There’s more Chinese presence in Poland since I wrote the article below for the Warsaw Insider in 2008. At the last count, the number of Confucius Institute (China’s answer to the British Council) in PL is eight. None in Warsaw, though. The head count is large enough a critical mass to make Warsaw a surprisingly good spot for authentic Chinese food, especially Peking Duck. But the coming Chinese New Year will still pass largely unnoticed by the locals. I used to ache for the festive warmth back home but I’ve learnt to content myself with a low-key meal shared with family and friends.
All Quiet on the Polish Front (Warsaw Insider, Feb 2008)
Based on previous years, it’s more likely to see a white Christmas in Tahiti than a vibrant and lively Chinese New Year in Warsaw. But with the active trade between China and Poland and the influx of Chinese businessmen and students, perhaps somewhere in town, there is festive spirits to be found?
“There is no re nao,” said Dong Xiao Bin, the owner of Jin Ren, a Chinese restaurant in the south of Warsaw. Re nao roughly translates to “warm, noisy and lively activities”. Re nao is an ingredient fundamental to an authentic Spring Festival experience.
Around the world, the first day of the first lunar month is known as Chinese New Year, or the PC-version, Lunar New Year. In China, it is more commonly referred to as Spring Festival. You, a citizen of the world, know that this is the most important event for the Chinese and the merrymaking lasts 15 days. Re nao is at its peak in the run-up to the 30th Night (Chinese New Year’s eve) and the early days of the festival. Then the buzz wanes slightly but perks up again as Day 15 approaches.
Unlike Christmas, where silent nights are holy, for Spring Festival, we Chinese want the high decibels jingles, bangs and gongs. Give us the cacophony of saccharine and cheery Chinese New Year pop songs; the jostling in market places where vendors hawk the seasonal goodies via megaphones; the smoke-filled temples where believers and non-believers pray for a blissful and auspicious new year; the homes and shops decorated with a razzmatazz of lanterns, faux gold bars, symbolic origami and Chinese calligraphy banners; the chaotic home kitchens spilling out aromatic delicacies that take six days to prepare and gone in 60 seconds; the kids and grandkids, wrapped in new and bright red clothes, running amok and high on cookies and junk food; the ear-splitting fire crackers going off in broad daylight and at midnights; and the boisterous gatherings of family and friends to feast, jest and play rowdy mahjong. This is re nao and we lap it up in spades.
This year, Day One of the Spring Festival falls on February 7. Like previous years, as the date draws nearer for the changeover of Chinese horoscope signs (the Pig is seceding the throne to the Rat), there is a palpable exodus of Chinese from Poland.
Two years ago, we went in search of Chinese New Year vibes in the Bliss Restaurant in Mariensztat Square. In China and countries where there are sizeable Chinese communities, Chinese restaurants are the hubs for festive feeding frenzy. To my dismay, Bliss had no special menu nor any “may there be surfeit every year” banner. It seemed an awful waste not to highlight the cultural event. (And also a squandering of a business opportunity. Last year, hypermarkets like Carrefour and LeClerc cashed in on the Spring Festival by having a special section of Asian grocery.) Mr. Qu, the owner, explained that the business-as-usual strategy was due to most Chinese taking leave from Poland.
“[In Warsaw], there isn’t any focal points like a Chinatown for the Chinese community to celebrate the Spring Festival,” said Mr. Dong. Though the Chinese embassy hosts a party for the residents, the Ambassador’s well-wishes, the buffet and film that follow don’t quite match up to the atmosphere in the east. “It’s too quiet and too few Chinese people here.”
I tried to pry the Chinese headcount in Poland from the People Republic of China’s Embassy. One diplomatic staff passed me on to the next. Until finally, a representative who decided that the buck stopped with him, said he would look it up and call me back. The trail went silent. So, I turned to street information.
“There are slightly under 2000 Chinese here,” Li Qian estimated. She is a lecturer in the Sinology Department in Warsaw University. Married to a Pole, she moved here eight years ago and has been keeping in close contact with the comings and goings in the local Chinese circles. “This figure includes the businessmen and students.”
According to Mr. Dong, a good number of the traders deal in clothing and footwear. The recent new comers include those with base camps in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. The students are scattered in cities like Warsaw, Gdanśk, Łodz, Wrocław and Kraków attending tertiary courses from Economics, English to Polish. They are about two to three hundred-strong.
“Most go home to China for the celebration,” continued Mr. Dong. “Those whose families are living in the Netherlands, head for the Netherlands. I too feel like going back to China.”
Others make use of the downtime in China to go on a holiday somewhere in Europe. My son’s Mandarin teacher is home-trotting to Beijing. She said many of her fellow students are eastwards bound.
This form of escapism I understand only too well. The absent of re nao makes me empathize with the pugilist in Simon and Garfunkel’s wintry New York City – “wishing I was gone, going home”. When my kid was doodling in kindergarten, giving up a month of cut and paste in exchange for re nao was easy-peasy. Now Maths, History, Geography and the possible charge of truancy hold us custody in Poland.
Work commitment or children’s schooling have been keeping the likes of Li Qian under country-arrest in Poland during the Spring Festival. Behind closed doors, the Chinese, whose shows must go on in Poland, cook up some re nao on the 30th Night.
“We make jiaozi (dumplings),” said Li Qian. Jiaozi is a Spring Festival staple in Northern China. Its ingot shape implies wealth but more importantly, it is a dish where everyone pitches in to make, and thus symbolizes family unity. For Li Qian, some years, it is a quiet nuclear family affair. Other years, her family flocks together with a few Chinese households for a pot luck affair.
Mr. Dong prepares a more sumptuous meal which always has fish. Fish is an essential sound bite. In Chinese, fish sounds similar to “surplus”. The fish is served whole with its head and tail symbolizing having more than enough sustenance from the entire year.
After the meal, we parents give our children yasui qian (red packets containing money for good luck in the year ahead). And then we do what ET is predisposed to do: we call home to mother ship, be that in Malaysia, Taiwan or China, and wish our far-flung loved ones a happy new year.
Li Qian’s sons, Michał (age 9) and Janek (age 1+), have never spent Spring Festival in China. She plans to rectify this in the future so that they experience the undiluted, full-blown re nao. “There are many interesting activities [before and during the festival]. It’s a wonderful chance to understand the Chinese culture,” she said.
Insider’s Tip: Some Chinese restaurants might give you a 10% discount if you wish the staff a Happy Chinese New Year during the 15-day celebration. The stress is on the word “might”. But no harm in trying your luck.