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Friday, 4 February, 2000, 21:32 GMT
Huge exodus for new year

Beijing station ticket office A packed Beijing railway station this week

By Matt Frei in Shenzhen

What causes the world's biggest annual migration of people? Is it a refugee crisis? Or perhaps the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca?

Neither. It is the lunar new year festival in China.

First some statistics: This is the week in which an estimated 800 million Chinese are returning to their ancestral village or home town to celebrate the lunar new year.

Man waits to board train in Beijing A face in a sea of people
Just let that sink in for a minute: 800 million people on the move, one sixth of humanity.

Imagine every single person in Europe clutching a bulging suitcase, a rucksack, a duffle bag or a child, getting on trains, planes and automobiles to visit relatives then double the number. And add the population of the UK.

"Don't come today!" Mr Ho, our minder from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had warned us on the phone. "It's a nightmare!"

"But that's precisely why we want to come!" we said, laughing. "We want to SEE the nightmare!"

I began to regret our decision as the dense crowd moved me and itself onto the train at Hong Kong's Kowloon Tong Station.

Dragon dance in Beijiing Celebrations are already under way in the capital
I seemed to be levitating, My feet were off the ground. There is really nothing wrong with being packed like sardines on a Chinese train until a mobile phone rings, which it does about every two seconds.

Then the packed mass of limbs, torsos and heads squirms and wriggles like some giant millipede as everyone tries to answer their phone only to find that it wasn't theirs!


The border crossing to the Chinese mainland at Lo Wu.

The first time I came here was in 1983.

I and about 30 other people walked along a garden path into the People's Republic.

A large picture of Mao greeted us, and an officer from the Health Department in a white uniform who asked me if I was in good health. I replied that I was.

Koreans queue for buses in Seoul Other countries are also on the move, as this picture from Seoul shows
He seemed genuinely pleased and I was allowed to enter China.

The first port of call was the small town of Shenzhen, a collection of shacks and low rise houses which was home to about 10,000 people.

Things have changed. Shenzhen today boasts a population of 2.5 million, 600 skyscrapers and more brothels and massage parlours than Bangkok.

This is a Chinese version of Gotham City and since 90% of its inhabitants are migrants who have come here to get rich, everyone is on the move this week, returning home to their family roots.

The central avenue was a human river. Tens of thousands of people wheeling black suitcases or heaving the bulky red and white plastic bags that contain the trophies of consumer culture.


Miss Lee from Hohote in Inner Mongolia and her six bags, containing - amongst other things - a video recorder, a TV and three dozen red roses, was preparing to board the Karaoke Bus to Guangzhou, better known in the West as Canton.

From there she would get onto a train to Beijing, then another train and another bus.

The journey will take her two days and nights.

She will stay for a week, and then come back again to resume her work as a bank clerk.

This is her annual holiday. Miss Lee is drawn back home by what the Chinese call Se Xiang Jia - to miss home and town.

The Chinese are notoriously homesick and Miss Lee was no exception.

"Although I have lived here for 10 years I hate southern China. I'm only here for the money," she told me.

"I hate the food. I can't stand the people. They're so rude and greedy. And above all this place is SO ugly." She grimaced as if she had just smelt rotten eggs, or worse.

Her disgust made me chuckle. Because Hohote, her beloved hometown, is probably the ugliest, dustiest, most depressing place I have ever had the misfortune to visit.

My most enjoyable memory of it was getting arrested for pogo-dancing in a disco.

"I have been to Hohote," I confessed to Miss Lee, who had cheeks as round and red as ripe apples.

Tears suddenly welled up in her eyes and she threw her arms round me, dropping her bags.

"Did you love it?" She asked, expecting a YES. I lied, of course, and marvelled at the magnetic power of homesickness.

Our conversation was interrupted by a shrill nasal announcement from the loudspeaker.

Miss Lee and her boxes clattered onto the bus, one of the 50,000 passengers departing from this one station on this one day.

"What about the roses?" I asked. "Won't they wilt?" "They're plastic," said Miss Lee, embarking on one of the 1.6 billion journeys that mark the beginning of the Year of the Dragon.

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See also:
04 Feb 00 |  Asia-Pacific
New year appeal for quake survivors
04 Feb 00 |  Asia-Pacific
In Pictures: Preparing for the dragon year
28 Jan 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Taiwan takes fizz out of fireworks
16 Feb 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Happy Year of the Rabbit

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