It is Valentine’s Day 2016, 10 am. We are standing in the street of London’s Soho, waiting in the cold. All around us thousands of people are pointing their cameras at something about to emerge from around the corner.
First we hear it: drums, singing and some other unidentified instruments. And then we see it an open mouth of a giant golden and red dragon coming our way, carried on the shoulders of several people. All of a sudden everyone lining up on the pavement along the road pours to the street to take a closer look and snap a photo, ignoring the pleas of helpless security guards.
Dragons are followed by colourful furry lions and some rather odd looking cartoon characters, Mickey Mouse included.
Then follows a procession of dressed up representatives of various associations and clubs carrying banners and playing music. Many are wearing monkey masks. There is even a London bus in the parade. We lose ourselves in the concoction of sights and sounds.
The streets of Soho, where London’s Chinatown is located, are swarming with people. It is after all the largest celebration of the Chinese New Year outside Asia. Street food stalls are everywhere you look, feeding the hungry crowd.
Luckily we have a reservation for lunch at Plum Valley, one of the Chinatown icons, where we feast on dim sum, spring rolls, daikon pancakes, pork buns and roasted veg including some spongy but delicious fungus, washed down with jasmine tea. From our vantage point by the window we can see lion dances happening in the street. One brave lion even ventures into the restaurant.
The Chinese New Year is celebrated over two weeks in 140 countries of the world. An estimated one sixth of the global population takes part. It is the time when Chinese people travel across the country to see their families, making it the largest annual human migration worldwide.
We are about to inaugurate the Year of the Monkey, monkey being one of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs. As it happens, I too was born in the Year of the Monkey (and so will my daughter). As such, I’m supposed to be sociable, innovative, clever and curious. But on the downside: selfish, short-tempered and conceited. The Year of the Monkey is not considered one of the lucky ones, and I’m advised to take good care of my finances. My lucky colours are gold, white and blue, but I ought to avoid red and pink. Good numbers are 1, 7 and 8, but I should steer clear of 2, 5, and 9, if I were into gambling. My unlucky direction is east, not great, since I live in East London and am considering moving even further east…
Chinese folklore abounds in monkey deities that have temples erected in their name. Shape-changing monkeys are thought to be human ancestors.
As we finish lunch, the streets are only getting busier, in preparation for the grand finale with music and fireworks at Trafalgar Square. So we decide to forgo a visit to the Wishing Tree on Charing Cross Road (which could help avert my bad fortune), and head home.
Most people attending the celebration are not Chinese, but the music, the dancing and the food unite all. Happy Year of the Monkey from London!
Photo credits, where indicated: alphab.fr (aka my talented husband)