- Chinese New Year in London
- London Tube Etiquette: My First Experience of the London Underground
Participating in a study abroad program and living in London was the highlight of my Bachelor of Arts degree. This series is a record of my adventure to London and Europe with my young family and my sister as the nanny.
London holds the biggest Chinese New Year festivities outside of Asia and last year saw the biggest yet, with extravagant floats transported from China. This is not something I read. I got it from the horse’s mouth; an organiser of the event, no less… or that’s what he claimed to be as he stood inches from me, supporting one of the floats as the parade came to a temporary standstill.
We didn’t exchange names. I only had time to look suitably enthralled and make some ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ noises before the band struck up and the float moved on. He was clearly enthusiastic and proud of the event. I don’t doubt he was who he said he was and he had every right to be proud. His boast is backed up by all reports which state that over 300,000 people attend the London festivities each year.
The London Chinese New Year celebrations are typically held in the West End, beginning at 10am with the parade making its way down Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue to China Town in Lisle Street. The official opening then happens at midday in Trafalgar Square. After the official speeches, the fun begins, with a spectacular lion dance followed by an even more colourful and hypnotic dancing dragon performance. Visitors can expect to see traditional acrobatics, theatre and singing. A parade map and list of events is easily found online or in the newspapers.
We found it to be an impressive event. The only downfall was fighting through the crowds from one venue to the next in an attempt to attend every part of the planned festivities.
‘Bloody tourists,’ we grumbled, with the conviction that somehow, like every other person who attends major events, we have more right to be there and that our experience of the day would be so much better without all those other people.
It was an overcast, cold and breezy day, but the colourful floats and costumes were a relief from the greyness. The contrast between the backdrop of London’s iconic landmarks and traditional Chinese symbolism was both jarring and thrilling to behold, and certainly made for a unique experience.
During the parade, a group of participants threw packets of free noodles into the crowd. Behind us we heard a shout from a balcony three storeys up. The occupants of the building were gesturing wildly for noodles, and immediately the parade members began hurtling them upwards like missiles. The crowd willed the noodles to reach their destination. Heads spun to follow the flight of the noodles and as each packet dropped short the crowd sighed with disappointment. Finally one hit the spot, the noodles were held triumphantly in the air, and the crowd cheered.
After the parade, we grumbled self-righteously through the crowd to Trafalgar Square and found a spot to stand and chill, literally, while waiting to see the lion dance. As the chill seeped into our bones, we were thankful for the heat-generating crowd around us.
We stood to the side of the stage and gained a view of some backstage activity. We had to giggle when a man in impressive traditional dress and makeup pulled his smart phone out of his robes to take a selfie. The same man thrilled us by willingly posing for selfies with some of the crowd, including us.
The performances didn’t disappoint. The lion dance was most spectacular. It began with the rhythmic beating of drums and clashing of cymbals which drew the eyes of the audience to a square of pavement in front of the stage. Rows of paper lanterns hung from lamp posts around the square, and in the centre on the pavement a series of brightly coloured poles of various heights had been erected in pairs. Behind was a small group of people in traditional dress playing the traditional instruments. The air shuddered with sound.
Crouched in front was a huge lion, flapping its ears, waggling its rear end, and batting its great puppet eyelashes at us, looking like a giant yellow Shih Tzu, its coat shimmering with every movement. After stomping, circling and shaking its head at us, the great beast (actually two men in furry trousers carrying a man-sized hand puppet over their heads) stood on its hind legs then leapt fluidly onto the first two pairs of poles. It looked down at us, batted its lashes, flapped its ears and jiggled in percussive movement. It leapt still higher from pole to pole, stood on hind legs, spun around and proceeded to hang its front end down the length of the poles. Then it was up again, leaping, spinning, and stopping occasionally to stare balefully down at us. Every movement was a feat of expert acrobatics and yet it was executed so beautifully it was easy to forget this wasn’t a real creature with a real personality.
Afterwards, we squeezed our way through the crowd back to Chinatown for the purchase of obligatory souvenirs. Paper dragons were a must but it was the packets of throw-downs that impressed the most. The freedom to throw mini explosives onto the pavement had my son’s eyes shining and gave us all a cracking good time on the way back to the tube station.
Chinese New Year celebrations are a unique experience for anyone, but seeing them in London is like a double dose of fabulous.
Featured image © Mr Thinktank