Peace and Prosperity in the year of The Rabbit!
Chinese New Year 2011 falls on the 3rd of February and on Sunday 6th thousands of people will descend on London’s West End to wish each other “Kung Hei Fat Choi” (or Happy New Year). London will celebrate the arrival of the Chinese New Year of the Rabbit with a series of spectacular celebrations. Chinese New Year – often called Chinese Lunar New Year although it actually is lunisolar – is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. Despite its winter occurrence, in China it is known as “Spring Festival”. The festival begins on the first day of the first month in the traditional Chinese calendar and ends with Lantern Festival which is on the 15th day. Chinese New Year’s Eve, a day where Chinese families gather for their annual reunion dinner, is known as Chú Xī (除夕) or “Eve of the Passing Year.”
Legend has it that the animals were chosen by the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven, who according to Taoist mythology invited all creatures to join him for a New Year’s Day celebration. Only 12 showed up, and the years were named in the order they arrived. The bull would have arrived first, but the rat sat on his back, jumping off just before they arrived. The rabbit came in fourth, hopping on stones to cross a fast-flowing river. The coming year is likely to be “quiet, positive and inspiring”, according to Chinese astrologers, after a turbulent Year of the Tiger. Typically, Rabbit years are good for the Arts and culture, and apparently also for world diplomacy.
One of the urban “villages” of London popular with natives and tourists alike is Chinatown, the area between London’s Theatreland in Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square which includes Lisle, Gerrard Streets and Newport Court. It is a bustling and largely pedestrianised area including restaurants, snack bars, bakeries, Chinese pharmacies, supermarkets, travel agencies and the anonymous gambling clubs. You’ll find that signage in the area, street signs, bank signs; telephone boxes are bi-lingual in Chinese and English.
“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand
walkin through the streets of Soho in the rain.
He was lookin for the place called Lee Ho Fooks, gonna get a big dish of beef chow mein.”
China is resurgent and sometime early in this century China will become the world’s largest economy and certainly this small area is a microcosm of the energy, enterprise and ingenuity which makes China so economically muscular and culturally fascinating. Indeed the wealth of the New China can be seen near where I live in Bicester Village outlet mall in Oxfordshire where 40% of the spend is by young Chinese visitors, something which would have been unheard of even 5 years ago.
Chinatown is an integral part of London’s history: haunt of Boswell and Reynolds, birthplace of the post office, first site of Ronnie Scott’s, host to immigrant communities from the Huguenots to the Maltese and now London’s vibrant Chinese quarter. The bustling Chinese community of restaurants and businesses has been here since the 1950s; however, the Chinatown story goes much further back – right across London and all the way to the Far East.
London’s original Chinatown was in the East End, where Chinese employees of the East India Company had first appeared in the 18th century. The Company employed thousands of Chinese sailors; most were based in China, but a small number chose to leave their ships and settle in the docks at Limehouse. By 1914, there were a few hundred Chinese running some 30 Chinese businesses in Limehouse: mostly laundries, small shops and restaurants which catered for Chinese seamen. However, the post-war years posed a major threat to the small community; Limehouse had been destroyed during the London Blitz, and the decline of the British shipping industry resulted in new union rules that made it virtually impossible for non-British seamen to find work on British ships. This and the advent of high street launderettes saw a migration of the Chinese out of the East End.
By 1950 there were approximately 2000 Chinese in Britain. Whilst some had moved to Liverpool, others remained in the capital where they sought new opportunities. Luckily this dismal picture changed with the return of the British soldiers from the Far East. They brought back with them a broadened palate eager to taste more of the Chinese cuisine they had encountered. At the time there were only two or three restaurants in the West End and many Chinese saw the opportunity to move into the area and capitalise on this emerging market. This marked the beginning of the second phase of the Chinese presence in London and the foundations were laid for modern day Chinatown.
This had a knock on effect and lured by the cheap rents and short leases in and around Gerrard Street other Chinese trades began to prosper. The reason for the low cost rents was the seedy reputation of Soho. Where there had once been genteel inhabitants living in elegant houses there were now brothels and sex shops. The developments in the wake of the Great Fire had lent grandeur to the locality but, this early splendour had not lasted and, by the mid 18th century the area was rundown. Instead it became home for different immigrant populations, each one taking over from the next. The first were the French Huguenots, the Italians, the Jews and then the Chinese.
As the wives and children of the Chinese workers moved to Britain the community in the area grew larger and, the presence of this new phenomenon around Gerrard Street was noticed. By 1961 over 2000 ex-residents of the New Territories arrived in the UK to work in the booming restaurant trade. A Daily Telegraph article in 1970, titled “The Strange Community of Gerrard Street” highlighted the growing interest in early Chinatown. One of the first paragraphs talks about this rapid growth from solely restaurants to a populace who are serviced by, ‘Chinese barbers, Chinese beauty parlours, Chinese mini-cabs, accountants, bookshops and libraries, supermarkets, travel agents, gambling clubs and even a chamber of trade’.
For this Chinese New Year in London in a specially decorated Chinatown there will be lion dance displays as well as cultural stalls offering food. Nearby Shaftesbury Avenue is also hosting special events throughout the day and features a stage for local Chinese artists to showcase their talents, so keep an eye out for these vibrant displays of cultural diversity to welcome the Year of the Rabbit in traditional, vibrant Chinese style with lion dances, music, and much more. Visitors can sample authentic Chinese cuisine served by restaurants and stalls in Chinatown and also watch acrobatics as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations in Trafalgar Square.
London’s Trafalgar Square is also being transformed with a diverse selection of live performances again in February 2011. Although Chinese New Year actually takes place on Thursday 3rd February, the London parade and dances happen a little later on Sunday 6th February. The massive Trafalgar Square event sees traditional Chinese dragon and lion dances with modern music and dance, and a line up of visiting Chinese performers from the different provinces in China. Last year’s Chinese New Year London celebrations drew over 250,000 people to a grand parade and welcoming ceremony at Trafalgar Square. This year’s event is expected to be just as big an occasion.
There’s also the chance to soak up authentic Chinese arts culture at the Imperial Chinese Robes exhibition at the V&A Museum. The exhibition showcases magnificent robes worn by the emperors and empresses of the Qing dynasty and others.
For full details of Chinese New Year events in London see;
There are countless restaurants in China Town but my personal favourite the Fung Shing in Lisle Street has now closed with its owner’s retirement after 34 years. As is well known the Sage is something of a cheapskate and now heads downmarket to one of the most famous restaurants in Chinatown the Wong Kei at 41–43 Wardour Street. I’d recommend it for cheap eats and atmosphere as the food is authentic unadorned Chinese fare as attested by the large number of Chinese customers. Spread over 4 floors it has over 700 hundred seats and plenty of authentic Chinese atmosphere (cash only, no cards or cheques). For authentic Cantonese food order the noodle or rice dishes from the back of the menu, Fried Quaedu, Beef Ho Fun, Singapore Noodle, Soup Noodle, Foo Yung Fried Rice etc; These and a bowl of soup and free Chinese tea will be under six pounds but you may well feel hungry two days later!
Memorable for its cheap food and brusque waiters, the Wong Kei is a distinctive establishment and the building itself was once owned by Willy Clarkson, a famous theatrical wig maker. It’s one of the restaurants in the area with the biggest reputation, beginning on arrival, when you will be seemingly randomly allocated a floor to report to be allocated a table (really all based on group size). Once you arrive at your table the service remains brusque and almost rude, which is part of the reason for its cultish reputation. The secret is to order from the back end of the menu which are the more authentic and filling such as the rice and ho fun (fat noodle) dishes or the big bowls of noodles in soup. Part of the menu is in Chinese and hidden from you as a Laowai 老外 (old foreigner – the normal Chinese form irrespective of your age!) but I can tell you it consists of “delicacies” which do not appeal to the Western taste such as chopped intestines and ducks feet in chicken blood!
The waiters are not really rude but just very busy and don’t like timewasters. Indeed they have made something of a brand out of their reputation and you can buy T-shirts with “Upstairs” “Downstairs” on them, normally the only words of greeting customers receive! I did witness another abrupt exchange once when an English guy ordered Congee, a gelatinous rice stew with meat “bits” which also doesn’t normally appeal to the Western taste.
Waiter; “You know what Congee is?”
Dirty foreign devil; “My good man, I lived in Hong Kong for 5 years.”
Waiter; “No ask life story, only ask you know Congee!”
So enjoy the unique culture, food and vibrancy of the Chinese People in London’s Chinatown and help usher in the auspicious Year of the Rabbit!
恭喜發財, Kung Hei Fat Choi, Happy Chinese New Year
For more tips on saving money and discovering the real London see;