Lunar New Year

Railway passenger records set to tumble as holiday week charges ahead

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 February, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 February, 2002, 12:00am

China is closed on Monday, the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year, and will not re-open until next Monday or Tuesday, the seventh and eighth days (chuqi and chuba) of the Lunar New Year.

Government bureaucrats will be doing even less work this week than usual - though this is hard to believe. In fairness, it should also be noted that the same is true of some journalists - the South China Morning Post print edition will not be published on Tuesday or Wednesday.

As penance for this brief reprieve, however, we will subsequently have to hang out at train stations and shopping malls, writing the same stories we did last year about how many people are travelling and how much money they are spending.

Starting today, the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets are closed for two full weeks. They reopen on February 25.

One explanation for their long suspension is that traders in Shenzhen hail from all over the country, and need extra time to make their trips home and back. Others say the markets were once closed for an extra week to facilitate a technical upgrade. Everybody likes the extra time off so much it became a permanent perk.

Officially, only tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday are recognised as holiday days on the mainland. But in order to give everyone a seven-day leave, a curious time-swapping arrangement was concluded over the weekend.

If you were up and about early in any mainland city over the weekend, you may have noticed that traffic levels were much heavier on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, approaching normal workday levels. Similarly, office towers that are usually partially closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays - less lifts operating, for example, and stricter security sign-in procedures - were instead wide open for business as usual.

This is because many people in offices across the mainland 'worked' on Saturday and Sunday, in return for which they can take Monday and Friday off and thus earn themselves an uninterrupted seven days of vacation. Office productivity levels this weekend were surely anemic, and one wonders why such an elaborate charade has to be played out at all. But that is the way it is done in China.

Marriage rush

There has also been an increase of mainland marriages over these last few days of the Year of the Snake. According to authoritative superstitious Cantonese sources, the coming Year of the Horse is considered an inauspicious time to marry. Horses have never been particularly valued on the mainland due to their large appetites and limited utility on the postage-stamp plots of land that pass as farms.

Despite the rush to tie the knot there has not, however, been a corresponding demand for last-minute Caesarian sections. Apparently it is better if your child is a horse rather than a snake.

Unlike offices, factories take a more rational approach to the holiday, especially in the Pearl River Delta, where much of China's export muscle is concentrated.

A special 40-day travel period is observed in order to ensure a more orderly flow of millions of migrant workers from their factories to their home villages in faraway inland provinces across China's badly overburdened rail network. Known as the chunyun - which translates roughly as the 'Spring Festival Rush' - this year's chunyun began on January 28 and ends on March 8.

During this period more railway carriages are laid on and security at railway and bus stations is increased. Factories start winding down operations as their workforces begin to slip away in the weeks running up to Chinese New Year, and then up the tempo as more workers return during late February and early March. If there are urgent orders, Scrooge-like factory owners can keep their manufacturing lines humming for all but the official three days of holiday - on the condition that workers are paid overtime.

The epicentre for China's chunyun is arguably Guangzhou's main railway station and, only a few hundred metres away, the city's central bus station.
According to official statistics, there are ten million migrant workers in Guangdong and most of them work in the Pearl River Delta. Of these, 5.4 million are expected to travel home. Most will pass through either Guangzhou's main train or bus station.

Last Wednesday, one week before the start of the official holiday, the station's daily passenger volume set a record mark of 160,000. Another 2,000 unlucky migrants who had been unable to buy tickets that day refused to leave the station, but were eventually dispersed by police. The next day a new passenger volume record of 164,000 was set. Even more records are yet to come.

Tom Mitchell is the South China Morning Post's Guangzhou correspondent.