Yu Gardens at Chinese New Year

“Everything there will be closed now at 5.30pm, better if you go there tomorrow”

Advice given seriously from behind a small metallic podium in the lobby of an international hotel in Old Shanghai. At this point we were already wrapped like inflatable snowmen thermal layers, with scarves and hats. We shared an imperceptible shrug due to the thickness of our clothing and decided to go and find out for ourselves.

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Out automatic doors and around the corner from the hotel is a narrow street leading towards the Bazaar. There was plenty of evidence that our project was indeed going to be in vain and that we would return cold and hungry to the sanctuary of the hotel within the hour. Women were gathering up scarves from rails and packing them in great heaps into battered cardboard boxes. The seasonal wind generated from the steady stream of tourists had subsided in the evening. Lifeless, the scarves sat, sad as unused rope at the side of the sea. Metal grates and grills were being pulled down on either side of the road to be opened anew in the fresh light of tomorrow morning. What had been a flurry of discount apparel, New Year lanterns and plastic cherry blossoms in the day was now reduced to uneventful shadow and storage. Children and shopkeepers kicked rubbish into and along the gutters: plastic cups, food cartons, and torn red envelopes – the contents of all having been devoured hours before. Defeated, we turned another corner in order to loop back round, to find the sky filled with colour. Lanterns were strung up and the edges of the buildings were highlighted in golden lights.

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Round another bend and we were drawn into the vivid maze of the Yu Gardens Bazaar, still very much alive despite the lethargy of the surrounding streets. Here, the streets were filled with families basking under illuminated lanterns. Orange orbs, Big red concertinas and smaller crown shaped constructions were all hung from wires across the narrow streets. The cold could not permeate here. Warm bodies, steam from hot fried snacks and a thousand electric bulbs banished the chill.

It is the eve of The Year of the Monkey. These cheeky chimps were seen smiling on stickers, T-shirts, even on dim sum. The Monkey symbolises optimism and agility, but can also be restless and egotistical. People born in the year of the Monkey are said to be more prone to OCD or narcissistic personality disorders. I’m just glad I’m not born under that sign (said by a true egotist).

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The centre of the Yu Gardens Bazaar is a zigzagged pedestrian bridge crooked in order to stop the devil being able to cross. He hates corners. Around the bridge is a spectacle for the New Year. Giant paper and plastic creatures rise up around the pathway and the flow of people here is slow like treacle. We were lost in the stream of bodies pushing forward to be at the epicentre of the occasion. It would be impossible to categorize it all with one pair of eyes, but collectively the awe-inspired bridge-crossers saw sultans, frogs, horses, wizards and waterfalls. There were so many people in a small space, but it was an experience to be shared in great numbers, alone it would not have generated the same feeling of heartening humanity and communal hope. In among the bodies of celebrating families spending time together, it is hard not to feel festive. The anticipation in the air for a New Year around the Yu Gardens filled you will a sense of optimism for the future and a desire to get on with making it a reality. Or perhaps it was all just monkey-business.

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