In Winter, or, An Old Chokey Christmas: A poem

A blast from the past by Kaiser Kuo, a poem that first appeared in his Ich Bin Ein Beijinger column in the Beijinger, updated with original artwork by Katie Morton

In Winter, or, An Old Chokey Christmas

In winter all’s still, and the sun’s scanty rays
Filter downward in pewter and silvery grays.
I find myself strolling down memory hutong
To Beijing in winters when life was more putong.

Glazed roof-tiles girded in glistening icicles,
Sonorous bells on still-plentiful bicycles,
Cabbages, coal smoke, and good shuanyangrou,
And sidewalks all covered in soot-blackened snow.

The winters seemed colder, and Houhai would freeze,
While the snow would collect on the boughs of the trees.
It’s rare now to see cabbage stacked on the stoop
Which by springtime would rot to gelatinous goop.

The tempting aromas of sugar-fried lizi,
And yams baked in oil drums wafts to your bizi.
Or sweet crunchy skewers of red candied haw
Which are no longer sold come the early spring thaw.

No Christmastime feasts back then, nothing so grand.
We McGyvered it up with what scraps were at hand.
Instead of the turkey and after-eight brandy,
We guzzled Yanjing and ate White Rabbit candy.

It may be the earth has been globally warmed.
It may be my memory by time’s been transformed.
But winter these days doesn’t feel so romantic,
As the pace of life toggles ’twixt hectic and frantic.

Modernity offers its own winter charms
(Though I’m not sure it helps more than it harms).
Both April Gourmet, and of course Jenny Lou’s,
Offer comfort-food cures for our grim winter blues.

And with broadband these days, the chill might not trouble you
Even considering the damned GFW.
Though Internet blockages make us quite bitter,
We still manage access to Facebook and Twitter.

The Web offers so many ways to enjoy
All those holiday classics I loved as a boy.
I sit by my space heater, warm in my qiuku,
And stream “It’s a Wonderful Life” off of Youku.

We send SMS to spread holiday cheer,
In Nativity missives at least half-sincere
And Hanukkah greetings as well if you choose
(Since half of the gringos in Beijing are Jews).

The net has made giving of gifts all too easy
From zhengban to shanzhai, from tawdry to cheesy.
And what could beat Taobao for buying your presents,
To have them delivered by tricycling peasants?

The traffic gets bad, but it’s bad in each season,
To get me to cross town, you’ll need a good reason.
I normally don’t mind the subway at all,
At least in the spring, or the summer, or fall.

But with everyone wearing a fluffy down jacket,
Each subway car needs extra staff just to pack it.
They shove you inside just as hard as they can,
Like they do for the rush hour trains in Japan.

Come winter, the nightlife does not drop a beat.
The revelers give off enough body heat.
The bars are decked out in the Christmas decor,
meaning lights they’ve left up since the season before.

Hot Toddies and mulled wine and egg nog with rum
(Though prices, I fear, are a princely-ass sum),
With globalisation, wherever you roam,
The holidays won’t be too different from home.

But I wonder if that’s what it should be about.
With each passing winter comes reason to doubt.
So for Christmas this year I’m inclined more than not
To dine with the family on mutton hot pot.

As for wintertime goodies completely indigenous,
Is goose all that better than fine roasted pigeon is?
An Old Chokey Christmas – now what could be finer
Than spending the holidays right here in China?

It’s the small things, they say, that make life worth living.
Intentions, not price tags, make gifts worth the giving.
Those home comforts can’t match the fresh-candied haws
Or the chestnuts or yams – suck on that, Santa Claus!

Illustration by Katie Morton