Letter from London: Chinese New Year celebrations abound

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Each month Jane Egginton brings us her letter from London. This month, Jane gives us the low-down on London’s plans to mark Chinese New Year

Jane Egginton

As London and much of the western world shakes off its collective New Year hangover, there is an altogether more exciting, colourful, and even spiritual celebration to look forward to.

Spectacular lion and dragon dances, giant puppets, leaping acrobats and ear-splitting firecrackers kick off the biggest Chinese New Year celebrations in the world outside Asia. Chinese New Year actually falls on 23 January in 2012, but a full day of festivities in central London on 29 January will see the 60th year that they have taken place in the UK.

Enthralling lion dances take place throughout the streets around Trafalgar Square accompanied by loud drums and cymbals that are believed to ward off bad luck. They are just part of a full programme of free events including a parade and musical and cultural performances. Visitors can graze at food stalls in the streets surrounding Leicester Square, slowly making their way to Chinatown for impromptu street parties and more eating and dancing.

Festivities continuing throughout February will welcome in the Year of the Dragon. In Chinese astrology, this special sign (the only one representing a mythical creature) signifies larger than life happenings and spectacular successes for the coming year. With the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee and a host of spin off events taking place throughout the city this year, 2012 certainly looks set to be an auspicious year for London.

image © sheng-fa lin

Celebrations will be taking place across London, with Chinese restaurants offering special menus and the National Maritime Museum hosting a full programme of family activities, with a procession, workshop, performances and theatre on 18 February to usher in the Chinese New Year from a historical perspective.

The British Film Institute will mark Chinese New Year by putting on a quartet of films throughout February to offer a fascinating insight into the cultural history of China. Chosen to coincide with the start of Chinese New Year, the month-long film season will launch with a biopic of the legendary grandfather of Chinese Philosophy, Confucius on 4 February.

The £10-million blockbuster is one of a handful to have been backed by the Chinese government and the most expensive Chinese movie ever made. It’s screening will be followed by A Simple Life, an emotional account of the poignant theme of growing old, that swept the board at China’s version of the Oscars and Unseen China, a rarely shown documentary that sensitively examines the complexities of Chinese contemporary life. The BFI programme culminates in screening of the slightly more left field Woman Basketball PLayer No. 5. Dating back to 1957 and London’s Chinatown’s first flush of youth, when it caused a huge stir, the film documents the heartbreaking account of a coach who successfully inspires Shanghai’s female basketball team.

Shanghai Blues offers dancing and feasting on the night of 23rd January, with Rich Mix, one of London’s most exciting cultural venues, putting on a unique – and free – combination of performances, workshops and events as well as food stalls.

While the public New Year’s commemoration lasts for one day, traditional celebrations last as many as 15 days. During this time, with echoes of Hogmanay, the Chinese clean their houses and decorate them with red scrolls to banish bad luck. They may also get a new haircut and buy some new clothes. Food typically comprises of dumplings and vegetarian fare, with gifts of envelopes containing ‘good luck’ paper money.

A quarter of million people from around the world will join in the Chinese New Year celebrations in London this year. That is as many as the number that will visit London Eye on the Southbank and who witnessed the firework displays in the capital during the dog days of 2011. Millions more watch these events on television screens around the world.

London’s New Year’s Eve fireworks heralded the beginning of an exciting year for London. The Mayor has put his name to a full city wide programme of free events that will take place in the build up to the Olympic games. Look out for highlights such as SECRETS showcasing the city’s hidden locations, SHOWTIME, an outdoor arts festival. Full details and news will be announced throughout 2012 on a new website that was launched on 31 December www.molpresents.com

Sixty years ago Elizabeth II became Queen of the United Kingdom, the start of a reign that continues today, Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap opened in London, now the longest running stage show in the world, and a deadly fog engulfed London and the word smog was invented.

Following hot on the heels of the Chinese New Year celebrations is Maslenitsa, the Russian Sun Festival on 26 February, a free event in Trafalgar Square. It is just the second time this unique celebration of the end of the chill of winter and the beginning of the warm start of spring will take place in London. The world has a bright future of events to look forward to in London over the coming months and ‘A summer like no other’ as it is being billed.

A little bit of history

We may all know that London’s Chinatown has been a cornerstone of city life since the 1950s, but who knew that the colourful quarter was originally in the East End? Chinese sailors first landed in the Docklands during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) and a hundred years later a small Chinese community had developed around Limehouse.

The Blitz and the near decimation of the British shipping industry meant it was almost impossible for the Chinese to find work on the ships. But one happy result of the war meant that British soldiers had developed a new found love of Chinese food, and Chinatown’s restaurants were born in an area once known for its cheap rent and exciting nightlife.

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