New Year’s letter from China


GRETEL FRENCH PHOTO | A red-sailed junk sails through Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong.

GRETEL FRENCH PHOTO | A red-sailed junk sails through Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong.

Shelter Island’s own Gretel French has been living and working in China as a teacher. The long-time ladies bowling correspondent for the Reporter, Gretl from time to time has dropped us a line about her experiences. Here’s her inside look on celebrations for the Year of the Horse and her travels around the country.

Greetings and Happy New Year to all of you on Shelter Island!

It has been some time since my last update on my work and travel here China. I am currently on a 3 ½ week holiday know as Spring Festival, or for all you Americans, Chinese New Year

All of the holidays here are celebrated on the lunar calendar. As a result, the day of each holiday is never the same. This year the New Year was celebrated January 31 through February 1, but the festivities usually last over a period of two weeks. During this time you will here fireworks constantly day and night. Fireworks are not just used during major holidays but they also blast away and delight the eye for birthdays, weddings, and other family events.

Each New Year is linked to a mythological being in the Chinese zodiac. This year is the Year of the Horse while last year was the Year of the Snake. The year in which you were born is the animal that you are associated with, if you believe in that sort of thing. I am a goat/sheep. Coincidence that I used to work at Goat Hill? Who knows?

The coveted “red envelopes” are one of many traditions during the New Year. It’s common for the elderly and married couples to be give these envelopes as gifts to the young and unmarried people, filled with money in which the total amount is an even number. Even numbers are considered lucky. Usually you would give an odd number sum of cash for a funeral. Superstitions clearly reign when it comes to money here.

Each of the first fifteen days of the New Year represent a significant act or day of remembrance, with family reunion feasts especially important. These dinners are a chance for family members to visit, eat and celebrate life. Bai jiu, or Chinese “Fire Whiskey,” is enjoyed while families dine on traditional pork and chicken dishes, dumplings, noodles, rice, bamboo, lotus and other delicacies. I found Taro cakes especially delicious.

One of the most important things I’ve learned traveling during any of the major Chinese holidays is that you must book your travel well in advance. The China high-speed railway is usually the top choice for transportation because of price and efficiency. I recently took the train to Shanghai from Yixing and the ride was approximately 2 hours. Top train speeds varied between 290 and 310 km/hour (180-193 mph). It is smoother than a long distance airline coach trip.

I spent the first part of my holiday in Hong Kong, an amazing place to visit. I was unable to stay for the International Chinese New Year Parade in Tsim Sha Tsui, but I was able to watch the dress rehearsals on the Waterfront Promenade. The costumes were ornate, my favorite being the dragon. From the Promenade I was also able to see Victoria Harbor, including the junk ship, the Aqua Luna, known for its bright red sails.

I must have hiked over 40 miles between the trails at the Peak, Pok Fu Lam Resevoir, Lantau Island (home of the Tian Tan Buddha), and exploring the intricate streets of the city. I did not see everything and a return trip is in the process of being planned. I still have to hike the Dragon’s Back at Shek O.

I look forward to welcoming some fellow Islanders here in China in the next few days. Mary Dudley and Arthur Luecker are currently en route to Shanghai, Yixing, Xi’an, Beijing, and Hong Kong. I will welcome them to the pottery capital and my current residence, Yixing. Yixing is known for its famous teapots created from the purple clay found in this part of Jiangsu province. I will catch up with those world travelers in Beijing the following week.

Next time I write to you all I will give you the need-to-know information about Beijing. Until then, Zai jian 再见, or, Bye!

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