Kicking off on Valentine’s Day, London’s Chinese New Year celebrations replaced the traditional helium-filled hearts with a sea of scarlet lanterns. As the biggest celebration outside Asia, 300,000 people flock to Trafalgar Square and Chinatown every year to take in London’s most colourful festival. Braving the masses, I sacrificed a lazy Sunday to monkey around with the rest of the revellers.
The Chinese New Year celebrations traditionally kick off at 10.00am with a parade from Trafalgar Square to Chinatown. This year ten lion teams collaborated in one of Europe’s largest lion dances. The on-stage shenanigans start at 12.00pm in Trafalgar Square with acrobats, martial arts displays and flying dragon dances. The afternoon is rounded off with a grand pyrotechnic finale showcasing monkey dancers and acrobats in honour of the Year of the Monkey.
And what can we expect from the Year of the Monkey? Apparently it’s a year when anything can happen. Monkeys are known for their lightening fast pace and fantastic motivation – so hold on to your hat if you’ve got a career change in in mind for the year ahead.
Braving Trafalgar Square, the madness starts from the depths of the tube as a sea of padded winter jackets bounce up the escalators as if in an epic battle of bubble football.
Finally surfacing at ground level, the horizon is a swarming, squalling mass of bodies. Heading over to the main stage, I gingerly inch my way into the square. Once in, navigation proves trickier than a round of Chenga with the crowds swarming in a thousand different directions at once. Definitely not an event for the faint-hearted.
Easing my way over to the side, I’m drawn to eye-catching stalls glittering with sequinned red satin fish, snapping firecrackers and cleverly concertinaing dragons (below) – instantly desired by every child in the vicinity.
Fortune cookies, buns, dumplings and oodles of noodles also tantalise the taste buds from the far side of the stage – for those who can get within striking distance.
Eeking out an inch of space, I await the flying dragon dancers. Breathing fire since the Han Dynasty (180-230) AD, the dragon dance is steeped in Chinese culture and tradition and is a potent symbol of luck and prosperity for the coming year.
Ranging from seven to a staggering forty-seven sections long, the dragon dance traditionally involves over sixty-eight people with four people taking charge of each individual section.
The scaling, snaking movements depend on carefully choreographed movements, timed to precision by each team member – all while labouring under a suffocating tarpaulin canopy. The Dragon head typically weights 14 kilos and must synch with the body and tail sections in complete harmony. No small feat when there’s seventy people involved.
Rearing up high above the crowds, I catch brief glimpses of the puppet masters controlling the rising and raging contortions on precarious set of wooden stilts.
The effect is mesmerising and I completely forget the freezing temperatures and the sea of I-pods clicking all around me. If only I was four years old and able to sit on someone’s shoulders I muse wistfully.
Snatching a few quick photos, I decide to end the claustrophobia and inch to the exit to join the swarming flow descending on Chinatown. On my way out I can’t help but notice this dainty pair of shoes (worn by a man). Just one of many amazing sights.
Chinatown encompasses Shaftesbury Avenue to the north, Rupert Street to the west, Charing Cross Road to the east and Leicester Square to the south. Delve deep into Gerrard Street for the main drag of fluttering lanterns, quirky supermarkets, Chinese Elvis characters (yes really) and a sizzling restaurant scene. (Restaurant queues can be lengthy at this time of year – dine early at around 6.00pm if possible.)
Offering the best Cantonese-style roast duck in town, the Four Seasons on Gerrard Street is the perfect way to escape all the excitement and toast the Monkey with a sip of Jasmine Tea. Who needs champagne and chocolates, when there’s wontons and crispy dumplings to savour.
The Chinese New Year celebrations take place in Trafalgar Square on Sunday 18th February 2018. Find out more here.
Have you visited Chinese New Year in London or anywhere else? What was your experience?