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DOING BUSINESS IN CHINA

Expats Celebrate Lunar New Year With Mix of Work, Play and Dab of Superstition

By Doug Young

We’ll close out the Year of the Rooster with a look at holiday work habits during the Lunar New Year, zeroing in on China’s relatively unusual custom of shutting down for an entire week for this important time. Such prolonged shutdowns are something you rarely see in the West, where public holidays seldom go beyond a single day or possibly two. Longer multi-day holidays are more common in Asia around local New Years, with places like Japan, Vietnam and even Hong Kong all taking longer breaks during this time.

But China’s weeklong shutdown seems like one of the longest, and the actual closure is often even longer. That’s because many people don’t return to work until as late as the Lantern Festival, which comes 15 days after the first day of the Lunar New Year and officially marks the close of the traditional holiday period.

So, what’s a person to do with so much time off, especially if you’re an expat without a local hometown to return to and no relatives to visit, which are the two main activities during this time? It seems the answer for expat bosses and their workers can be quite varied, usually reflecting a person’s own disposition and attitude towards work.

At one end of the spectrum are the workaholics, for whom the idea of spending an entire week idle seems an incredible waste of time. At the other end are the more enlightened types, at least in my view, who believe in moderation for everything. Then there’s also the dab of superstition thrown in, which I’ll explain shortly.

This wide variation contrasts sharply with the past, when China was quite homogenous at this time of year. Back in the 1980s on arriving in Beijing, I quickly discovered the country pretty much shut down starting around two or three days before the Lunar New Year, which this year falls on Friday, Feb. 16. Work-wise things pretty much came to a stop by New Year’s Day itself, and then only began creeping back to life starting around 10 days into the lunar year.

That’s not to say that cities would become ghost towns, even though offices and shops were deserted during that period. During that time everyone would end up in their own homes or homes of relatives, and a good number would also find their way onto the streets for walks and to set off the nonstop medley of firecrackers that were a trademark of that time.

Many basics of that equation remain unchanged in the present, though some larger cities are slowly clamping down on the firecracker tradition for safety and pollution reasons, a development that has sparked much debate. Many larger stores, restaurants and national chains also remain open throughout the period, though smaller shops tend to follow the older tradition.

Stuck in the middle

Then there are us expat worker bees, who don’t have any extended family here to visit and often feel just a bit strange going an entire week for a public holiday. My poll of business contacts, most of them company chiefs or business owners, uncovered quite a range of habits. The one closest to my own came from Jim Rice, a longtime China hand now back in the U.S., but whose resume includes stints as country chief for several major multinationals until recently.

“I always take those holidays and every minute of vacation,” he told me. “The key to surviving so long in China is regular breaks and getting out of there. The guys who don’t take those vacations and think they’ve got to work, work, work are the ones who burn out. I tell all expats to get out and decompress.”

More typical among others was an approach that dictates the boss finds ways to make use of at least some of that downtime, while letting local employees follow the local calendar and take the entire week off, and sometimes more.

One contact who runs his own solar energy outfit in Shanghai said he personally tends to go back to his home in the U.S. during the holiday to visit family and also meet with investors and other locally-based business contacts. At the same time, he said, he lets his employees take the entire time off and often gives them a few extra days. Not much business is happening during that time anyhow, he explained, and the break from the fast pace of work at a startup is appreciated.

Another contact, a Singaporean who runs a financial consulting shop out of Hong Kong, said he goes one step further and tries to incorporate lucky days into his holiday work schedule. That often means giving employees a few extra days off so that, for example, they can resume work on the auspicious fifth day of the Lunar New Year. But he also noted he holds himself to a different standard and often continues to arrange some meetings and do other work during the period in places where things continue as normal.

Then there are companies like my own employer, Caixin Global, which serve a global audience or provide an essential service and therefore need people on duty at all times. In those cases, people tend to follow the Western practice of awarding extra comp days, and also providing flexibility so that, for example, people can work from home when possible.

I suspect that at some point in the not-too-distant future, China will cut down this weeklong holiday, as it’s really quite a long time to go without doing business in an increasingly interconnected world. But until then, expats will be happy to learn there are quite a range of options available depending on their own comfort level. And on that note, I’ll end this last column in the Year of the Rooster by giving my own early wish for health, happiness and prosperity for all of our readers in the New Lunar Year of the Dog.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com

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