Subscriber OnlyAsia-Pacific

Chinese new year: How Beijing residents are preparing to celebrate - and what they will be eating

For the past three years, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the annual migration for Chinese new year and many will return home this year for their first festival since 2019

In Shahe Grand Bazaar, a sprawling outdoor market in Beijing’s northern district of Changping, the crowds were so thick it was hard at times to move through the stalls. Two giant pigs’ heads lay grinning on a butcher’s table next to other cuts of pork while a cluster formed near a truckload of apples so tall that the salesman stood on a ladder to reach them.

There were nuts and seeds in huge plastic basins, mounds of chillies, cinnamon and star anise, and different varieties of loose tobacco in bins the size of milk crates. Beyond them were long racks of clothing and a display of red lanterns and other decorations for the Lunar new year on January 22nd.

The new year or Spring Festival is a days-long celebration that will see tens of millions of people travelling across the country next week to be with their families. Among them will be Yu Shijia, who describes himself as a “problem solver”, making a living doing odd jobs like deliveries for small businesses.

“We’ll drive back to our hometown 280km away, about three hours, four or five days before the Spring Festival and stay about 10 days,” he said.


Yu is 36 but he has a boyish way about him with a big, toothy smile, a loping, uneven step and a set of worry beads that he grips and releases as he talks. He and his wife live in Beijing but their 10-year-old son lives in Hebei province with Yu’s parents and he sees his son only about once every two months when he goes home during public holidays. This holiday is the longest period they will spend together.

“There’s nothing I can do about it. He has to go to school there because the education is better and my parents don’t mind helping me to take care of him. When I’m at home during the Spring Festival I’ll spend every day with him, with his friends or with my friends,” he said.

Preparations for Chinese new year start a week in advance with the traditional sacrifice to the kitchen god, which for most people takes the form of a delicious meal together. The following day is for cleaning the house, a tradition that is still maintained even in big cities.

The preparations, which can include making tofu, braising pork and washing clothes to get rid of bad luck, continue up to New Year’s Eve next Saturday. This is a day of cooking and eating, putting up decorations and distributing “red packets” of money to children and elderly relations.

Most people will watch the Spring Festival Gala on CCTV, the state broadcaster, an hours-long variety show that counts down to the new year. Midnight will see families sharing dumplings while fireworks explode outdoors, outside the limits of the biggest cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

For the past three years, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the annual migration for Chinese new year and many will return home this year for their first festival since 2019. Health officials are braced for an acceleration of the wave of infections that has swept through China’s cities since the zero-Covid policy was scrapped last month.

The authorities have not released any data about infections or deaths since the beginning of this week but some health experts warned against visiting elderly or vulnerable people who have not yet been infected.

Yu stayed in Beijing for Chinese new year in 2020, at the start of the pandemic, but he has gone home every year since then and he is confident that it is safe to do so this year.

“We’ll cook the New Year’s Eve dinner together, me, my wife and my parents. We will watch the Spring Festival Gala, make dumplings and eat them at midnight, and set off fireworks to celebrate the arrival of the new year,” he said.

“During the 10 days at home, I basically visit relatives and friends, eat and drink together, but I never get drunk. For me, the Spring Festival means reuniting with my family.”

At one of the stalls in Shahe Grand Bazaar, a man was selling grasshoppers and when I asked Yu about it, he reached inside his coat and took out a clear plastic cylinder from a pocket next to his chest. Inside was a grasshopper which he bought two weeks ago and hopes to keep alive until March, feeding it carrot and cucumber and listening to its clicking song.

“It makes me feel happy and makes me feel as if it’s summer. I never feel cold when I hear that song,” he said.

In Shijingshan district in western Beijing, Meng Hao was stubbing out a cigarette as he sat behind a desk in the office of Motobox, which does motorcycle repairs, car maintenance and car wash. On the walls were pictures of motorcycles; there was a sofa and a low table, a small television and two parrots on perches.

Short and burly, Meng is a former police officer who left the force last year and is now, at 40, working for his friend Zhang Fuxiang who owns the shop. He is looking forward to spending new year with his family.

“For the past nearly 20 years, I have basically not celebrated the new year with my family, especially the New Year’s Eve night. I basically spent the new year in the police force,” he said.

While we were talking, one of the parrots swung downwards on its perch and became entangled in a silver chain around its neck, flapping its wings in a frenzy. When Meng went to free it, the bird bit him and he called Zhang in to restore order.

The shop will stay open throughout the holiday season and some of the workers will stay in Beijing rather than go home to their families. Lu Wen, 23, usually spends new year with his family in Lanzhou, the capital of the northwestern province of Gansu but he will stay in Beijing this year to earn some money.

“Although the Spring Festival is a festival for family reunion, there is nothing I need to be worried about at home, so I decided to stay in Beijing,” he said.

“I am not affected by the epidemic, and my family is not worried about it at all. They are all doing what they should do and how they should celebrate the Chinese new year.”

Zhang will spend part of New Year’s Eve with his family but he and his wife will come to the shop in the evening to celebrate with workers like Lu who are not going home.

“On New Year’s Eve, I usually don’t review what happened in the past year or look ahead to the new year,” he said.

“But I hope everything will get better in the new year and that business will pick up.”