Where have all the Chinese flowers gone?

Where have all the Chinese flowers gone?

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Chinese New Year this week made me think of the Chinese people I had visited this past September, which in turn made me think of the vegetation growing out of their heads, which then made me smile. We don’t usually think of the Chinese as being frivolous, but there they were, sporting plastic clips on their hair in the shape of vegetables, fruits and flowers.

First I thought it was my imagination. Then I guessed it was some sort of fancy head covering. Finally I just stared. People — young people, older people — were walking past us matter-of-factly with flowers and weeds growing up out of their heads. Most had one or two; some had half a dozen. That was our first morning on the street outside our hotel in Shanghai. The fad moved with us as we traveled around the country.

No one seemed to know how or where it started, although there was some speculation that it began in the southwestern city of Chengdu, known for its laid-back lifestyle. And in a country in which the people are not particularly known for their individualism, they certainly did stand out on the streets. The plastic vegetation included clover, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, lavender, mushrooms, chilies, cherries, gourds and pine trees, according to an article about the fad that appeared in The New York Times at that time.

The trend was ratcheted up when a popular Taiwanese singer, Jay Chou, and his wife were seen wearing bean sprouts in photographs on the Internet. They were “meng meng da.” meaning cute. Bean sprouts are still the most popular item, according to street vendors, who with their native entrepreneurial instincts, leapt into business on street corners and in gift shops. The rapidly growing fad speaks to the power of the Internet in China to spread trends as well as ideas.

“Some people think it’s cute, some think it’s just plain infantile,” one sales assistant was quoted by The Times as she was carefully arranging three flowers and a cherry stem on her friend’s head.

The flower clips cost 500 renminbi each, or about 75 cents, unless one is a skillful bargainer in which case one can get perhaps three or four for the same money.

Maybe the colorful plastic head gardens offer some respite from the unceasing gray pollution that covers the cities and towns in China. The greens could be seen as a wistful attempt at harmony with nature. For us, they were ready-made conversation pieces. We indicated our admiration to the wearers, and they smiled in appreciation. Quickly the ice was then broken and conversation, often in pantomime, proceeded from there.

Taobao, which is a popular Chinese retail website, lists thousands of sellers of increasingly elaborate floral displays for one’s hair, although at this time of year, such ornamentation is probably taking second place to hats. And maybe not, since it was 64 degrees in Shanghai yesterday, warm enough for a garden to grow.