Last night we enjoyed celebrating Lantern Festival, the second-biggest holiday of the year, with the family of one of my students. A number of other teachers and their spouses were invited as well. The evening began with a delicious hot pot dinner at their house, which they had undoubtedly spent hours preparing beforehand (and hours cleaning up after!). There was a large pot of boiling water plugged in on the center of the table, with a few meatball-type things already in it. Around it were ranged a number of other foods waiting to be cooked, such as beef, pork, two kinds of fish, giant shrimp, mushrooms, noodles, etc. As the meal progressed, we each added whatever else we wanted to the pot, let it cook a few minutes, then fished it out and ate it with rice and sauce. Choices for the sauce included soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, thick barbecue sauce (no relation to the kind we use in the States), scallions, and hot chili peppers. At the beginning of the meal everyone made their own mixture according to their own tastes, then took it to their seat in a little bowl to dip their meats into. Wow, what a tasty way to do a meal!
After lingering over dinner and conversation, our hosts passed out colorful paper lanterns for all who wanted them. These are a traditional style that apparently are hard to find nowadays (not surprising, since they’re highly flammable, being made of paper with a real candle inside. Apparently the stores mostly sell plastic ones now). You fold down the sides, attach the candle to the bottom of the lantern, raise the sides again, then twist the wire handle around the end of a chopstick to carry it with. Watching the kids playing around with each other’s lanterns outside the apartment, I kept praying none of them would burn down the neighborhood. Surprisingly, only one boy caught his lantern on fire, and his older brother stamped it out before it became a problem.
Carefully carrying our lanterns, we strolled down the street to a large public park, which is one of the city’s major Lantern Festival celebration locations. It was basically a big fair, with colored lights and decorations all over, and a giant lit Mickey and Minnie welcoming us in (in honor of the Year of the Rat). There were booths selling colorful lanterns in various creative shapes (all with little bulbs inside, no real fire). The place was absolutely packed, and most of the people were either carrying or wearing or buying some sort of lantern or glowing object (picture the light-up plastic swords, necklaces, devil-horns, etc. that they sell in Disneyland at night). The park had a huge amphitheater where there was a colorful fountain show going on, but it was too crowded for us to get in, so we didn’t see much of it. I think there were to be fireworks at some point, but it was late and we didn’t want to stay all night, especially in crowds so thick we could hardly move. Finally Floyd and I wormed our way out of the throng in the park and found a taxi to take us home. What a memorable evening!
Little shops and stands selling decorations have popped up all over the place. The most common kinds are rectangular or diamond-shaped, with a word or phrase in Mandarin in the middle, and elaborate red and/or gold designs around it. Most of the words are about prosperity or good luck for the new year. This is the beginning of the Year of the Rat in the Chinese calendar, and so many of the decorations we’ve seen feature pictures of cute mice.
The funniest thing, in my opinion, is that a lot of them have Mickey Mouse (often with Minnie or other Disney friends), dressed in traditional Chinese clothes! We’ve been told that this is perfectly legal; I guess the company that makes them arranged with Disney to buy the right to use Mickey this year. In any case, it’s fun seeing “East meets West” in the Mickey Chinese New Year banners, which have rapidly become very popular here.