For some, Christmas brings memories of cinnamon, mulled wine and
extended family get-togethers. For others, it is roasted pig and
paella. But one experience China expats have in common is spending
Christmas away from home. Many miss the traditions.
"For sure I will feel it," says Shanghai restaurant manager
Allan Chan about spending Christmas in China as an expat. "Maybe I
am a soft person, but honestly, the first year it made me cry."
The Filipino has not spent a Christmas in his home country since
1999, because this
time of the year is high season for professionals in his trade. He
is simply too busy to go home.
Chan has lived in China for the last eight years, half of this
time in Shanghai.
"One of the things I miss the most when working in China is
spending Christmas with my family in the Philippines."
Hard-to-come-by Philippine dishes like coconut and butter cake,
baked in charcoal, and paella made Philippine-style are what Chan
would like most these days.
"Of course I can make the Philippine cake here, but it is just
not the same," explains the restaurant manager.
Someone else who finds Christmas here to be different is German
Helgard Gengnagel, who lives in Shanghai because of her husband's
She jokes about Christmas in Shanghai: "Christmas is a silent
time, with the scent of traditional Christmas cookies and gluhwein,
a mix of hot wine, orange juice, cinnamon, sugar and spices. But
outside my apartment silent time cannot really be found, so I ask
myself where the meaning of Christmas has gone."
Aside from not finding Christmas celebrated around the city,
except in a commercial sense, Gengnagel has found pleasure in
giving gifts to her relatives.
One of the more critical voices, when it comes to Christmas in
China, is that of Tobias Fuhrmann. He moved to Shanghai in
September and as a newcomer has no experience with spending the
holiday season in the metropolis, nor does he feel inclined to
"It is necessary for me to stay at home in Germany on
Christmas," he says when explaining he had not even considered not
spending the holiday with his family. "I can't imagine not being at
home with them to enjoy our traditional roasted goose."
Fuhrmann, who works for a German bank in Shanghai, does point
out that his countrymen could opt for traditional cuisine at a
Christmas market in the courtyard of one of the city's beer
gardens. "But it is just not the same," he says.
Canadian Ross McKinnon feels a little strange wearing just board
shorts and a T-shirt in the lead-up to Christmas. The recent,
sunny, 25 C December days in Hainan are a big change from the below
zero temperatures in his far northern hemisphere homeland.
McKinnon, 64, has spent the past two years teaching at Yangpu,
which is about a two-hour bus ride away from Haikou, capital of
Hainan Province, on the north of the island.
He says the locals are curious about the world's most celebrated
The retired lawyer loves sharing the season's spirit with his
Chinese students and says there is a real Christmas buzz, despite
the fact there are only two expats in all of Yangpu.
"All the students are getting presents and we have been singing
Christmas carols," he says.
"I'm also putting on a traditional Christmas dinner on Saturday
night for about 15 teachers. I'm importing a big turkey from the
United States. The one I got locally last year didn't have much
meat on it."
On Christmas Day, McKinnon will ride the bus to Haikou and meet
about 30 other expats at an Aussie Bar for an outdoor BBQ and
Australian Ian Munro, on the other hand, who lived on the New
South Wales Central Coast, is swapping the sand and surf for snow.
Now he's dreaming of a white Christmas.
"I really hope it snows on Christmas Day. My wife and I plan to
have a totally relaxing day and take a walk in the snow. We will
need a good rest because it will be a hectic week," he says.
Munro teaches at Weifang Medical College, in Hebei Province,
where a Christmas concert will be held on Saturday night. On Sunday
night a private college is holding a party and the local Walmart is
also hosting a major celebration. Munro will be one of the star
"I'll probably make a fool of myself, but it's all good fun," he
says. "I'm singing Give Me A Home Among the Gumtrees, which is a
famous song in Australia.
"I've got the students singing the song, and there are lots of
actions, which will be fun for the audience."
American Ryan Dutcher says he will be a little relieved when the
Christmas-New Year period is over. Thanksgiving, the Jewish
holidays, Christmas, New Year's Eve and Chinese New Year combine to
make a hectic schedule.
"I'm not really into Christmas. I'll get on Skype on Christmas
Day and talk to family and friends. I will also probably have
dinner with friends."
Russian Yury Ilyakin first came to Beijing in 1984 as a
journalist for the Soviet Information agency. He returned to China
in 1999 to start a business and has seen seven Christmases come and
go. Like many people from around the world, he does not really
celebrate Christmas on December 25.
"We don't have Christmas, we are from a socialist society, but I
will probably go to one of the many concerts on Christmas Eve," he
"We have our big event on January 7, where people from the
Russian community get together."
Shanghai-based American Johanna Pan-Carr, who will spend
Christmas in New York with her husband, says:
"Christmas means family sitting around the dinner table and
having a wonderful meal together. On Christmas Day, gathering
around the Christmas tree and opening presents."
Their family tradition is to attend a midnight church service on
"Christmas is a great time when friends and family come
together. In the US, before going home for Christmas, friends
normally host Christmas parties and play secret Santa games."
Following her American-Caribbean husband, the couple also found
time for some Christmas spirit in Shanghai before leaving for New
"We recently went to a Caribbean Association Christmas potluck
dinner in Shanghai, where friends from the Caribbean brought food
Pan-Carr points out that in Shanghai she has been unable to
track down some traditional US Christmas treats, such as eggnog and
a real Christmas tree.
"The Christmas trees in Shanghai are all made of plastic. My
husband and I did not spend our Christmas here last year. From what
we've heard, everyone eats out in Shanghai during Christmas. For
those expats who would like to eat out on Christmas Day, make sure
to make reservations in advance."
People around the world are
in the Christmas spirit, including expats such as American Johanna
Pan-Carr (left), Filipino Allan Chan (middle) and German Helgard
Gengnagel. (photo: agencies via China Daily)
(China Daily December 21, 2007)