“It is, we believe, important to record the arrival of such immigrant customs as the one described here. Whether it becomes an annual event or not remains to be seen, but such festivities certainly provide a day of colour and excitement at a somewhat grey and dull part of the occidental year.”
Without doubt one of the most colourful and successful custom to transcribe and become established in Britain from foreign shores is that of Chinese New Year. The first place to have a recorded tradition is London, which has spilled out from its natural home of Chinatown in Soho to a splendid series of events which colourfully dominate Trafalgar Square. This could be a custom survived, yet despite burgeoning Chinese and East Asian communities through the 1800s, the public celebration of Chinese New Year only dates from the 1960s because as Tony Man, of the London Chinatown Chinese Association many families were arriving in this country from Hong Kong. However these were small family affairs. Fortunately, an excellent account is made by Roy and Monica Vickery in their Chinese New Year celebrations in London 1971-1973 in Folklore. They note that the first public display was held in what had effectively become London’s Chinatown Gerrard Street. This was recorded in 31st January 1973 and was a traditional Dragon dance. They note:
“A large number of Chinese, mostly men in sober dress of waiters and restaurant proprietors were present. The dragon consisted of a large multi-coloured, garishly decorated mask with a young man inside. To the back of the mask was attached a decorated cloth tail under which a small number of youths moved in an attempt at unison with the occupant of the mask. As the dancers became exhausted they were replaced by others from a group who, aided by long bamboo poles, usually succeeded in preparing a way for, and keeping the crowd from the dragon. Music was provided by a small gang of percussionists and the party was completed by a teaser whose main function seemed to be leading the dragon from one offering to the next. These offerings consisted of bank notes both unwrapped and wrapped enclosed in red packets – lettuce and other vegetables, tied to long pieces of string which hung, like fishing-lines, from the windows of Chinese shops and restaurants. The dragon often succeeded only in reaching the lowest objects on each string, the remainder being eventually lowered to it. The celebrations were carefully watched over by an older man who was obviously responsible for ensuring that the youngsters performed with a suitable sense of tradition. After eating one offering the dragon proceeded to the next establishment. The incoming year being the Year of the Boar, metallic statuettes of this beast were placed in the windows of many restaurants.”
However this could have been a one-off because they record that:
“January 1972, the Year of the Boar gave way to the Year of the Rat. No public celebrations appeared to be prepared and on enquiring of Chinese friends why this was so, the answer received was that in Britain it was difficult to obtain the necessary people and properties for the traditional celebrations. However, it seems that this reason was only partly true. The Year of the Rat is traditionally an ill-omened one during which it is inadvisable to start new projects. Hence it is easy to understand why such a year might not be welcomed.”
Yet fortunately, in 1973 it was back now attracting an equal number of non-Chinese, celebrating the year of the Ox. The Vickery’s again record:
“The festivities commenced at noon when a number of imported fire-crackers were exploded in a car park at the end of Gerrard Street. As the air cleared two small boys emerged from the car park carrying a large red banner which with considerable and frequent police assistance preceded the beast, on this occasion a lion, throughout the afternoon. Then the predominantly bright pink, multi-coloured lion danced out into the lantern-hung street accompanied by a small band of percussionists. The lion, an elaborate mask over one man’s head with a second man dancing in its tail, was soon led to its first offerings by a teaser. This grotesque individual who wore a globular pinkish red mask, and a stuffed blue tunic giving the appearance of pregnancy, guided the lion with a straw fan. One restaurant ostentatiously displayed its offerings, which consisted of four ten pound notes and an equal number of oranges, in a plastic bowl on the pavement, but most establishments hung offerings from their windows. From other windows isolated groups of Europeans occasionally showered the lion with rice. So dense was the crowd that the lion took all after- noon to devour all the offerings presented to it and it was not until late afternoon that the crowds began to thin.”
One for me old China!
From this point onwards it would appear the celebration has grown from year to year, organised by the Chinese organisation, and with it becoming an all inclusive event. Helped by the formal recognition of Chinatown with red and gold bollards and other familiar motifs, London’s Chinese New Year is perhaps the best outside China. When I recently went the streets were thronged with all creeds and races, many tourists happily snapping away who had come especially to see the event – now the largest outside China. For although the streets of Chinatown that the celebration erupts with vibrancy and vigour, it has spread beyond into Trafalgar Square.
The first thing that greets you other than the numbers is the how one goes from the bland streets surrounding one enters a lively scene and a bizarre one-way system to control the crowds. The typical high London premises are brought alive with banners, bunting and giant lanterns. Stalls line the streets selling food, Chinese gifts and even a stall called Labour for Chinese…surely being communists they all left wing?
The sound is incredible. Every now and then small children can be seen secretly making older residents jump by throwing fire crackers on the ground with great enthusiasm. But it is the sound of the drums and symbols excitedly rattling its Lion which danced up and down entering local restaurants to bring good luck..attempting to eat pieces of cabbages, the green providing good luck, on the way and hoping to impress the audience, if the crowds give it room by its acrobatic action. Watching this splendid beast one can be reminded of other native house visiting customs and how similarities can be drawn.
There are other significant Chinese communities in the UK and other celebrations, however the oldest and surely most colourful is that of London. However not everyone feels the celebration is great. Venetia Newell in her article for Western Folklore, A Note on the Chinese New Year Celebration in London and Its Socio-Economic Background notes that Jabez Lam, of the Chinese Advice and Information Centre believed:
“What you’re seeing in Gerrard Street has nothing to do with New Year as the Chinese know it. All that celebration is artificial, a pantomime put on for tourists and English people by wealthy restaurateurs. In China it takes several days to celebrate New Year. There’s ritual cleaning of the house, shops are closed for 2-3 days; all business stops. Families get together, visit their elders, pay respects. It’s impossible to do those things here. 90% of Chinese people in Britain work in catering. They have to work flat-out on New Year’s Day. It’s no fun at all if you’re a waiter in a restaurant. On this day the restaurants are the busiest they ever get . . it’s hard for the workers who get no rest.”