Spring Festival in the countryside of Liaoning Province. (Li Tiecheng)
I ducked involuntarily as the first explosions erupted, running quickly in a crouched, military maneuver while inhaling gunpowder fumes. It was only when I peered out from my hide away that I noticed the looks of pity, usually reserved for idiots and foreigners, being cast my way.
"[It] is OK, only fireworks for New Year - you please not be afraid," said a trendy lady sympathetically.
I was in downtown Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning
Province, celebrating the Chinese New Year, commonly known as the Spring Festival.
To get anywhere in China over this holiday is a lesson in perseverance, true grit and sheer madness, yet somehow everyone finds their way home. And like a giant canvas, China is brushed with extra strokes of red, from lanterns to firecrackers, roast duck to paper cuttings, and beautiful decorative couplets, written in gold on long red strips of paper, adorning doorways with their calls for good fortune in the year ahead.
A trip to the countryside was proof enough that even away from the city, tradition held firm, with the drabbest of huts wearing splashes of red trim. It helped brighten the spirits on a very cold day.
Having been invited by a good friend to celebrate Chinese New Year's Eve with her family at their home on the outskirts of the city, I witnessed the truly warm side of human nature and also had an opportunity to see the traditions from within.
My hosts Ling Dongshang, his wife and daughter were also hosting their own family members, some of whom had travelled from as far as south Jiangsu Province. The evening supper, thankfully not the last, was a feast beneath an invasion of flashing chopsticks, the most popular course being jiaozi, boiled vegetable or pork dumplings. It was all hands in to make the dumplings. Liu told me that in eastern China, they enjoyed to eat qiaocai, a dish of stir-fried celery. She explained that the hollow inside of the celery is said to symbolize the coming year's smooth interaction with others. Tangyuan is another preferred dish consisting of stuffed dumplings made of glutinous rice flour in soup, served on New Year's Day as a blessing for lasting family reunion, with salted pig's trotters dished up the following day as a blessing for abundance.
After supper, people broke off into groups to play cards, play on their phones or watch the many TV musical shows put on for the occasion. The family would all be sleeping over. Even the sleepiest heads managed to stay up until midnight to watch the profusion of fireworks exploding in the night sky and welcome in the New Year.
Outside, from every apartment doorway and window came the pulsing flashes and rainbow sparkles illuminating the night, accompanied by the ripping and popping explosions and acrid gunpowder smoke that drove the children delirious and brought bright smiles to tired old faces.
At the crack of dawn, the sound of giggling young voices roused a wasted household into life. I was just in time to see the children being given cash gifts placed in hongbao, red and gold envelopes, by their parents, an age old tradition which is being usurped by online Wechat hongbao. It was then time to begin visiting relatives and neighbors, exchange small gifts in the shape of the animal symbolizing the year and use the day as one of reconciliation and putting aside any bad feelings.
I stayed behind and chatted to one of the aunts. She enlightened me about the many traditional precautions taken to ensure the New Year would bring good fortune. There was to be no sweeping done lest the good luck was swept away with the dirt, no dishes were to be broken, and all debt had to be settled before the New Year began. Hair was also to be washed before the holiday as to do so during would bring financial setbacks.
I didn't even flinch as crackers and thunder-flashes again exploded close to where I was sprawled out in the courtyard beneath a duvet. My adopted family was already piling up the food for the next round of indulgence. There was no point in resisting the calls to eat more. In China, it is so much easier just to yield to the host's incessant calls to "just try this."
Celebrating New Year in my home of Cape Town during the heat of summer seemed a far cry from this winter chill, but the warmth of local hospitality more than made up for it.
The writer is a South African living in Beijing