I realize that sort of post title might give the impression that I’m some sort of sophisticated lady-about-town, but I meant a different sort of clubbing.
12 years ago, when I was first in Chengdu, Christmas wasn’t much of a deal, understandably enough. Nonetheless, I’d heard of a Christmas Eve “tradition” happening in the center of town. I was told that young people gathered together at Tian Fu Square to celebrate with plastic balloon clubs. A Chengdu native told me that this “tradition” was started when some foreigners who were staying in the JinJiang Hotel (formerly the only fancy hotel in Chengdu), who were probably bored and drunk, chased after each other through the hotel hallways with plastic balloon clubs. And somehow it caught on!
Tian Fu Square in 2003 was an open square, framed by heavily-trafficked streets on all four sides, and directly under the watchful eye of marbled Mr. Mao. Street photographers would make a few yuan taking pictures of tourists with Mao in the background.
On Christmas Eve, the square was jam-packed with adults and children, most of whom were carrying plastic clubs, or U.S. flag-decorated baseball bats. And of course, there were street vendors selling these ballon clubs everywhere, as well as entrepeneurs charging one yuan a pop to re-inflate the battle-tested weapons. And battle-tested they were! Yelling “Merry Christmas!” and “Hello!”, every person in the square was using the ballon-clubs to bash every other person they saw on the head. It was a form of full-throttle bloodless mayhem, and it seemed that being non-Chinese made me a special target.
I was almost immediately separated from my friends, who had to fight their own battles, and couldn’t call them (cellphone service was cut off inside the square), only finally finding them again after an hour or so as the clubbing was dying down. Reunited, we walked out of the Square by a Thai restaurant, in front of which a group of Santa-cap wearing waitstaff were caroling “Hotel California”.
So, this year, I wondered if the tradition was still observed. Tian Fu Square is still in the center of town and still lies under Mr. Mao’s outstretched hand, but now it is the hub of the new subway system and an underground mall. The revitalized park is decorated with giant replicas of the Shang dynasty golden ringlet found recently and enclosed by fancy luxury good shops like Bulgari . The night was warmish, so I lingered in the park for an hour, but only saw the children of two families carrying balloon clubs, which they half-heartedly used on each other. Actually I saw more clubs in the hands of the militarized police as they marched through the sparse crowd — 6-foot long clubs and riot shields, which seemed completely out of place among the relaxed park strollers and shoppers.
I think it’s safe to say that that particular Chengdu Christmas tradition has died out. It’s been replaced with LOTS of street Christmas decorations and public trees. In a few years, I think that Christmas will evolve into being heartily celebrated as a consumer holiday, just like in the West.