Nearly two decades ago, I was a typical primary student in Hangzhou yearning for a school holiday. And one day I got my wish – and then some. The classroom buzzed with excitement upon the announcement that the country would have two annual seven-day breaks from 2000 onwards: one during Lunar New Year (January or February), and one in celebration of National Day (1 October). The extended holidays were created to boost China’s economy, so people called them Golden Week – and they were immediately established as busy travel periods. Last year, 710 million Chinese travelled during the October holiday; that’s more than half the country’s population.
October’s Golden Week is anticipated as an extended time to spend with family, whether you choose to travel or stay home. The tradition on National Day is to watch the huge, annual military parade on TV. Like many others, my family tunes in. When I was a kid, I watched it in order to complete a response essay assigned as schoolwork. But my father often watched it with tears welling in his eyes.
For migrant workers, Golden Week is even more significant, as it’s the chance to head home from the industrial cities where they work. Distances are far, travel costs are extravagant and paid leave is rare, so for many, the two Golden Weeks are the only chance to see family each year.
But leisure travel is huge, too. Since I’m from Hangzhou, a scenic town hugely popular as a tourist destination, I’ve seen first-hand how crazy Golden Week can get. During the first Golden Week, my family and I took a drive to West Lake, Hangzhou’s most famous attraction. Traffic barely moved, then we arrived only to find all the parking spaces taken up by tour buses. The scene before us was a sea of the backs of people’s heads moving as a close pack. But this didn’t deter my family over the years. In fact, the first time I took a plane was during Golden Week, for a trip to Beijing. It was fulfilment of a common dream among Chinese, that of seeing the capital.
Today I live in Hong Kong, which doesn’t have Golden Week holidays, but every October I’m treated to the travel photos posted on social media by my friends living on the Chinese mainland. The pictures are from all over: Europe, North America, Africa, Thailand, the Philippines. Indeed, to avoid the crowds, more and more people are choosing to head overseas during the period; about six million travellers from the Chinese mainland went abroad during Golden Week last year.
While it’s true that the holiday brings chaos, it’s really a love-hate thing. We curse Golden Week, but it hasn’t dimmed our passion for it – and when those seven days arrive, we absolutely live it up.