When I first went to China in 1979, Their New Year celebrations lasted all of 2 days. As time passed, into the 1980’s, that celebration was extended to 4 days, and in some places, should it fall over a weekend, 5 days at the most. This meant that as far as purchasing items for my clients was concerned, there really didn’t seem to be much of an interruption to normality over that period of time. In the late 80’s and then into the early 90;s however, when migration from the North of China to the South was at its peak and 150 million workers were trying hard to find employment in the South, New Year was extended to 10 days and then to 2 weeks, allowing travel time for the largest migration in human history to travel too and from their place of employment and back to the home they’d probably not seen for 11 long months.
And now we find ourselves in 2016. Chinese New Year is coming to an end this week and most of the factories I’ve been dealing with have been closed for the past two and a half weeks and some longer than that. It’s become standard practice to close the week before the Lunar New Year and re open 2 weeks after it’s over. Not only that, but some of the workers take another 2 to 3 weeks to return from their journeys north, ending up with over 6 weeks of vacations time. Mind blowing when you think about it, but if you are actually there to experience it, and I’ve had the pleasure a couple of times, you’d understand fully what it takes to shift that number of people vast distances over a short period of time. Just think about it. 150 million people, all with someplace to go and someplace that’s thousands of miles from where they’re based throughout the year. Train stations are full to bursting, airports are worse and there’s a complete industry based around the chaos that this event has now become.
Some years ago I had to be in Shanghai the week before New Year for a factory inspection. I don’t quite remember the items that were being manufactured, but I do recall it was some kind of medical device that had to arrive in the USA by March 1st, so shipping prior to CYN was imperative. I was based in Shanghai but the facility that I needed to get to was a 6 hour drive from the city itself, and that was 6 hours in the freezing cold and without the freeway system that exists today. Total chaos, are the only two words that could sum up that week. My hotel, the Crown Plaza, was a few blocks from the main railway station in Shanghai. A week before CYN, a full week, there was a line I estimated at 200,000 people, stretching more than 2 miles, waiting to get into that station for trains that weren’t going to leave for 4 to 5 days. Running up and down that line were wee boys and girls and grown men and women selling newspapers, candies, medicines, and a ‘scalping’ team selling tickets for earlier trains that cost 4 to 5 times face value. This sea of humanity was camped out in the cold, very few had protection from that cold and almost none of them had any place to go other than the spot in which they lay. It was ridiculous, yet it was amazingly peaceful, because each person lined up knew they were going home, not that day perhaps, but they knew they’d get there that week. Imagine that happening in Europe or in the USA? Then at the airport, similar scenes, obviously compounded by the absence of any security, (this was prior to 9/11), but chaotic with a sense of calm all the same. Some of those who waited for their flights were there more than 5 days, and some, the rich, walked right by those who were not too rich, waiving their tickets with a sense of purpose and with some shame as they juggled their bodies towards check in and then security, dodging that same elite group of entrepreneurial Chinamen, selling food, and newspapers and believe it or not, tickets for earlier flights!
And so, as my clients began calling me again this morning, all desperate to learn pricing, delivery status and sampling possibilities, I am reminded of those scenes all those years ago, and compelled to remind them that sometimes, vacation time is a time that cannot be calculated, especially when you have to share it with hundreds of millions of people. “Wait another couple of days” are the words of advice I pass on to those in need, “and then maybe, just maybe, my factory will come back to life, as it did last year and in the 35 years before that” Patience is a virtue, Chinese patience is beyond virtuous, it is principled and exemplary, well, most of the time!