six flights of old stone steps, lit by colored flashes and sudden bangs, wishing for some New Year of the Ox good vibes for us all.

It is this abrasive and ecstatic clash of the ultra new and ancient tradition that makes Shanghai worth inhabiting.

This is part of an exclusive series by British novelist Jonathan Chandler, “Low on the Hai,” perspectives on China written by an insider.

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