Chinese Firemen…

When I was at university we used to take part in a crazy “traffic” game, which we called “Chinese Firemen” (for the life of me I don’t know where we got the name from – Wikipedia doesn’t know about it!)

[Please note: this post makes no reference to any actual Chinese firemen and the writer does not wish to offend any firemen: Chinese, or any other nationality!]


  1. At least one car (car A) with a driver and 3 or 4 passengers
  2. Optional, but preferred: other cars (cars B, C, D etc) each with a driver and any number of passengers
  3. Rush hour traffic on a main road with traffic lights or very slow-moving traffic on a highway
  4. Some counting ability
  5. A sense of humour and being prepared to get on other motorists’ nerves
  6. Quick-footedness
  7. Quick thinking and quick reactions
  8. A tendency to remain calm and not panic in stressful situations

How to play:

  1. When cars are stationary due to a red traffic light (or any other reason), someone in car A yells “Chinese Firemen“.
  2. Everyone, including the driver, jumps out of the car and gets back in the car through any door that they did not exit from.
  3. It is to be hoped that:
    • the traffic light does not change to green while the Chinese Firemen are still outside their vehicle; and
    • the new person in the driver’s seat has a valid driver’s license.
  4. At this stage the passengers in cars B, C & D get the message that the game is on and they eagerly await for the next red traffic light or stationary position.
  5. Traffic stops again. This time everyone from cars A, B, C and D exit their vehicles and sprint for any vehicle other than their own.
  6. It is to be hoped that:
    • everyone knows which cars are participating in the game and which are not;
    • everyone actually makes it into another car before the traffic flow begins to move;
    • at least one other person knows that you were a passenger in one of the cars before the game started, otherwise you may get left behind
    • knowing your destination in case you have to find an alternative mode of transport

It sounds crazy and it was, but the few times we did engage in the game of Chinese Firemen, we managed not to cause any major accidents; no one was injured and I only know of two people that got left behind and had to make their own way home!

Why am I telling you all this?

Next Wednesday sees the start of the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year holiday period. The actual holiday only starts in early February, but with more than 200 million people travelling back to their home towns to celebrate with their families, some people need to leave earlier in order to be able to obtain train tickets. There is a 40-day travel period that stretches the Chinese transportation system to its limits: most people travel by train or long-distance bus, but about 25 million will travel by plane.

As I was thinking about this mass of people in transit across China, it reminded me of an extended, long-play, multidimensional, extreme version of our simple “Chinese Firemen“!


  1. Cars, buses, trains, planes – basically any type of transport, with any number of travellers, travelling from any location in China to any other location in the world
  2. Queuing for hours or days to get a valid ticket (bought either from a legitimate dealer or a scalper that has illegally stocked up or created counterfeit tickets for re-sale)
  3. Any day during the 40-day Spring Festival period: greater skills and resources are required to get to the ancestral home for the actual week-long holiday without having to take extra leave
  4. Patience, perseverance and stamina: some people buy standing tickets on the long-distance trains that take 4 or 5 days to reach their home towns on the opposite side of the country
  5. The ability (usually money) to change your travel arrangements or have a backup plan if your preferred mode of travel fails: in 2009 a nation-wide snow-storm had a severe impact on many travellers
  6. A willingness to take risks: the return tickets for train and bus travel can usually only be purchased once you arrive at your destination – so it is highly likely that your return will have to be delayed until you can find a seat

The train ticket sales for the start of the Spring Festival period opened at the Shanghai Railway station yesterday (as reported in the Shanghai Daily) – it certainly makes our student version of the game look inferior and pathetic!

Spring Festival Ticket Sales Open


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January 2011
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