China entering the Chinese New Year with fewer fireworks, less pork, more thrift

A customer buying decorations for the upcoming Lunar New Year in Lin'an, Zhejiang province, on Feb 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
A customer buying decorations for the upcoming Lunar New Year in Lin'an, Zhejiang province, on Feb 12, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - The coming Lunar New Year will be a damp squib for Mr Ding Shen, the 34-year-old owner of Beautiful Scenery Fireworks, who like a lot of China's entrepreneurs is counting the cost of an economy growing at its slowest for nearly a quarter of century.

"If you don't have money, you're not going to buy fireworks," said Mr Ding, who runs a store in Shanghai and a factory in the south-central province Hunan.

Fireworks, an essential part of the celebrations, are traditionally set off everywhere - on streets, in courtyards and even off rooftops - during the week-long holiday. But they are an expense that people can easily cut. "We've seen our domestic sales drop 40 per cent and the fundamental reason has been because of China's economic slowdown," said Mr Ding.

His comments were echoed by other firework makers, who also listed stricter safety regulations and heightened concerns over air pollution as reasons for depressed sales.

For many Chinese, the coming year holds even less promise than 2014, when growth slowed to a 24-year-low of 7.4 per cent. A weak property market, slowing inflation and deteriorating domestic and foreign demand all point to further gloom.

As consumers tighten their belts, the price of pork - known as China's indispensable meat - has also been hit.

Pork prices tend to rise in the month before the holiday. But this year, according to official data, they slipped, albeit marginally, to 24.80 yuan (S$5.40) per kg in January from 24.90 yuan in December.

"Usually corporate gifts include pork products like dried meat but that has declined significantly this year," said Mr Pan Chenjun, a senior analyst at Rabobank.

Other analysts said record levels of pork production in 2014 also kept prices under pressure.

Bookings for the Lunar New Year Eve dinner on Feb 18 are as high as ever, according to Mr Zhu Xiaochao, media manager for Xiao Nan Guo Restaurants, which serves Shanghainese food in 80 restaurants across China.

Customers, however, were opting for cheaper set menus.

On the Internet, some bloggers complained about their pathetic New Year bonuses - so-called hongbao because they are handed out in red envelopes.

"Our company gave me a bonus - three boxes of apples to share between six people, what is this!" said Weibo user Duzuo Chitang.