I was confused. Perhaps I was back in Hong Kong with the crowds a mix Cantonese, Mandarin, and British accent, the air filled with the smell of fried rice and thousands of Chinese people filling the square. But I knew I was in London; Admiral Nelson was sitting high on the pillar above overlooking the celebration and the National Gallery’s architecture acting as a barrier against the black taxis and double decker buses being blocked from the road to allow safe passage for pedestrians who were filling the Trafalgar Square.
Normally secluded to a corner of Leicester Square today it seemed that Chinatown had spread out, down the streets of London and centered itself in Trafalgar Square where London’s edition of the Chinese New Year celebrations were in full swing. Being invited as a guest of Cathay Pacific UK had it’s perks when we found that we were given access to one of the private tents overlooking the crowd and stage, being able to take in the whole of Trafalgar Square – perfect for watching the days celebrations!
One of the first ceremonial procedures to be undertaken was the Dotting of the Eye’s, a ceremony held to awaken the spirit of the lion or dragon. When they eyes are dotted it symbolises the, in this case, dragons eyes opening – it is coming to life. The belief is that if a new lion or dragon doesn’t have it’s eyes dotted before it’s first use it can cause bad luck.
Important officials were bought in to take part in the official eye opening ceremony including the Mayor of Westminster Susie Burbridge, Mayor of London Boris Johnson, as well as Cathay Pacific GM Europe Angus Barclay and London’s Chinatown mayor, Stanley Tse.
As pillars were set up in front of the main stage a group held up a sign reading ‘Happy New Year’ in simplified Chinese – the cut outs surely must have taken them some time to make – the crowds anticipation grew as we all pondered what the pillars could be used for. It didn’t take long to find out.
The dragons soon took centre stage – only appropriate to welcome in the Year of the Dragon. As the music began for the first dragon dance the crowds noise dimmed and cymbals clashed to drum beats. The Chen Brothers mesmerised the audience as they leaped from pillar to pillar, at times with one brother on the others shoulders, and moving around the progressively taller poles taking bolder steps as each minute passed. Soon the performance ended but not after a big finale, but we were greeted with a more traditional dragon dance quickly after as the dragon spun around chasing the lettuce atop of the stick.
I am a self-confessed dumpling-aholic so when it was mentioned that we’d be dinning at the Imperial China Restaurant on Leslie Street I was excited – dumpling heaven here I come! Needless to say Chinatown was packed that day and we were in dire need of our wonderful navigators, Victoria and Sally from Cathay Pacific, to have a flag on a stick to guide us (they did a pretty good job without it though!)
Ordering a dozen or more dishes our table was soon heavily laden down with food ranging from turnip cakes, shao lin bao, and my personal favourite, steamed pork dumplings. It was explained to us, after we realised that our eyes were bigger than our bellies and that we’d ordered a little too much food, that Chinese hosts often order too much food, especially during the New Year period, as it shows wealth and promotes prosperity.
Whilst most of the group parted after lunch the adventurous Niamh from Eat like a Girl and myself, realising that if I didn’t go for a walk would need to buy a new pair of pants, headed back to Trafalgar Square to make the most of the tented area to watch the evenings entertainment and of course fireworks!
As we neared the square people were crowded around a tree throwing beanbags at colourful sacks filled with, what we were told, Chinese sweets. We tried to get a chance to have a throw but instead let the younger children throw – we were still stuffed from lunch and didn’t want to miss any more of the parade.
As beautifully dressed girls danced, drums beat loud and acrobats performed – hopping across the stage like they had springs attached to their hands and feet – we realised that heading back to the tent in Trafalgar Square was the best decision despite the growing chill of the night which kept our teeth chattering as we alternated under the heat lamp.
But the poppy sounds of Taiwanese pop stars didn’t quite fit the bill of what we were yearning for, nor did the sounds of a famous Chinese singer who came to London to perform in her native language. It wasn’t until the sky was lit up red, gold, purple that the crowd had its fill of festivities for the night as thousands of firecrackers lit Trafalgar Square up to truly ring in the new year.
As one of the largest celebrations outside of China itself London really puts on a good show as the fountains turn red, the pillars read ‘Happy New Year’ and the Year of the Dragon finally begins.