Chinese New Year is celebrated in London in style. On the weeks before the main event, normally held on a Sunday, Chinatown streets in London’s West End are adorned with hundreds of red paper lanterns.
The celebrations start with a parade through Central London with floats, lion dances and the sound of firecrackers going off everywhere. In Trafalgar Square crowds gather to watch performances including singers, dancers and acrobat on a big stage under Nelson’s Column; around the square many stalls selling traditional Chinese food and souvenirs are set up.
In nearby Leicester Square there are many family-friendly opportunities to learn about Chinese culture including calligraphy demonstrations, music, dragon and lion costume dressing up and children’s performances on a small stage.
The biggest crowds are to be found in Chinatown’s Gerrard Street, the main thoroughfare and its adjoining streets and alleys where the traditional Chinese Lion Dance takes place: two people in a costume making the head and tail of the lion accompanied by people playing large drums, cymbals and gongs, visit businesses in the area in a ceremony known as “cai qing” translated into English as “plucking the green” to bring good luck for the year ahead. Lettuce is traditionally hang outside the premises where the lion is expected to visit together with a red envelope with money in it and the lion will pluck it “eating” the lettuce and keeping the envelope. Not surprisingly given the huge crowds, it is a very busy day for the restaurants and patisseries in Chinatown with long queues forming outside with families celebrating the new year; given its location in Central London the event attracts a large number of tourists that get the opportunity to sample the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations and traditions in what it has become the biggest Chinese New Year celebrations outside of Asia.
The new year heralds the beginning of a period marked in the Chinese zodiac by an animal: there are 12 animals each repeating a cycle of twelve years, they are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Each animals has its own attributes and characteristics and it is believed that people born during each animal year will have attributes of that animal and that will help them in life especially when it comes to relationships and match making, although nowadays that belief is not as strong as it was in ancient times.
Chinatown is also the home of China Exchange ; founded by the late Sir David Tang, its aim is to provide an understanding on the impact of China on the world through many events held throughout the year in a building on Gerrard Street. In recent years, during the Chinese New Year celebrations, China Exchange has been hosting a photography competition encouraging people to post photographs on their Instagram feed taken during the festivities that encompass the spirit of Chinese New Year celebrations in London; I was pleasantly surprised to find out that one of my photographs was chosen as one of the winners of the competition in 2016 and was part of a pop up exhibition over a long weekend with many people in attendance…a proud moment for a photographer to see my work recognized and to have the opportunity to be part of such a prestigious event.