chinatown in london is already an exciting place to visit. if i am in the mood to meander, it takes little to no persuasion to set my course for leicester square station. climbing the steps to street level, i put up with the crowds and the tourists of that area and make my way to little newport street.
i love everything about chinatown. i love watching the girl at the bakery with her steampunk-esque taiyaki machine, assisting it in it’s automatic process of making these tiny but delicious pastries shaped like fish. i also love watching the tourists who have never seen a taiyaki machine; if it’s a busy day in chinatown, people are apt to hover for a while outside of the bakery until they can get a better view and a better photo of this adorable process. i love that the official street signs are complemented by the chinese translations of the street names. it’s so simple and so obvious but i did not grow up in this type of cultural mecca, and it’s the little things that get me.
on february the 8th, chinese people celebrated their new year. on february the 14th, instead of buying chocolates and making dinner reservations (valentines day) i was in attendance to a massive festival stretching from trafalgar square to leicester square, and everywhere in between and around the epicenter of gerrard street. thousands of people flocked to these streets to buy tiny accordion-style paper dragon toys. despite this being the year of the monkey, dragons still trump the other zodiac signs in terms of popularity and general coolness. i can’t complain – my chinese zodiac is the dragon and i am proud of it.
take that, khaleesi.
the crowd was overwhelming at times but the custard and red bean-filled steamed bao buns were worth the queues a hundred times over. the food markets may have been bursting at the seams with people but they are typically busy places anyway. i bought some jasmine tea and treats for later.
my only goal for the day was to find nian gao… chinese new year cake. i brought my backpack with me as a storage vessel for the stuff but as i went from one shop to the next, it became more than apparent that my desire for that slightly sweet, delicious mass of gluten had been equally matched by many other people. the shops were as empty of nian gao as my sagging backpack and my spirit began to diminish. it was only due to a spontaneous decision made by my friends and i to use a back alley instead of a main road that i stumbled upon the tiniest and seemingly-sketchiest hole in the wall bakery, operating out of what was essentially someone’s personal kitchen. the people there were more than friendly. their eyes and smiles emitted a tangible happy energy and when my spoken “nian gao?!” was mistaken for “ni hao?!” again and again, i just went with it. as it turns out, they had exactly what i was looking for! i bought twelve quid worth of cake and the man working the tiny bakery even gifted me more than what i paid for. he handed me the extra block of nian gao and said “for you.” with the biggest smile on his face. it was then that i realized that the people of chinatown were not just putting on a show for the spectators and steamed bun-buyers, they were truly delighted to be celebrating this festive occasion with thousands of foreigners, and we – the tourists to chinese culture – had been warmly welcomed to their joyful celebrations. i felt honored.
last, but certainly not least, my favorite part of the day [besides eating all the food and discovering the back alley nian gao and spending the entire day with such a fun group of friends] was the lion dance.
舞獅 the lion dance.
at first there is “cabbage”
and then there is none!
the lion travels all around chinatown, eating hanging greens to bring those shops luck in the new year. red envelopes are attached to the cabbages and contain monetary rewards for the lion.
now, because we are silly american / english / south african / estonian people, the entire time we were chasing the “lion” we assumed we were chasing a “dragon.” until we got up close and personal to some of these dances, we couldn’t realize just how graceful and feline-like these dancers move whilst preparing to gobble up the hanging cabbage.
here is a better explanation for what happens during the lion dance . . .
“The traditional lion dance seen at Chinese New Year originates from the legend of the monster known as Nian. You can read all about the legend in our illustrated Story of Nian.
Street celebrations often include a performance of the lion dance which is thought to bring good luck. There are usually two dancers. One acts as the head and the other the body. They dance to a drum, cymbals and a gong. On the head of the lion is mirror so that evil spirits will be frightened away by their own reflections. As the lion runs along the streets he begins to visit different places. On his way he meets another person, the ‘Laughing Buddha’ who is dressed in monk’s robes and a mask. He teases the lion with a fan made of banana-leaves which makes the lion jump around.
The lion dancers need to be very fit. As the lion moves from place to place he looks for some green vegetables such as lettuce which are hung above the doors of houses or businesses. Hidden in the leaves is a red packet of money. The lion eats the lettuce and red packet. He then scatters lettuce leaves to symbolize a fresh start for the new year and the spreading of good luck.”
that explains the hanging lettuce inside and outside of shops, banks, restaurants, and even an acupuncture business. apparently, the red envelope is a gift for the dancers but the dance itself and acceptance of the gift is considered extremely lucky for the business that offered up the greens. i actually noticed many shop owners and employees getting emotional as the “lion” teased everyone with a prolonged dance (as cats are apt to do) before pouncing on the offering. people were clapping and smiling and i could not stop laughing. what a day.
i’m already anticipating next year’s celebrations.
happy new year!