A London Chinese New Year Chinatown Parade.
“China is in the heart, Jack.”Egg Shen, Big Trouble in Little China
A a little bit of China comes to London one cold grey Sunday. Drab and dreary winter London is brightened by rippling flags, flame reds and glorious golds. London is decked out ready for celebrating the Chinese New Year.
The day dawned dark. The morning sky full of brooding black storm clouds. A cold cutting cries and wails as it whips around bins and bends trees. The wind was full of whispers from Wuhan of a new virus. People are starting to get a little nervous about this covid19. The contagion spreads rapidly but fears move faster. People are wondering if this new coronavirus may be in here in London. I wonder what sort of celebrations I’ll find?
Crowds begin line along Charing Cross road. London Chinese New Year starts with a parade. Spots of rain began to fall. I’m starting to wonder if it’s been called off due to the weather. Do dragons like the cold, I wonder?
I heard it first. Bright notes fill the dull frigid air. Like the rolling roar of thunder or possibly of dragons, the sound reaches me first before I see. There’s no sign yet of the parade. People perk up and watch the road intently. Marshals urgently wave people back. Wouldn’t be good to get eaten by the dragons. I hope they’ve been fed…
Finally, I see. First light. A dragon’s dawn. Colourful banners wave around excitedly. Along the road, they march in a rainbow of colour – reds and golds rule triumphant. The marchers hold a banner that reads, ”Kung Hei Fat Choi” – A Chinese New Year Greeting. Just behind the vanguard are dragons…
Dragons in London! They weave and bob and snake through the streets of London. They duck and dive to the heartbeat of drums. Dragon mouths bite the frosty air. Drums beat in time. Closer and closer they come. The children reach out excitedly.
The parade passes in a dream of music, marchers, and colourful floats gliding along. There is even a bedecked double-decker resplendent in Chinese banners. Rats and waving pandas spin and march in time to the music. There are dancers wearing thin silks and I wonder how cold they must be. But it’s the dragons I’m here to see and they don’t disappoint. The green dragon is the last to come. It’s coils and spirals high into the grey sky.
And then it’s all over. The dragons are gone with the fading of the drums. The streets are drained of colour and grey again. A cold wind whips around playfully. “China is in the heart, jack.” For a little while, China is in mine too.
A London Chinese New Year Concert
Take a journey through the country where red dragons lurk inside.– Shaun Gibson,
After the parade is over, I take a wander through London’s Chinatown. Red lanterns burn bright against the slate sky. They sway back and forth like cherries in a tree tossed by a storm. Beyond the steamy restaurant windows, families share food. I pushed on through the crowded streets. I eventually find a small stage where an old lady dances with a sword.
Trafalgar Square is where the main Chinese New Year events take place with a free concert played out on a large stage and it’s there that I head next. The rain is like a fragmented freezing ocean. I am freezing. I could feel myself shiver inside my soaked coat. A small crowd, topped with umbrellas, stood before the main stage.
The sounds of ancient China washed over the crowd and drenched disinterested stone lions of Trafalgar square. Performers tried their best to cheer the crowd but there is only so much enthusiasm you can muster when you are freezing cold and soaked through to the bone. In other years Trafalgar Square is packed with people. This year only a few brave souls battle against the elements.
Possibly, too, the fear of a new plague, ironically from China, might have something to do with the crowds staying away: coronavirus. Maybe there is more to the diminutive crowd size than just the inclement UK winter weather? Here and there people are wearing white surgical masks.
Despite the inclement weather, the show goes on. China is here in London, Jack. Chinese opera booms across the square. Trafalgar is alive with traditional Chinese music. Women who might as well have stepped from a watercolour dance elegantly to the sounds of a flute. There’s modern music too. I particularly liked Shaun Gibson’s translated Chinese pop songs.
I leave before the concert ends. The rain and the cold defeat me. I make a beeline for the warm welcome of a restaurant. More than anything I want to be warm. The year of the rat has started damply and inauspiciously in London. The weather was awful, fears of deadly virus spread faster than any contagion could ever do… but there were dragons. Dragons!
“China is in the heart, Jack.” There are more ways to travel then stepping foot on far flung soils. We don’t need to fly on silvered wings to travel. Travel is more than that. Travel is in your soul, your mind, and your heart. The place is more than simply a location. The sounds and sensations, the people, the traditions, the food make a place. For just a little bit, China came to London. China is in the heart, Jack. It’s in mine, for just a little while on a rainy Sunday.
The Legend of Chinese New Year…
“Kung Hei Fat Choi”– Chinese New Year Greeting.
Legend tells of a fearsome monster that would ravage the lands every year. During one such attack, the monster came to an abrupt halt before a red door! Then the sound of firecrackers sent it fleeing. The people realised the colour red and noise were the bane of the monster and so each year it’s traditional to make noise with such things as firecrackers and drums and to make sure there is plenty of red around.
You just can’t take chances with monsters.
The Chinese Calendar has a legend attached to it also. It doesn’t feature any monsters but there is a God and a crazy race featuring a group of animals all wanting to win first place in the Zodiac.
So beings the Year of the Rat! First of the animals in the Chinese Zodiac of which there are twelve, in order they are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, and Pig.
Legends tell that the Jade Emperor decided to hold a competition open to all the animals. There would be a grand race and the reward would be a place in the Zodiac. 12 animals turned up for the race. Today is the Year of the Rat. The cunning rodent sweet talked the Ox into letting him hitch a ride across the river. As soon as he was across the river he jumped off his back and sprinted across the finish line to become first in the Chinese Zodiac!
Second, obviously came the kindly Ox. Third place is the Tiger. Next up was the rabbit who almost drowned in the river. Fifth is the Dragon who took time to help some villagers. The Horse comes in at seventh place after the snake who was secretly wrapped around his leg and so bagged sixth place.
The Sheep, Monkey, and Rooster all helped each other and navigated across the river on a raft and taking eighth, ninth, and tenth places respectively. Dog came in at 11th after spending too much time playing happily in the water. Last came pig who got distracted by dinner and then slept off his large meal.
For what it’s worth. I am the sign of the pig. Distracted by food… This makes total sense.
What Chinese animal are you? You can check out this Zodiac Calculator! Where did you finish in the race?!
Where to celebrate Chinese New Year in London
“Head to Trafalgar Square and China Town”– A wise man (me)
There are a few places to celebrate London Chinese New Year, such as Bang Bang Oriental, but the main event takes place right in the heart of Capital. For more information can check the London Chinese Association (LCCA) for details for future London Chinese New Year events. You can also check out the London Chinatown web site where you can find details on events and restaurants.
The New Year parade starts near Trafalgar Square and works it’s way up Charing Cross Road and along the upper edge of Chinatown.
There is a lion dance and eye dotting ceremony that takes place in Trafalgar Square. There’s also a large stage where you can watch Chinese acts perform. At the end, there is usually a fireworks display to celebrate Chinese New Year!
There are a few other stages as well where you can watch acts performing traditional Chinese arts.
I advise arriving early (around 30 mins minutes) and stand around midway up Charing Cross Road. This will give you good views of the parade coming up and heading away from you.
Oh, and it’s normally very cold. I suggest wrapping up accordingly but if you would like to turn up in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, then you, sir (or madam), are a boss.
How do I get there?
千里之行，始于足下。(Qiānlǐ zhī xíng, shǐyú zúxià. A thousand-li Journey starts with a foot fall.– A Chinese travel saying.
How do I get to London Chinatown?
This area is the geographical heart of London. Charing Cross Station ( a short walk from Chinatown ) is serviced by both the London underground, mainline rail and busses. Alternatively, you can take the underground and disembark at Leicester Square station which is closest to Chinatown.
You can check the Transport for London (TFL) Journey Planner to plot your journey from one part of London to another.
best restaurants in London Chinatown
“A peasant must stand a long time on a hillside with his mouth open before a roast duck flies in.”– A Chinese saying.
Celebrating a London Chinese New Year makes one awfully hungry. Do you need food? You could do with some delicious Chinese food? Since you are in London’s Chinatown then it seems the perfect choices for dinner or lunch. But there’s so much choice. Fear not, dear traveller, I got your back. This wouldn’t be a travel and food blog without some food recommendations, now would it?! Delicious food you want? Food I got.
You won’t have to wait on a hillside for a roast duck to fly into your mouth because I’m going to tell you some great places to get some great food. The following recommendations are all based upon my own many delicious visits to Chinatown. I’ve personally eaten at these places and in some cases have eaten in them many times.
Dim Sum in London Chinatown
The best way, IMHO, you can celebrate a London Chinese New Year, is dim sum. I can think of few better foods in this world than yum cha. Warm wooden baskets steaming gently. Plates with glistening parcels of deep fried delicious. Savoury and sweet buns. A pot of tea ready to guard against the cold.
On the off chance, you are not already familiar with dim sum, I’ll explain briefly. Dim sum means “touch of heart” in Chinese. Isn’t that wonderful? An early morning or afternoon ritual involving families and friends getting together around a table and a pot of tea. Food is ordered and shared. Think Chinese tapas and you are almost there… Small bites of many different things. Dishes are typically served in sets of 3 which is traditionally believed to be a lucky number.
Dim sum normally come steamed, fried, or grilled. Sweet dim sum is served alongside the savoury offerings. It’s recommended you order between 3 to 4 per person depending on how hungry you are.
What are the best Dim Sum restaurants in Chinatown? Here are my top 3 dim sum restaurants.
Gerrard’s corner, It’s not fancy and that is preciously a part of its charm. All around you Chinese families chat together as they enjoy Dim Sum and tea. Close your eyes, and you could imagine you are actually in China not simply London Chinatown. Of course, it’s all about the food and the dim sum here is brilliant; I think it’s probably the best in Chinatown. The roast meats here are outstanding and a definite highlight.
The Orient is a little bit more upmarket. If you want your surroundings a little plusher, your seating a little more comfortable, and your service a little more on the warmer side then this is your go-to. Of course, the prices are a little higher too. This place is still full of Chinese families enjoying steamed and fried delights together at the weekend. The BBQ pork here is of particular note!
joy king lau was where I first tried Dim Sum. The food here is amazing but the service is… interesting. As with many London Chinatown restaurants, the service can be hilariously bad tempered or frosty. The service here ranges from indifferent and cold to comically hostile. Depending on how you view it, you’ll possibly either have an unpleasant experience or enjoy a little extra table side entertainment.
Lunch or Dinner in London Chinatown
Again, I would recommend the Orient for dinner and also Joy King Lau. I haven’t eaten at Gerrard’s corner for dinner and so would hesitate to recommend it fully, but I would be very surprised if it wasn’t just as good as the dim dum.
The Four Seasons Chinese restaurant (not the hotel chain!) is a really good choice, The food here is of high quality but what they are famous for is the quality of the roast meats, particularly the roast duck. Personally I think it is a little overrated. I think Gerrard’s Corner is better. However, the food is really good as is the roast duck. You won’t be disappointed.
Shuang Shuang is the place for hot pot, in my view. It does things a little differently to most places. The pots are generally for one or two people. The food comes around on a conveyor belt system such as you find in sushi restaurants. The broths are rich rewarding pools of umami. The ingredients are of high quality. There are a couple of other hot pot places in Chinatown but to date, I haven’t tried them.
Snacks and Small Bites
Where to get a quick bite in Chinatown?
First up is Jen’s Cafe. This bright green cafe is a Chinatown legend. Through the window, you’ll see ladies sitting and deftly making dumplings. There is a short menu with other choices but the dumplings are absolutely what you should be ordering. You can get them steamed or fried. Not only are the juicy steamed to perfection dumplings a taste sensation they are also ridiculously cheap budget food.
Good Friend fried chicken is another London legend in Chinatown. Forget KFC! This Ultra crisp Taiwanese chicken comes with a dizzying selection of flavour powders to sprinkle over them and the price is a bargain too. There are plenty of choices such as cheese stuffed chicken, popcorn chicken, legs, wings, and there’s even chicken skin. Try it! It’s naughty but amazing. If you don’t fancy chicken then there are a few seafood choices. You’ll often see lines snaking out of the door, a testament to the quality served here at low prices.
Maybe try something baked? There are many Chinese bakeries where you can enjoy buns and cakes on Chinese New Year (or any other day) but my favourite is simply called Bake. Step inside the toasty glowing space awash with warm scents of baked goodies try not to overbuy… They have a wide selection of sweet and savoury buns. They also make some fantastic Taiyaki, which is a Japanese fish-shaped sweet waffle or sorts that are filled with gooey goodness.
心想事成 “May all your wishes come true.”– Chinese New Year greeting.
And that, as they say, is a wrap ( duck wrap haha )
Have you experienced a Chinese New Year in London or for that matter elsewhere in the world? What was the best thing? Was it Dragons? Was it food? What was the best moment?
Are you planning to celebrate a London Chinese New Year in 2021? I suppose given the current situation it’s going to be very different. Please answer and comment below in the box! I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions then please get in touch.
As often is the case, an ending ushers in a new beginning. So ends the first post on Travels with my Belly. If you would like to find out a little bit more about me, then please click HERE and also the FAQ .
Chinese New Year is also a big celebration here in NYC. While i have never celebrated, i can appreciate to food culture and festivities. Thanks for sharing your experiences in London.
Great post. I really liked how you wrote the first part in the first person and present tense. It makes the scene come to life. I also appreciated adding in the history of Chinese New Years and the Zodiac as I had never heard these before.