Saturday, 13 February 2016

Chinese New Year in London

London is going all out for Chinese New Year!

London is celebrating Chinese New Year big time in 2016 (or the year of the monkey, as it has been since Monday)! There is a Magic Lantern Festival at Chiswick House, which has been going on since 3rd February and will be continuing until 6th March (closed Tuesday 23rd Feb & Monday 29th Feb), and a parade will be snaking its way through the west end on Sunday 14th February, starting at 10am at Trafalgar Square and finishing in the heart of Chinatown. There are performances and activities being held today at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and in my neck of the woods; at both the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green and in Shoreditch.

So, what exactly is Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year, is also know as Lunear New Year, or the Spring Festival, which is actually the most accurate translation from modern Chinese. It is an important event on the calendar of countries with traditionally significant populations of Chinese people including Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, the Philippines and of course mainland China. It is basically a period of celebration to mark the first fifteen days of the Chinese lunisolar calendar. Although the Gregorian calendar, the Western calendar, is in official use in China, the traditional Chinese calendar plays an important role, and public holidays to mark the event of the Chinese New Year are observed in many of the aforementioned countries. 

How does the Chinese Calendar work?

The Chinese calendar is split into sixty year cycles, and each year is given two distinctions known as an Earthly Branch and a Celestial Stem. There are twelve Earthly Branches, each represented by an animal; the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cockerel, dog and pig. There are ten Celestial Stems, originating from an ancient belief in ten seperate suns, which are themselves linked to five elements; wood, fire, earth, metal and water which alternate every two years. So each year is defined by both an animal and an element; this year, 2016, as of Monday 8th February, is a Fire Monkey year - which sounds pretty badass!
The calendar is further divided into twelve lunar months, each month begining on the new moon and lasting one lunar cycle (either twenty nine or thirty days). Occassionaly a leap month needs to be added for the calendar to keep adding up to a full year. 
The calendar does not traditionally number years continuously, however outside of China it is often counted from the reign of the Yellow Emperor in the 3rd Millenium BCE, although the exact date is disputed by scholars. A good estimate would be that as of 8th February 2016 we entered the Chinese year of 4714.

Why are the Chinese significant to London?

Firstly, the Chinese make up London's forth largest Asian population, after Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis respectively, and are fairly well spread across the city; numbering around 114,800 in 2007. London has also been twinned with Shanghai since 1996, and entered a sister city relationship with Beijing in 2006. Despite this, Britain and China actually have a very complicated political relationship. Although the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, was hosted here in London late last year on a state visit where he signed over £30 billion worth of trade deals, MI5 actually cite Chinese espionage as one of the greatest threats to UK national security, and public outrage at China's poor human and animal rights record is widespread. 
China and the UK have had many historical disputes including over the status of Hong Kong, choosing opposing sides during the Cold War, and outright conflict during the First and Second Opium Wars. Despite this somewhat bad blood between the two nations, China and the UK forged "a strategic partnership" in 1997 following the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong, and the UK government recognised Tibet as an integral part of China for the first time in 2008. The Tibet issue had long been something of a touchy subject. The Dalai Lama has stated that he and Prince Charles are "best friends", and the future king's abstention in joining his mother, the Queen, in hosting a banquet in honour of President Xi's last visit was seen by many as a strategic snub for this very reason. 
Modern politics aside, the history of Chinese populations in London is long and complex; Chinese people first arrived in the city as sailors during the 19th century. These first populations were concentrated in the Limehouse area of the East End, which was the original area to be given the name of Chinatown in London. This Chinatown, which was mainly known for its slums and opium dens, was severely damaged during the Blitz in WWII. After the war, due to an influx of immigration from Hong Kong and a rise in the popularity of Chinese cuisine, many restaurants began to spring up elsewhere. Most notably the present Chinatown, which occupies the area in and around Gerrard Street in the West End, began to develop during the 1970s. 
Today this area, which is a very distinct corner of town, instantly recognisable by its huge decorative gates and statues, and bustling, vibrant atmosphere, boasts over eighty restaurants and houses the London Chinatown Community Centre which claims to have helped 40,000 people since its foundation in 1980. 
Chinatown is well worth a look during your visit to London and is an integral part of the unique cultural blend that modern London has to offer. If you don't have time to dine out then why not dip into one of the Chinese supermarkets and pick up a bag of authentic smoked tea or traditional snacks to take away with you? Locals will be interested to know that a quick side step down Dansey Place just off of Wardour Street, offers you the chance to buy deliciously fresh, homemade noodles at £1 a bag from Lo's Noodle Factory! 

I hope that you found this interesting and informative, and if you are Chinese living in London, or indeed visiting London, I would love to hear from you to find out what you thought of our city, of Chinatown and the Chinese New Year Celebrations!

Happy Year of The Monkey!