The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has a long list of taboo subjects that it considers outside the purview of discussion and contestation. To engage with these subjects or ideas is to violate the ABVP’s idea of the sacred. What has precipitated the crisis in universities is that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing also wants to impose its notion of the sacred on all students and teachers.
The tendency of one group to impose its idea of the sacred on others has its origins in the caste system, which, as we all know, is organised on the principle of purity and pollution. Any violation of the ABVP’s idea of the sacred now runs the risk of encountering violence, or invites punishment from the authorities, or both. This too is a feature of the caste system.
The ABVP does not want students to discuss the hanging of Yakub Memon or Afzal Guru, or the inclusion of beef in the mess menu. It believes a seminar on human rights violations is akin to supporting Maoism, which is deemed anti-national. It opposes seminars on Hinduism unless these are unequivocally in its praise. The list is long and forever evolving.
Just how this form of imposition is linked to the caste system can be illustrated through an example. The higher your caste, the less polluting your occupation – but you would be defiled in case you were to shake hands with those whose very touch is polluting, or dine with him, or partake of beef, or remove the carcass of a dead animal.
You can choose to refrain from certain activities. That is your decision. You can, for instance, get another person to remove the carcass from your compound. You can, obviously, abstain from eating beef.
But you also have to depend on others to subscribe to caste rules for preserving your purity. What are you to do if the pariah insists on touching you? What if the outcaste draws water from the tap you too use, or demands to drink tea from the same tumbler as yours?
Either you will adjust to this reality or you will dissuade him from polluting you by striking the fear of retribution or punishment in him. This is often at the root of horrific caste violence in the country. Indeed, for caste rules to have salience, it is vital not only for you but also for others to adhere to them as well.
It is this caste ethos, and arrogance, the ABVP brings to universities, more fiercely now because the BJP government rules at the Centre. Ideas designated as sacred can’t be violated and what the ABVP views as profane must be shunned. In case some choose not to, the ABVP would pressure the authorities to take punitive action against them. It is on the fear of punishment (or violence) that the caste system breeds
Discussions on ideas that the ABVP considers taboo cannot defile its members. Whom does it defile then? It is the Mother, the deity that is India, whom we must worship. Her spirit infuses all spaces, more so the campuses. Just as Dalits were (and are still) proscribed from entering temples, certain ideas have attributes that defile Mother India.
This was indeed the theme of the statement Union Minister Smriti Irani issued following the arrest of protesting students at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Ideas of purity and pollution and religiosity are fused in the politics of ABVP, as is true of the entire Sangh Parivar.
The ABVP’s list of taboo subjects can be arranged in a hierarchy. The most profane is the idea of self-determination. Try conducting a seminar on the issue on campus. It is bound to get disrupted by boys who will later be discovered to be belonging to the ABVP.
Ask for a just trial of terrorists – and every word spoken in favour of it will lead to the defilement of Mother India. Try to get Delhi University’s Law Faculty to organise a talk on the need to withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It won’t, because that is a taboo subject, as is the issue of observing human rights in Chhattisgarh.
Proscribed from university campus are even those whom the AVBP considers Naxalite sympathisers. To check this hypothesis, Delhi University should invite writer Arundhati Roy to address the students. It was the reason the ABVP cited to deny journalist Siddharth Varadrajan from speaking at Allahabad University.
Historical personalities can be assigned to a higher or lower order of profanity depending on the location of a university. It is taboo to make a critical appraisal of Shivaji in Maharashtra or Rana Pratap in Rajasthan. It is taboo, as students of Hyderabad Central University have repeatedly discovered, to demand that the college serve them beef. Outside metros, you periodically hear of the ABVP demanding a dress code for girls.
The ABVP’s obsession with its list of taboos creates hilarious situations at times. The ABVP vociferously protested against philosopher Ashok Vohra at Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur. The reason: he had addressed an audience of around 100 on The Religious Dialogue: The Need in the Contemporary Times. The ABVP claimed he had insulted Hinduism.
Vohra had done just the opposite – he had criticised western Indologists, such as Wendy Doniger. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vohra wrote,
“To evaluate theories supported by these scholars one has to use their vocabulary, their descriptions and their interpretations. I chose this because American writers speak very derogatorily of Hindu gods and goddesses… (But) if you want to rebut an argument, you must quote it.”
The poor philosopher, quite clearly, missed the point. They protested against him for much the same reason as the higher castes disallow the Dalit groom to mount the mare in a wedding procession. It may not violate the principle of purity, but it certainly conveys Dalits assertion. It is possible they could feel emboldened to infringe caste rules in the future, just as a few in Vohra’s audience could become intellectually curious about Doniger and learn to question the Hindu religious tradition.
In the ABVP’s imagination, Mother India is dressed in the fabric of nationalism and Hinduism. To question either is to defile her. It is of little significance to the ABVP that its activists don’t contest these two ideas. This is because it believes Mother India would be defiled anyway because of those who are willing to debate the taboo subjects.
The ABVP has now taken upon itself to teach them a lesson for their audacity, in much the way, the dominant castes punish the transgressor of caste codes in villages. This is why our universities are now in tumult.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.
New York Fashion Week kicked off this week. Celebrities, designers and bloggers (and the increasing number of “slashies” that embody all three) have descended on the Big Apple to drink champagne, admire eye-wateringly expensive clothing, and air kiss one another.
Kim Kardashian was set to make her first public post-baby appearance at husband Kanye West’s Yeezy fashion show. West was to debut his new album The Life of Pablo (formerly known as WAVES).
After a short hiatus from the event, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s cult brand, The Row, will make a hotly anticipated return to the American runway on February 15.
And you can bet that Anna Wintour will watch, sphinx-like behind her enormous Chanel glasses, as close friend Marc Jacobs brings the week to a triumphant close with his climactic show.
For a certain kind of person, New York Fashion week is a “must”. For those of a certain age, income and social status, the event is not just a fixture on the social calendar but a high point.
Even for those who aren’t in possession of that enviable trifecta (including me), the slavish devotion the event inspires is familiar through many fictionalised and semi-fictionalised explorations of New York City (think Sex in the City, Gossip Girl, Project Runway, and The Real Housewives of New York City).
But how did it all get started? Why did it begin? Was there even a New York Fashion Week before Anna Wintour?
Fashion Press Week
New York Fashion Week has not always been exalted or esteemed. The event is actually a relatively recent phenomenon: it can be traced back to 1943, when it began as Fashion Press Week. Up until that point, American women overwhelmingly purchased American-made copies of French designs, and thus the American fashion industry was overshadowed by its Parisian counterpart.
During the Second World War, however, access to the Gallic centre was cut off by the German occupation. This presented the American fashion industry with a unique opportunity, and Eleanor Lambert, the canny director of the New York Dress Institute, took advantage of this by clustering the American fashion shows into a single “event” to promote home-grown design.
To be clear, these weren’t the first ever fashion shows. From the turn of the century, many individual fashion labels and stores hosted their own shows in department stores and hotels throughout Paris and New York in a bid to drum up business. But Fashion Press Week was the first coordinated fashion event to showcase numerous designers of the same nationality.
Even more importantly, the event also proved the effectiveness of this new approach. Although the initial response wasn’t encouraging – only 53 of the 150 journalists Lambert invited to the first Fashion Press Week attended – the impact of the event was strong and swift.
In its wake, the American press heaped praise upon local designers such as Claire McCardell, and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia boasted that:
the only reason Paris set styles all these years was because buyers like to go there on holiday.
Paris, London and Florence
Unfortunately, LaGuardia’s smug sentiments were premature. Having watched New York’s Fashion Press Week from afar, other sartorial centres began to replicate the event.
In a bid to reclaim its former dominance, as soon as the war ended the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture organised the first seasonal showings of Parisian couture to the international press. Along with the emergence of Christian Dior and his sensational “New Look”, this bi-annual event – which commenced in 1945 – was pivotal in re-establishing the Gallic capital as the sartorial leader of the Western world.
In the immediate post-war period, showings in London also created ripples (although not the tidal waves that Paris did). In January 1942, the London couture industry established its own official organisation, The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, which began to host fashion shows after the war.
Bettina Ballard attended these events in her role as fashion editor of American Vogue, and recalled in her memoir In My Fashion (1960) that:
the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers gave handsome and very social parties.
Unfortunately, at this stage the British weren’t so good at sealing the deal, and Ballard noted “the whole couture performance was carried on […] in a rather grand detached manner” as they “never pressed for publicity or even tried to make the buyers buy”.
From the early 1950s, this trio was joined by a fourth fashion market – Italy – which established the “Big Four” that fashionistas still follow today. Seeking to attract bountiful American money to an impoverished and deprived Italy, Giovanni Battista Giorginiorchestrated Italy’s first fashion shows with considerable aplomb.
The first, held in his sumptuous Florentine villa in February 1951, was not a success (180 pieces by numerous Italian designers were viewed by just eight American buyers and a lone fashion journalist – an even worse turnout than Lambert’s first endeavour in New York).
But its successor in July 1951 was a triumph, with 200 American buyers and journalists in attendance, and the event was thereafter established as essential for the fashion-minded.
By the early 1950s, the advent of these rival fashion shows had diluted the sartorial impact of New York’s pioneering event. The annual trips to Paris that LaGuardia had gloated were no longer necessary during the war were back with a vengeance by the late 1940s.
Even worse, they were now the gateway to yet more European options. As Bettina Ballard explained of her own annual migrations:
although Paris was the main objective of each trip, it was also the door to all Europe. I very soon found, along with the postwar travel-starved buyers and the fashion press, how pleasant it was to travel on an expense account with the legitimate excuse of looking over new fashion markets.
American Design for American Women
In the 1970s, the tide began to turn for American fashion. Critical in fostering a renewed respect for American design was the landmark fashion show held in 1973, the so-called Battle of Versailles. Ostensibly a fundraiser for the then-leaky French palace, the event – once again cooked up by the enterprising Eleanor Lambert – pitted five American designers (Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Bill Blass and Anne Klein) against five French designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy).
In front of a crowd full of celebrities, socialites and aristocrats, the Americans stole the show, proving that they could not only compete – but actually win – against their old French rival (and on French soil, to boot).
More broadly, the advent of second-wave feminism during the 1970s also repositioned American ready-to-wear as the ideal solution for the new “working woman”. This development boosted its popularity with both American women and the American press, and generated effusive praise of anything all-American.
A round-up of the New York collections in a 1976 issue of American Vogue, for example, now boasted:
American Fashion at the Top of Its Form: Racy, Freewheeling … Casual!
This newfound legitimacy was solidified when the more informal and improvised fashion shows of the postwar period became slick, professional events. The term “Fashion Week” actually wasn’t adopted until remarkably recently: the French Fashion Federation held the first “Paris Fashion Week” in 1973; the British Fashion Council organised its inaugural “London Fashion Week” in 1984; and the Council of Fashion Designers of America waited until the early 1990s to debut “New York Fashion Week.”
It also was during this period that the American shows – which had previously been scattered across town – were centralised in one location (first in “the tents” in Bryant Park, then in Lincoln Centre, and from 2015 shows have been split between the Skylights at Moynihan Station and Clarkson Square. Increasingly, the event is becoming decentralised again, with shows held at a variety of off-site venues throughout the city).
But although last to adopt the term “Fashion Week”, New York remains the first stop during fashion season (every February and September, back-to-back fashion shows are held sequentially in New York, London, Milan and Paris).
Yet New York’s leading role is fitting. Certainly, New York has become one of the great fashion centres of the modern world, a place where trends are forged and significant money is made. But New York is also where the concept of “Fashion Week” was first conceived and executed, a history neatly mirrored in its prestigious opening slot.
A drive down Kolkata’s spine, the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass that connects the north and south, will tell you what the city is really worried about. Between signboards advertising new-age condominiums, five-star hotels and schools with “world class” facilities are a number of ads by hospitals and pharma companies promising better care for senior citizens at home and graffiti peddling nursing and ayah services.
According to a Times of India report quoting census figures, Kolkata is home to more senior citizens than any other metro in India, most of whom live alone. Educated Bengalis have always moved out to other cities and countries, but in the last decade there has been an exodus of sorts of young people. Kolkata has the least number of 20-30-year-olds among metros.
Caring for the elderly left behind is thus big business in the city.
The Kolkata police, in collaboration with the non-profit Dignity Foundation, have set up a dedicated helpline and a service that keeps an eye on the elderly who live alone and assesses their security and medical concerns – for those who register for this service. The state has also seen significant investments by private enterprises in healthcare segment. According to government communication, 41 speciality and super speciality hospitals are coming up in West Bengal with focus on geriatric care, and a recently concluded business summit tom-toms investment proposals in this sector to the tune of Rs 1,360 crore.
From apps that connect them to emergency services to home delivery of medicines and essentials, physiotherapists and nurses on call to resort-like facilities for those who want autumnal luxury, the elderly in Kolkata are fuelling the state economy in no small way.
According to Meena Ganesh, MD and CEO of Portea Medical that provides home healthcare services, “India’s healthcare industry has been estimated to be worth $160 billion and is split equally between hospital and non-hospital spends. In the non-hospital space, we estimate home healthcare will be a $4 billion a year opportunity. The home health segment is growing at 20% year on year.”
In Kolkata, the market evidently has enough potential to accommodate this fledgling business of domestic healthcare both in the organised and unorganised sectors. The former has big-ticket players such as Portea, Tribea, Medica, Care Continuum among others, while the latter includes nursing and ayah services catering to the more domestic concerns.
The city ranks among the five largest cities for Portea, which is present in 17 other cities. The group offers direct services and also works through hospital partners such as Columbia Asia, providing support to their patients. Their services include doctors, nurses, nursing attendants, physiotherapists, medical equipment as well as diagnostics.
“We also have specific care plans that are popular in the city such as elder care (including NRI plans), palliative care, orthopaedic care, physiotherapy, cancer care,” said Ganesh.
Sanjukta Deb, operations manager at Tribeca Care, says its “one-stop community based care experience is modeled partly on the Community Care concept of the NHS [National Health Service], UK and includes a wide range of medical and non-medical support services”. Nursing, physio, elder care support, medical equipment and supplies, hospital discharge plans, psychological counselling are part of their services, though their most popular service is the elder care programme that is “being constantly developed based on consumer feedback”.
In tandem with the more structured, professionally monitored services, the demand for ayahs or sebikas (attendants who provide non-medical assistance only) has grown significantly in recent years. Care was the first “professionally” managed domestic maid and ayah agency founded by the enterprising Sharmeela Chatterjee from Salt Lake, the affluent suburb in eastern Kolkata. The company, which now has outposts all over the country, is coping with an increasing demand for trusted sebikas for elderly citizens, says Probir Acharya, a coordinator. Besides a caution deposit of Rs 10,000, the services of the registered sebikas come for Rs 270 per day and upwards depending on the job and the hours.
Salt and pepper city
Care is headquartered in Salt Lake (official name Bidhannagar after the former Chief Minister, Dr Bidhan Chandra Ray, who visualised it), the country’s first planned satellite city. Set up in 1958, it was home to the city’s intellectual elite during the Left Front rule and to senior government officials.
According to the government’s official data: “At the 2011 census, Bidhannagar had a population of 218,323 (Males 111,363; Females 106,960) and an average literacy rate of 90.44% (higher than the national average of 74%), with male literacy of 93.08% and female literacy of 87.69%.”
While the newer parts of Salt Lake city have turned into IT hubs, generating employment for the young, most of this township is residential with large parks, recreational centres and quiet, leafy bylanes. The problem in this “sprawling old age facility” – as locals and residents point out – is peculiar.
What was once a beautiful township of independent villas, low-rise apartments and planned colonies for the middle and upper-middle class, is now a study in extremes – islands of commercial buzz with stretches of desolation.
Almost every household here misses its young residents, who have mostly moved abroad on jobs or for higher studies. The elderly live in paranoia, shutting out the world every evening, thanks to the volatile political situation here (the recent civic polls turned the neighbourhood into a hotbed of political violence).
When Deep Probeen Porisheba (specialising in in-home services with a focus on assistance with counselling, mobility, technology and other social roles) first set up their offices here, they encountered locked doors. “No one trusts anyone here,” said Shirsha Guha, director, who came back from the US to drive Deep Probeen Porisheba. Some of the colonies have installed CCTV cameras and beefed up security, but the bigger concerns remain.
Public transport is still a problem within Salt Lake, save for cycle rickshaws. But the rickshaw, as also the bus, is a challenge for the elderly who find it difficult to clamber on and get down from it. Unless there is a car and a chauffeur on duty, the elderly are trapped in their homes for all practical purposes.
Not surprisingly, the demand for specialised care for the elderly is high here. The township is serviced by Apollo, Columbia Asia and AMRI hospitals in the immediate vicinity and has easy access to Sankara Nethralaya, Rabindranath Tagore Institute of Cardiac Sciences, Ruby General Hospital, Medica and Peerless along the bypass. However, most people will not entertain professional care givers, unless they have been recommended by someone they know well. The directories here list 40 or so registered agencies dealing with ayah and nursing services. There are at least as many more that are unlisted and function purely through word-of-mouth.
There is another factor contributing to the isolation of the elderly in Salt Lake. The civic body did not permit elevators in most houses up to four floors till recently. This did not really matter until the families shrunk and there was no one to run errands or even assist the elderly when they needed to visit their doctors or get some fresh air. In colonies such as Purbachal, which faces the glamorous Hyatt Regency Hotel, discussions on installing elevators have been in limbo with most members hesitating to dish out the money despite the inconvenience caused to the senior citizens living on higher floors.
This is where the hospitals and care giving agencies have sensed opportunity. Some of the more popular services include assisted living – helping the elderly get out of the house, go for their walks, visit the ATM, go shopping or meet a friend.
Take the case of the Bhattacharyas (name withheld on request). The daughters who lived abroad were in regular touch with their parents – father was a retired government official, mother a homemaker. It was during their father’s illness and death late last year that they had to struggle with the system – right from getting tests done, collecting reports to installing a monitoring system at home. Right now, for the daughters the biggest concern is dealing with their mother’s loneliness after 46 years of marriage. “We had used two services such as Care Continuum and Kurves Care for regular care,” said one of the daughters. “Kurves Care is enlisted to get us an ayah or maid and to monitor any urgent requirements. They are in touch with my sister too.”
Only Bengalis, lonely Bengalis?
According to Shirsha Guha, the problem began in the 1980s and ‘90s, with the breakdown of the education system and dismal job scene.
“Parents encouraged their children to move out, pursue their dreams of academic and professional excellence,” explained Guha. “This coupled with the fact that the fiercely individualistic Bengalis had moved further and further away from the joint family system, has resulted in their complete isolation. Bengalis have been so busy following their intellectual and creative pursuits that they have cut themselves off from the larger family support system – something that still works for Marwari and Gujarati families.”
Guha observes that almost all her 100-strong members are Bengalis. “Thanks to their shared business and commercial interests, Marwari families tend to stick together. This is beneficial for the elderly, who are always being watched over. The situation is very different for geriatric Bengalis, who are now mostly on their own.”
Her views are shared by Dr Ajay Mistry, who is setting up a 100-room old age home in Haspukur, in the northern suburbs of the city, next to a hospital. “There has been an increase in the number of senior citizens who have been forced to fend for themselves,” he said. “With the chipping away of the traditional family structure, there is no one in the extended family either to take care of their medical and other needs. The idea of building an old age home in the periphery of a hospital was born from this experience.”
There is also the city’s changing skyline to blame. The old houses that shared walls, terraces and lives, have given way to gated communities. “For those living abroad, it seems convenient to sell off the old property which they feel is their albatross, and shift their parents to the new apartments that offer better security and parks and other facilities,” observed Guha. “But this also leads to their isolation. Most of the flats in these high-rises are vacant. The rest have strangers.”
A marketing professional attached to one of the service providers claims he has received calls from Indians living in Australia and the US, who have sought his help to sell off their ancestral property, move their parents to a well-appointed apartment or old age home. He has not recommended any facility so far, citing the incident of how his employer’s relative was financially exploited at a well-known old age facility run by a religious trust.
A professional friend
Despite the challenges and the loneliness, most senior citizens prefer to cling on to their soil than brave hassle-prone travel.
So when they are desperate enough to dial the helpline numbers or ask for help, what are they looking for? According to Deep Probeen Porisheba, it is “companionship”, the most popular service in their repertoire. “Most senior citizens are lonely and unhappy. They just need someone to talk to,” said Guha.
Take the instance of the Mondals in Dhakuria. Their only child lives in Australia. They lead a reasonably active life and have enough to not worry about emergency hospitalisation. Problem arose when both of them were afflicted with severe arthritis and mobility was restricted. The trips to Australia and other vacations came to a stop. Being bedridden exacerbated their depression. Their son, Sarbajeet, enlisted the help of Deep Probeen Porisheba and a physiotherapist was appointed to visit them at home twice a week. After a year, the Mondals say the sahayak, as the professionals are called, is more of a family member whose presence helps enliven the quiet home.
“He has helped me manage my aches and pains and we went on a vacation to Himachal recently,” said Indrajit Mondal (72). “But more than anything else, we enjoy his company and look forward to his visits,” said his wife Meera (63). What makes the arrangement even sweeter is the fact that the son manages everything from Australia – subscription fees, dealing with reports and discussing further treatments or adding services.
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of opening their doors to rank strangers when they are at their most vulnerable. The Sens of Ballygunje Circular Road, for instance, preferred to continue with the nurses and sebikas who had been recommended by relatives or had taken care of them while they had been hospitalised. The sons – Rajesh and Anamit Sen – were both working in different cities, when their mother suffered a stroke, paralysing her. This was followed by their father’s illness. Since 2010, the family has been relying on a support system of two daytime nurses, two sebikas for the night for both parents, and a trusted family chauffeur who does odd jobs and runs errands.
“For most people of a certain generation, there is a huge trust issue when it comes to letting anyone into the house. They prefer to go by recommendations of other family members and friends than look up the internet,” said Anamit Sen, who recently moved back to Kolkata and joined his brother who had moved back earlier to take care of their parents.
“We had the opportunity of coming back for our parents,” said Rajesh Sen. “But almost all my friends living abroad have to deal with this phase. They visit annually, or twice a year depending on their work and the distance. Some of them have signed up for these services – nurses, doctors on call, someone to monitor BP, give insulin shots, or just monitor reports and manage any crisis that may arise. This may not be an ideal arrangement, but possibly the best under the circumstances.”
For most professionals living in the US or UK, moving back to Kolkata is not an option. “When you have worked hard for a citizenship, you don’t want to give everything up. The annual visits are not enough and you are constantly worrying about the well-being of your parents,” said Guha, who believes the situation in Kolkata is different from that in Kerala where most of the professionals leave on temporary visas to the Middle East countries.
“Our son is not the kind to live away from his parents,” said the Mondals. “But he has two children and he wants to raise them in a first world country.”
Not all the subscribers to these services live alone in the city. According to data provided by the service providers, a significant chunk of the requests come in from the sons and daughters who live in the same city but are unable to give enough time and attention to their elderly parents.
The price of convenience
Whether it is a sebika who comes highly recommended for the Sens or a sahayak who helps Anima Roy Choudhuri of Golf Green to Skype with her daughter in the US and go for afternoon walks or deal with legal work, none of these services come cheap. “Kolkata is an extremely price-sensitive market,” said Guha, who has had problems creating awareness about the exact nature of the services her company offers. One can expect to shell out anything upwards of Rs 7,000-10,000 for any one of the services offered by the companies and hospitals.
Tribeca says its pricing is affordable, customised and caters to people of all socio-economic backgrounds. But it is not easy convincing the parents to sign up for the services. Many of them are not comfortable with the idea of spending their children’s money, and some are so unhappy with the arrangement that they do not want their help.
“It is always a delicate situation,” said Guha, “and we insist all stakeholders in the family be present before working out a solution for the family. After all, no one is happy with their situation.”
Concurs Ganesh, elaborating on the sensitive nature of the work involved. “It is not like selling a book or providing another credit card facility. There is a great deal of emotion involved; people come to us when they are in pain or distress and look to us to solve their problem and give them solace. This is a huge responsibility.”
One of the biggest annual celebrations around the world is upon us. February 8 marks the start of the Lunar New Year in China. Also known as the Spring Festival, it is the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, akin to Christmas in the West. An important time of family reunions and catching up with old friends, it is also a huge consumer holiday, as people usher in the year of the monkey.
Spending during this season in 2014 on shopping and dining was around 610 billion yuan – about $100 billion. This is almost double the amount American shoppers spent over the Thanksgiving weekend. The festival is celebrated by everyone and, in a country of extreme wealth that is also home to 7% of the world’s poor, the way that it is celebrated varies greatly.
There are a few things that all Chinese citizens have in common though. Most buy gifts for their parents and elderly family members, and 65% of respondents in a survey last yearshowed that clothes were a favoured item. Other significant areas of spending are decorations and fireworks, party goods, transportation costs and New Year’s dinner.
Another Spring Festival custom is to give friends and relatives money in red envelopes known as hongbao for good luck. China’s internet companies began to capitalise on this two years ago, with the popular messaging app WeChat launching a way to share money through messaging. Last year saw 500m yuan ($80m) transferred using the app, which we can only expect to increase this year as other apps offer the service too.
The long journey home
No matter how far away family members may have migrated across China, they are expected to make the journey home. As a result, Chinese New Year is believed to be behind the largest movement of people in the world. Up to 2.91 billion trips are expected to be made this year via road, railway, air and water, up 3.6% from last year, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s top economic planner.
Spare a thought for the 100,000 migrant workers stuck in Guangzhou train station in the heart of China’s manufacturing region due to train delays, as they try to make their long journey home for the holiday.
Migrant workers are the backbone of China’s low-cost and labour intensive economy. They make up an estimated 278m workers who have migrated from rural parts of China to work in the big cities and for many, Chinese New Year is their only holiday. It’s often the only chance they have to spend some time with their entire family, including children who are left with their grandparents.
Migrant workers also bring home their hard earned cash, which is vital to the local rural economy. Earnings from the big cities enable families to move into new and better homes, send their children to school, purchase livestock and other home additions such as new flat screen TVs.
The other half
A growing number of wealthier Chinese opt to avoid the New Year chaos and social obligations by travelling abroad for their holidays. Last year 5.2m left mainland China over the holiday. The most popular destinations are other countries in East Asia, as well as the US and Australia.
Chinese tourists are well known for spending big abroad. China is the biggest outbound tourism spending country, with vast amounts spent on luxury goods. Many Chinese consumers consider foreign products to be of superior quality and better designed than their domestic competitors – Hermès handbags, Burberry trench coats and Patek Philippe watches are often top of Chinese tourists’ shopping lists.
In 2015 Chinese consumers spent more than US$100 billion on luxury goods, accounting for46% of the world’s total. Around 80% of these sales are made abroad. Attracted by the weaker euro and Japanese yen, Chinese consumers are increasingly opting for Europe and Japan, instead of their traditional shopping hotspots of Hong Kong and Macau.
So as well as seeing the largest migration of its citizens as they crisscross the country, Chinese New Year sees a surge in spending by its elites both inside and outside of China. This feeds into the crucial shift the country is making from having an economic growth model driven by manufacturing to one based on consumption and services, of which tourism and entertainment are crucial elements.