Halloween in Beijing: Pumpkins, pirates, and ... a man in a dark suit

Yes, Virginia, there is Halloween in Beijing. No one dares to toss toilet paper over the gingko trees or egg the local Sichuan restaurant, but a group of American expatriates held a party and trick or treat – and most of the guests were Chinese, including a man in a dark suit.

Courtesy of Debra Bruno
Shoppers walk past a Halloween display inside Raffles City Mall in Beijing.

The leaves are starting to fall from the trees in Beijing, but there are no crunchy piles for children to jump in. In China, leaves are immediately swept up by the legions of workers who attack them with ragged-edge straw brooms that look ready for a Halloween witch.

But daily life in China’s capital city is not especially Halloween friendly, even though you’ll see occasional decorations. In a local mall, pumpkin decals cover the sliding glass doors under the heading, “Amazing Halloween.” Inside the mall is a large display with plastic pumpkins and a fake-looking haunted house façade. Meanwhile, the expat-friendly restaurants are advertising Halloween parties for children and teenagers.

But try to find some candy corn in this town. The Chinese don’t quite get our western obsession with sweets. “Fruit is Not. A. Dessert,” my daughter’s friend Emily says drily. What I wouldn’t give for those little “fun” sized boxes of malted milk balls. One mother plaintively asked on one listserv: “I am looking for a bakery that can make Halloween cupcakes and treats for my child’s school…Also, is there a store that sells bags of Halloween candy?” So far, no one has responded to her. Another friend has spent the last week or so hunting for a costume for her two-year-old. “I may just have to paint whiskers on his face and let him wear kitty ears,” she says with a sigh.

Our expat-heavy apartment complex celebrated Halloween in our own way. It took place on the Saturday before Halloween, Saturday being a more-convenient time than the middle of the week, in the same way many Americans push their Thanksgiving celebrations to the weekend after the fourth Thursday to accommodate schools and work schedules.

Where we live, called Seasons Park, one mother took on the thankless task of organizing the Halloween party. After she ran the party last year, the management suggested that one party was enough and she should forgo this year’s gathering. They claimed the festivities were “not harmonious,” an irony not lost on all of us who had lived through a week of Chinese new year fireworks set off outside our bedroom windows starting at 6:30 a.m

This mother’s reaction was to promptly plan this year’s event. Interestingly, the e-mail she sent out to our apartment complex got positive responses from about 50 Chinese families and only 15 western ones.  Part of the advertising problem is that posters she put up inside the complex’s 24 or so apartment towers are promptly removed, so word got out by listserv, e-mail, and conversation.

All this is happening in the context of the looming 18th Party Congress, set to begin Nov. 8. The Telegraph writes, “China Cracks Down on Dissent as Handover of Power Nears,” and describes a number of dissidents and petitioners who have been locked up or asked to stay away from Beijing. That article, not surprisingly, takes almost a minute to open online, even with a VPN that allows users to log on to Facebook and Twitter, still banned in China. In fact, the Internet runs more sluggishly these days, which always seems to happen when China is undergoing big things like leadership changes.

Even the American Chamber of Commerce seems a little, well, spooked, sending out this message about an Oct. 30 event: “the Women in Technology Panel will not be hosted in the Google conference center due to security issues. This event will be rescheduled to a new date and venue, and the details will be announced shortly.”

Back in our little expat haven, the plan was for the little ones to gather in the amphitheater in the center of the complex where they could admire each other’s costumes, pretend to eat a healthy snack, and then go door to door to collect candy. They had a list of apartment numbers where people have agreed to hand out treats. We’ve managed to find some miniature Snickers bars, individually wrapped marshmallows, and something called Trolli sour fries, which are yellow sugar-coated candies that are supposed to resemble a packet of French fries. Don’t ask.

The trick-or-treat portion of the holiday has also lost a little of its punch, since the treats are only being given out by pre-approved families, and no one dares to toss toilet paper over the gingko trees or egg the local Sichuan restaurant.

Despite the tame nature of the festival, the party (not the Party) was cut short this year. Management is concerned, the Halloween planner writes by e-mail, that “we will look like a protest in the election year and somebody could call the police.”

But in truth, the celebration was pretty subdued – unless you count the little boy who refused to don his incredibly cute homemade helicopter costume, preferring to push a stroller down the sidewalk. He'll be a rickshaw driver instead, his mother said with a shrug.

I did notice a man in a dark suit walking officiously away toward the end of the gathering, which drew about 200 people, mainly Chinese. I heard that the organizer, decked out in purple balloons to look like a bunch of grapes, was told it had to end at 5:15 promptly. And it did.

We immediately got several rounds of trick or treaters, who yelled "HELLO!" and grabbed handfuls of candy from the bowl I held out even as I said, "Yiga! Yiga! Just one!" Their parents stood in the elevator door snapping pictures of the whole scene.

So what started out as potentially threatening, ended up with the usual mob of toddlers dressed up like pumpkins and pirates. And I decided not to risk showing up at the party as the Dalai Lama. Now that would have been spooky.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Debra Bruno blogs at Not by Occident.

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