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Giving old holiday traditions an update
By Emily Patterson (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-02-08 06:20

On the eve of Spring Festival, Zhao Lele, a 24-year-old project manager from Chongqing, was at home with his family.

But, he wasn't watching CCTV's Spring Festival Gala or playing mah-jong with his parents. And he wasn't catching up with his parents while munching on holiday treats.

Zhao, like many young Chinese, spent the lunar New Year's Eve chatting to his friends online and sending mobile phone text messages.

"The Spring Festival is quite boring for me, because all of my friends must be at home with families and nobody can party with me," said Zhao. "So I turn to the Internet."

The Internet is changing Spring Festival in major ways.

Chinese used to have few choices during the holiday: watch TV, go shopping to buy presents or wait for hours in an endless queue to buy a train ticket back home and back to work or study after the festival is over. But now, young people have created their own online alternatives.

Since 1983, the entire nation has tuned into CCTV's gala on the eve of Spring Festival for a mix of traditional performances and pop stars. But starting this year, major Chinese Internet portals, including Sohu.com, Tom.com, and Sino.com, in conjunction with Kook.com, began their own gala.

"The Spring Festival party on CCTV has run too many years without changing," said Jia Yuming, a 30-year-old graphic designer from Beijing who watched the gala. "Younger people always want to see something new, including me. And the Internet provides them what they want."

Audience participation, made possible by the Internet, made the new gala different from CCTV's. Drawing from the success of SuperGirl-style PK competition, Kook.com began soliciting homemade videos in September.

It received 600 responses from aspiring amateur singers and actors and invited the performers to Beijing to pre-record the show.

After the gala was shown on January 26, viewers could vote online for their favourite acts.

"The online gala gave people a chance to have fun while staying at home during the holiday with their families," said Hu Xiaolu, marketing director of Kook.com.

Although Kook.com received fewer videos than it expected, the show received positive responses, Hu said. The company plans to hold a larger, better-publicized gala again next year.

Virtual greetings

The Internet is also providing an alternative to another Spring Festival tradition - paper holiday cards.

Virtual cards and text message greetings have replaced the traditional red paper cards as ways to wish distant friends and family a happy holiday. During last year's Spring Festival, Chinese people sent 11 billion virtual messages during the seven-day vacation.

"After three to four years of development, sending greeting messages has melted into the blood of the people," said Yu Zhangkun, an analyst with Beijing-based consulting firm Byna.

The change is a good thing, said 24-year-old Vincent Li from Shandong.

Last Spring Festival, Li made his own online card with Photoshop then e-mailed the greeting to his friends. It's a good compromise between the impersonal Internet and the wastefulness of sending paper cards, he said.

But not everyone is happy about the switch.

"There's been a huge difference in sales between this year and last year," said sales clerk Wang Dan, 26, who works at a card shop in Beijing's Chaoyang District.

In previous years the store sold 10,000 paper cards during the holidays. This year sales hit 3,000.

Online shopping

Shopping online for Spring Festival gifts is also becoming an increasingly popular alternative to braving busy shopping centres.

This year, Taobao.com, a major Internet retailer, launched a special holiday promotion in an attempts to grab a share of the season's retail boom, which was 160 billion yuan (US$20 billion) last Spring Festival, according to Ministry of Commerce statistics.

Taobao's sales are up 10 times this year over last year, said a marketing staff member who declined to give his name

Catering to young people, who make up the majority of the country's 103 million Internet users, the site offers discounts on popular gifts for parents - such as mobile phones and Chinese medicine - and toys for young nieces and nephews.

"It's much cheaper to shop online and I just don't have a lot of time to spend at the mall," said Sun Peng, a 25-year-old project supervisor from a Heilongjiang company. Sun purchased a gift through the Internet for his parents and a mobile phone for his girlfriend's father.

With everyone in China celebrating the same holiday at the same time, the Internet gives young people a method to carve out their own traditions to fit their new lifestyle.

"I'm sad that a lot of the old Spring Festival traditions have gone out of style," said Zhao. "But my generation is creating new ones. Not worse, just different."

(China Daily 02/08/2006 page3)

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