When you have not one, but two special days for lovers in a year, you need to get really creative to surprise your beloved one. Xu Lin reports.
Xiang Yingxia was surprised at work recently by a man dressed in a clown suit and sporting a red nose. He presented her with a bouquet of red roses, and it was only then that she realized that her boyfriend had sent her a gift for her birthday, by special delivery. Cao Chengwei, 24, the clown with the red nose, had more tricks up his sleeve.
While Xiang's colleagues gathered to watch the delightful scene unfolding, Cao placed a red, heart-shaped sponge into her right hand, and told her to clench tight. When Xiang slowly opened her palm again, there were two little red hearts in her hands.
"That means you and your boyfriend's hearts will always be together," Cao announced.
"It's such a happy surprise! I like it because it's very creative," the delighted Xiang, 24, said.
As an increasing number of Chinese celebrate Qixi on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month today, Xiang will not be the only lady surprised by such happy messengers. Flower shop owners all across the country have come up with special services to deliver more than flowers, already regarded as the best expressions of love on a Chinese festival devoted to lovers.
"When I see my customers happy, I'm happy," says Song Feifan, who came up with the idea of sending clowns to deliver flowers a few years ago. It has proved a great success and since his first flower shop opened in 2006, his business has developed into a chain of 16 outlets not only in the capital Beijing, but also in Hefei in Anhui province and Nanjing in Jiangsu province. He employs dozens of delivery specialists, including our happy clown, Cao.
About 70 to 80 percent of customers are lovers sending flowers to each other. Sales peak during the Valentine's Day period in February and, in recent years, also on Qixi, also known as the Chinese Valentine's Day.
Song says he received 300 to 400 orders in a single shop during Qixi.
"Women love flowers," Song says, "and they also like to be surprised."
Song is only half right, according to Gu Yidian, another flower shop owner from Guangzhou, Guangdong province. "Flowers tell stories," she says, and adds women love a well-told story more than anything else.
In order to put across the sender's good wishes, she needs to know the nuances of a bouquet and also make sure she understands the message the sender wants to put out.
"Different flowers represent different meanings. Sunflowers mean 'intense love', while calla lilies mean 'eternal love', " Gu says. "Different colors can help express different moods." And they all make up a vocabulary of love, she adds.
To add to that language, Gu not only stocks all the most common varieties locally grown, but also imports exotic flowers from the Netherlands, such as orchids, tulips and roses that are bigger, prettier and more fragrant than domestic species.
It is also important to communicate with and understand the customer well. For each order Gu receives, she says she needs to find out more about the recipient, such as favorite color, animals and shared history.
"Customers have told me many touching stories," she says. "For them, each is unique to them and so, each flower arrangement we make for them is also unique." For example, they once placed three cacti into a box to represent a family of three, and made a rainbow out of colorful petals to symbolize a couple's love, like a rainbow after rain.
She will also make copies of love letters, and carefully laminate them so they are preserved better. "I thought it a great pity that my own love letters had yellowed over time, and so I wanted to save these sweet memories for young lovers. It turned out to be a very popular service."
Better preservation, a much-improved courier and logistics system and the Internet have all helped these florists with value-added services grow.
As Gu explains, boxes of flowers with the blooms arranged like an oil painting can now be sent all over the country because they can be better preserved, and because of the sophisticated express delivery system. They can be sent to other cities because the flowers can keep fresh for several days without watering.
Micro-blogging online has also accelerated the popularity of such services. Gu posts most of her orders online, with photos and the little stories behind each order. Another Shanghai-based florist, who sells mainly online, has attracted more than 130,000 followers on China's leading Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo.
Sometimes, the most rewarding job belongs to the messenger. Cao, our clown with the red hearts surprise, says he enjoys his job very much, especially when he hands over the bouquet. There are always smiles of surprise or tears of joy, and even the odd excitement of a marriage proposal. "I like to see all that," he says.