A Keeley’s Christmas in China recalled

Cayman Brac’s environmentalist, educator and author Martin Keeley spent time in China this holiday season. He sent Weekender a missive about his adventures. 


Xiamen City, Fujiang Province – The South Hotel is squeezed in-between shops with apartments above them and little characterises it as a hotel except the bright yellow paint job. But push the glass doors open and a narrow welcoming lobby and reception desk is well lit and pleasingly decorated. It is dominated by a huge plastic Christmas tree covered in the usual tinsel and glittering lights. 

This was not the first sign that China has adopted Christmas in a big way. When I arrived at Guangzhou airport a huge banner greeted me as I passed through immigration and customs for my domestic connection. This banner wished me the usual Merry Christmas and sported a host of rain deer and snow. Santa Claus wore his traditional red outfit and had a Caucasian face. If I’d thought about it, this would have given me a clue about the Chinese perspective on Christmas. 

The hotel is in downtown Xiamen, Fujiang Province, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of street life you come to expect in Chinese cities. Relatively quiet during the day, the streets come to life after dark. The shops are all open, spilling onto the street, while the street vendors use a variety of techniques to hawk their wares. 

Glittering new cars push their way gingerly and with horns blaring through the narrow old-city streets. A sure sign of growing affluence. Almost every other store is selling the latest fashions which this year feature furs and other warm weather clothes. Well, it is winter here, after all, even if mangroves grow here year-round.  

But the tree which dazzles the eye in every shop doorway is, of course, the ubiquitous Christmas tree complete with all the required decorations.  

From another storefront Frosty the Oriental snowman beams out while, directly opposite, Santa and an odd selection of elves wend their way through snow covered streets. One store has totally gone overboard with Christmas wrapped candy canes offsetting multicoloured snowdrops.  

Plastic knock-offs of hohohoing Santas roll around in the pedestrian sidewalk – a covered way that keeps the rain off would be shoppers. And various Christmas carols ring out from speakers stock on doorways and tables on the street itself. 

My friends laugh when I comment on how China has adopted Christmas.  

“I didn’t know Christianity had become that widespread here,” I told them. They laughed. It hasn’t, they told me. Well, just part of it. “And that would be? I asked, already knowing. 

The commercial part, of course. The Chinese – always the world’s best shopkeepers – have come to realise that what Christmas has become in the West is one big buy-and-sell celebration. A time to boost the sales figures by unloading more consumer goods than at almost any other time of year. 

It’s easy to see as well-dressed couples and groups of young Chinese pause by the fashion stores or, more often than not, pose for the camera before one Christmas tress after the next. Shopping bags, many themselves covered with bright (Western) Christmas scenes, swing from their arms containing all that promises everything during the latest and greatest consumer binge of the year. 

What my Chinese fiends confirm, somewhat cynically, is that the new god is money. You see that everywhere you look. And it is a god that has been copied lock, stock and barrel from us.