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Jason Schuster


I have always loved big crowds. I spent a large part of my youth wading through audiences at massive rock shows pushing my way through to the front in an attempt to get that sought after front row spot. Over the years it became a skill that I refined by attending continually larger events with more people and more densely packed fans. It was always a combined effort of a leader spearheading their way through while all others behind pushed in a controlled effort to get the best view possible. Things were always hectic and exciting but I never had any issue with the  massive amounts of people.

When first arriving in China, I had been warned that it is best to get away from China during Chinese New Year. Other foreigners had repeatedly told me that there are just too many people around and that it can be oppressive and uncomfortable. This observation excited me more than making me want to avoid the event. So I opted to stay in town.

Tangerine tree at the Huacheng Square

All over China people flock to their city centers for their expansive and very regionalized celebrations. In the north, the Chinese harness their surroundings and turn the cold terrain into statues and buildings carved from ice. In Beijing, there are big parades and even more massive crowds of people. Down here, in the south, they have the flower festival.

I did not know what to expect of this particular event. My hometown is also known as a "flower city." Back in the 1960's all the way up to the late 1990's the city of Mentor, Ohio was considered the rose capital of the United States.

Every year my hometown would hold its own "flower festival" called "Better in Mentor Days." Originally the event was a venue for the local nurseries to sell their flowers and to exchange trade secrets. Those farms are now gone but the festivities continue. Every year our local parks would be filled with portable carnival rides, food vendors, and fun little games for the public to indulge in while enjoying the summer heat.

In the beginning, it seemed the Guangzhou festival would follow this same trend, an old festival that has lost its history but still exists because people want an opportunity to congregate.

I started at the Jiangnanxi station with a group of fellow foreigners. The four of us began to follow the small crowd of Chinese, until that small group had swelled into a mob of people.

The swarm snaked down the road spilling over into the road and slowing traffic to a crawl. Children jumped and giggled waving sticks covered in pinwheels that glistened under the yellowed city lights. Vendors held potted plants and yelled their prices at passers-by in an attempt to attract interest from those not fully committed to the crowds.

An arch of flower fair

My friends and I stayed close together as we approached a large archway that spanned the entirety of the road. Red lanterns swayed from it and LEDs glowed, welcoming all those who passed underneath. I was caught off guard by the overwhelming extravagance before me. I stood and gazed upon the structure for what could have been a few minutes. I was entranced by the fl ashing patterns being displayed before me and lost track of my friends. In the few moments we had been at the hua shi (flower fair), I had already lost them and was left on my own.

I stood there for a few minutes confused and a little frustrated. Back at home, our carnivals are big but not so large that you would lose one another. None of our phones were working effectively so I had a few choices. I could wait where I was and hope my friends would stumble upon me or I could venture out on my own. I chose the latter.

The festival itself was much larger than I had expected. I soon found myself completely lost in the sprawl of human flesh. I tried to push my way towards the stalls but it was too difficult to fight the tide of people. I began to just go wherever the crowd willed me.

I must have appeared somewhat distressed because an older Cantonese woman (65 or so) approached me as I stood by a stall that was selling purple orchids.

I do not know if she wanted to practice her English or if she was just in a helpful mood, but she came up to me and began to explain the significance of the flower festival. She told me that the fair had existed for over 500 years and that it might go as far back as the Tang Dynasty. She guided me through the stalls pointing out little oddities and telling me the particulars of each breed of plant.

Flower fair

She told me that you purchase peach blossom branches if you are hoping for good luck in your love life or orchids if you are looking for financial fortune. She pointed out a dessert covered in thin lines of white sugar. She called it dragon's beard candy and its rich peanut flavor was delicious.

I spent the remainder of the evening with her asking questions and she would happily respond. Even after I had ran out of quality questions, we continued to wander through the grounds. All of the glowing iPhones were accompanied by hanging lanterns. Every LED was balanced by the light of a child's eyes taking a bite from its first jelly candy. Modern society coated the surface of events but the tradition continued its production. It became apparent that underneath the overwhelming sales of plush toys and red streamers there was still an air of history and culture that perpetuated the festival.

We came upon the exit to the festival and once again I looked up at the archway above. Again I lost myself in its shifting lights, but this time I looked down to ask her the purpose of the archway.

As mysteriously as the woman had arrived, she also disappeared. Maybe she got lost in the crowd as my friends had, but I chose to imagine her differently. In my mind, she was a friendly spirit bent on educating silly foreigners (like myself), taking them under her wings and showing them the history and culture of her people.

(By Jason Schuster)

Editor:Lynus Tan
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