The clock ticks midnight and the fireworks begin. European revelers let out a jubilant “Happy New Year!” and celebrate the beginning of another year with friends and family.
Only, in China, the new year won’t arrive for weeks.
Each year, sometime in January or February, the Chinese community prepare for the 15-day long Chinese New Year celebrations. Also known as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, it’s the most important holiday in Chinese culture and brings rocketing demand for fresh produce as people celebrate.
It’s a chance for the Chinese community across the world to reunite with family and wish each other happiness, good health, peace and prosperity; a time to share gifts, eat food, celebrate, and lay plans for the upcoming year.
This year, on Tuesday 5th February, we ushered in the Year of the Pig – the final year of the 12-year lunar calendar cycle.
Now that the lunar celebrations are over, it’s a good time to reflect upon the significance of this holiday, both for the Chinese community, and the global trade that supports it.
A BOOM IN FRESH PRODUCE
Each Lunar New Year, Chinese citizens get seven days public holiday. Although the official holiday only lasts a week, factories and businesses in China typically shut down ten days earlier to allow workers the time to make the journey home to their families.
In 2018, an estimated 385 million people boarded crowded trains to make the long journey from city to countryside. This annual mass exodus of workers is the largest human migration in the world (more than seven times that of Thanksgiving in the USA)
Such a large scale event is also a terrific economic driver.
In the first seven day period of the holiday, retail and dining sales have increased steadily year on year since 2012. In 2018, it reached ¥926 Billion CNY (approximately $139 billion USD) – that’s almost double that of 2012.
This boom, owed partly to an emerging Chinese middle class, has seen an explosion in demand for fresh produce from across the world. Chilean cherries, Argentinian wild shrimp, Ecuadorian white shrimp, Vietnamese Red Heart dragon fruit, and Chilean hand-picked blueberries, all ranked among the most valuable imported foods during the 2018 Spring Festival season.
Like most holidays across the world, food plays a central role in the celebrations. But for the Chinese, food during Chinese New Year celebrations also assumes a deeper, more symbolic meaning.
THE SYMBOLISM OF FOOD
When you bite into a mouth-watering, sugar sweet cherry, you may think of little more than the delicious flavour and soft texture. But during Chinese New Year celebrations, those same cherries represent far more.
A sought after gift during the holiday, cherries are desired not just because of their taste, but because of what they symbolise. For the Chinese, the red of a cherry symbolises prosperity and fortune, and its round shape symbolises the reunion of family members and friends.
This kind symbolism is rich in Chinese culture and a hallmark of the Spring Festival celebrations, as ordinary, and exotic fruits, come to take on a deeper meaning.
The orange, for instance – the word for which sounds like ‘wealth’ in Chinese – symbolises happiness and prosperity, while tangerine symbolises luck. The humble apple? Peace and safety.
The appearance of fruit can also give it a special meaning. The golden colour of the gold kiwi fruit and the persimmon are symbolic of gold, the precious metal, and thus they symbolise wealth and good fortune.
So as families across the 9.6 million km2 expanse of the Chinese mainland open fruit-filled hampers, rich in meaning, few consider how these exotic fruits, grown on the other side of the world, came to be in their home, in a small village in rural China.
FROM FARM TO FORK
While China is one of the largest exporters in the world, it still imports more than half its fresh fruit supplies – around 4M tons every year. And as demand surges during the Chinese New Year period, shipping operations must kick into overdrive to ensure that fruit arrives fresh and in pristine condition.
It takes a lot to get cherries from Chile, oranges from Spain and apples from USA to arrive perfectly fresh. Through a mix of finely-tuned, climate-controlled containers, and a deep level of care, MSC transports fresh fruit across the world for the Chinese to enjoy during their annual celebrations.
And as another Lunar New Year celebration has come to an end, and the Chinese community across the world has returned to their day-to-day, the trucks at Guangzhou Jiangnan Fruit Market, the biggest imported fruit market in China, continue to transport fresh fruit from all over the world to the far corners of China. Until next year, when demand surges and it all begins again.