Happy Chinese New Year 2020 – This weekend, the Year of the Rat begins. January 25 is the Lunar New Year, aka Chinese New Year. It marks the beginning of the lunisolar Chinese calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon and the sun’s longitude, and has been in use since the 14th century B.C.E. Although the modern Gregorian calendar is the go-to for day-to-day life, the lunisolar calendar is used to calculate festival dates, and some special occasions, such as weddings.
Unlike Western astrology, each sign lasts for a whole year and each year takes the name of an animal whose characteristics colour and influence everything that happens for the next 12 months. The Chinese zodiac cycle consists of 12 animal signs, one for each lunisolar year. This upcoming cycle is the Year of the Rat, the first sign; last year was the Year of the Pig. In folklore, the Jade Emperor held a competition to decide the zodiac animals. The rat asked the ox to carry him across the river, but jumped down before the ox crossed the finish line, winning the race. The rat is a symbol of fertility and abundance. People born during this year (or previous Years of the Rat, such as 1984, 1996, or 2008) are believed to be intelligent, creative, and resourceful, and have the ability to form strong social bonds.
— Chinese Treasures (@emramsden) January 26, 2020
Here in the great Chinese City called Lon Don we have geared up for the Chinese New Year Party to welcome the Year of the Rat. London’s Chinese New Year celebrations are the largest outside Asia. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people descend on the West End to wish each other “Xin Nian Kuai Le” (Happy New Year in Mandarin) or “San Nin Faai Lok” (in Cantonese).
Chinese New Year always falls between late January and mid-February, and the Chinese New Year festival in central London, which is organised by the London Chinatown Chinese Association (LCCA), usually take place close to the actual date of the new year. In 2020, the London celebrations are taking place on 26 January, which is the Sunday following the date of the Chinese New Year.
Today, London was proud to host Chinese New Year celebrations in the heart of our city. I hope everyone had a fantastic time celebrating in Trafalgar Square and around the West End. #CNYLondon pic.twitter.com/YB4HX5BcGS
— Mayor of London (@MayorofLondon) January 26, 2020
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.”
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.
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 Sheep (Goat/Ram) 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.
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 Dog!
恭喜發財, Kung Hei Fat Choi, Happy Chinese New Year