Sunday, January 15, 2012

Chinese New Year 2012 - things to do in London

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Image by vpickering

Chinese New Year celebration, which is just round the corner, is always a busy affair. The entire preparation starts way before the actual day itself. As a kid, I was roped in at least two weeks before to do my share of 'spring cleaning', which is essentially tidying up the house and clearing out any unsightly clutter that has accumulated over the year. It's the thing about going into the new year with a fresh start. Given the state of my bedroom (one can hardly see the floor), it usually took me quite a while.

There was no let up when that was done for it's time to put up the decorations. Red stripes of auspicious couplets printed on them in gold paint were purchased from Chinatown and pasted all over the house together with knick knacks (usually small lanterns, mock firecrackers and gold painted plastic coins) hung around them. From a young age and after tagging along with Dad, I've learnt two things about buying these Chinese New Year decorations: never buy from the first stall on the street (they're usually the most expensive) and always wait till the last possible moment (usually on Chinese New Year's eve) to buy them at rock bottom prices. These might seem like common sense but to a seven year old, it was a revelation.


Mum will usually get down to preparing the Chinese New Year eve's dinner a week before. It is usually a mad rush for fresh groceries during then. Fish and pork is always in short supplies during then. It is almost mandatory to have a fish for dinner on the eve. Interestingly, no matter how small the fish is, Mum would always forbade us to finish it. Should leave some for the new year, she would say as she kept the leftover in the fridge. The Chinese know this as 年年有余 (nian nian you yu), literally translating to "having surpluses every year". By playing on the rhyme between 鱼 (fish) and 余 (surplus), the fish usually gets only half eaten.

There is usually a huge hotpot in the middle of the table for the Chinese New Year eve's dinner. Hotpots are handy in the sense that minimal cooking beforehand is required. For some, the preparation of the soup base is a tricky affair, which requires hours of boiling pork or chicken bones. For us, it was usually boiling water; the sliced meat, seafood and vegetables that we would chuck into the pot later on will take care of its taste. Even now, I would do the same in London though getting a portable hob is a bit tricky over here. In many ways, having a hotpot in the midst of winter makes more sense than doing the same in the hot tropical heat back home. Although some would prefer to eat out these days (see recommended Chinese restaurants in London), but nothing beats having a quiet dinner with your family in the comforts of your home. Incidentally, this dinner is also known as 团员饭 (tuan yuan fan) or Reunion Dinner , would see scores of Chinese rushing back to their families just so that they can spend some time together.

For the rest of us, there are tons to do in London to usher in the Year of the Dragon in 2012. Here are five things to do to usher in the Chinese New Year.

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Image by DG Jones

1. Chinese New Year celebrations on Trafalgar Square

Chinese New Year celebration seldom gets any noisier than this. The main celebrations in London usually takes place the first Sunday after the Chinese New Year day itself (23rd Jan for 2012). The main show is going to be held in Trafalgar Square on 29th Jan. Expect lion and dragon dances, firecrackers and dance displays and loads of food stalls (also check out London Chinatown cheap eats).

2. Chinese film screenings at BFI Southbank

This is a lifeline for the movie buffs. In conjunction of the Chinese New Year, BFI Southbank in London is screening four notable Chinese movies and documentaries from 4th Feb till 25th Feb. Confucius, A Simple Life, Unseen China and Woman Basketball Player No. 5.

3. Lion dances while you feast

Lion and dragon dances are certainly the crowd pleasers during Chinese New Year celebrations. Instantly recognisable, the clanging of cymbals and thumping of drums usher in the new year with a bang. Traditionally, these dances are to ward off evil and bring in the luck, and businesses will bring in dance troupes to give them an auspicious start to the new year.

While most dance troupes would be travelling along streets at Chinatown and Bayswater, and would be invited for impromptu performances, some Chinese restaurants would schedule lion dance performances. Bookings for these time slots are usually snapped up pretty fast. Here are some scheduled performances (list to be updated as more information become available, please drop me a comment if there is any listing that I have missed)

Shanghai Blues
23rd Jan 8.30pm
Read review

Phoenix Palace
22nd Jan 7.30pm
Read review

4. Family activities at Museum of London Docklands

The Museum of London Docklands in my opinion is one of the most underrated museum in London. Tucked in the heart of Canary Wharf, its main visitors are groups of schoolchildren and the occasional tourists who got lost. The galleries in the Museum include exhibits on the stories of Docklands and the role it played in making Britain's trading empire. It also include the award winning London Sugar Slavery Gallery.

Children are not left out at the Chinese New Year celebrations at Museum of London Docklands, which will host a whole series of activities that include mask making, storytelling and watercolour painting on 21st and 22nd Jan. For more details, refer to its website.

Since you are there, why not complete the experience by having a sumptuous dim sum lunch at Royal China and Lotus?

5. Workshops at National Maritime Museum 

This gem at Greenwich is not letting up on the festival. This year, it's hosting a giant dragon installation, a flag making workshop, a tea accessories appreciate workshop and a film screening of The Chinese Feast. For more details, refer to the official website.

How will you be celebrating Chinese New Year? Did I miss anything other events in London during this festival? I would love to hear from you. 

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