Old Chokey Christmas

Winter in Beijing – festive verse by Kaiser Kuo


Ed: This poem appears in While We're Here, our anthology published this month by Earnshaw Books. Listen to editors Alec Ash and Tom Pellman talk to Kaiser Kuo about the Anthill, the book and China writing on this week's Sinica podcast


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!

Kaiser Kuo combines China hand and metal head, is cohost of Sinica podcast and works at Baidu, which has been described as "like Jon Bon Jovi went to Google”

This poem first appeared on the back page of The Beijinger as "In Winter"