Lions and dragons and giant cameras, oh my!: Chinese New Year in London

31 Jan

On Sunday Stephen and I decided it would be a good idea to check out the Chinese New Year parade, because getting off the Tube at Piccadilly Circus is always a “good idea” on a weekend, or any day really. We were quickly reminded why we spend most weekends at home watching the obscene amount of blu-rays we bought in the states instead of standing outside in the cold being bumped by tourists with large cameras who think that somehow gives them the right to push through crowds. The parade was relatively entertaining, mostly because they had people representing every Chinese zodiac animal walking around in inflatable suits. It reminded me of Air Willie’s wild antics that made Northwestern football games tolerable (no offense to my alma mater, I’m insulting football in general here).


What surprised me was the abnormal amount of white people and other ethnicities in the parade. Most cultural events have your token white person, but this was almost enough to make me feel like I wasn’t getting the full Chinese New Year experience, like when you have a Mexican chef at Benihana. Sure, his onion volcano is top-notch, but it doesn’t feel like the authentic Japanese hibachi experience you expect in a strip mall. The crowd watching the parade was mostly non-Asian, consisting mainly of fathers hoisting their children on their shoulders ensuring no one behind them could see even the special Chinese New Year double decker bus, and people with giant cameras. I’m not talking your basic DSLR or mega-zoom like I have, these were some serious “Get out of my way, I’m a PHOTOGRAPHER!” cameras with equally “MOVEEEE I’m important!” telephoto lenses. I can’t tell you how many times the parade actually came to a halt when it was time to turn the corner because too many people and their giant cameras were standing in the street taking pictures of the dragon dance (not to be confused with the lion dance, more on that shortly). I have a hard time believing all of those people were from reputable news sources assigned to document the parade. I stood behind one guy who had a full blown monitor attached to the top of his camera. I’m happy to report that his photos were still crappy.

When the parade was over everyone processed to Trafalgar Square for more festivities. By “process” I mean we were engulfed into the crowd and together slunk to the square like a giant amoeba pushing out its cytoplasm and slinking along. We were not happy.

“I immediately regret this decision!” I said out loud, imitating Will Farrell’s character from Anchorman.

We arrived at Trafalgar Square only to realize the festivities weren’t starting for another hour. We were not going to stand in the cold in the crowd for another hour only to continue standing in the cold in the crowd while the mayor and ambassador spoke and performers sang and danced. We decided to bail and walked against the motion of the giant amoeba crowd back into Chinatown for some lunch. Many places were closed because it was still before noon, but we found a delightfully overpriced dim sum place. Since we were only a party of two, and even in London Chinatown the Chinese despise people who dine in groups less than six, they sat us at a table in the middle of the central walkway of the restaurant, so everyone and every dish had to pass by us. We tried in vain to change tables, but decided we were too cold and hungry to care that much. So we ate our overpriced dim sum and duck in the direct path of every waiter. It turns out we were also in the direct path of something else. …DUN DUN DUN.

Halfway through our meal we saw someone hang a giant bunch of lettuce above the restaurant’s doorway. I asked Stephen what it was for.

“The lion,” he replied, then he thought about it for a second. “Oh crap, I bet they’re going to come inside,” he said. It took me a while to realize what he was talking about. I then remembered my years of watching my friends perform in Northwestern’s Chinese New Year celebration, and photographing the lion dance for my photojournalism project. The lion dance is an integral part of Chinese New Year and is often confused with the dragon dance because all white people (myself included) think the lion looks like a dragon. Here are photos to clarify:

This is a lion dance costume. The dancer is hidden by the giant lion face which looks like a dragon.

This is a dragon dance. The dancers hold the dragon by sticks.

Sure enough the wait staff started freaking out and frantically moving tables around, as if the lion doesn’t come every single Chinese New Year. We could hear the steady pounding of a drum drawing closer as the restaurant owner shoved our table to the side. We then stood there awkwardly as the lion dance troupe processed through.

Here you see the restaurant owner freaking out and Stephen's arm standing awkwardly in the path of the lion.

Here is an example of a woman with a camera that seems way too large and professional.

And here are some more photos of the lion dance moving through the restaurant and almost bumping into us multiple times:


Unfortunately I did not get any photos or video of the lion eating the lettuce because there were people in the way and I didn’t want to put my coat on to go outside, but imagine a person inside of a lion costume (that looks like a dragon) grabbing the lettuce, grinding it up, and throwing it out the lion’s mouth to the delight of children gathered around. You can then also imagine pieces of lettuce sticking to the bottom of your shoes as you exit the restaurant.

Overall it was a neat experience but I don’t know if we’ll be going again next year. I like to avoid crowded situations that turn me into Eric Cartman.

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One Response to “Lions and dragons and giant cameras, oh my!: Chinese New Year in London”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The best roast duck in the world « Reneedezvous - February 13, 2013

    […] But there was no denying the crave. Sunday was the big Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown. Last year we went for the parade and festivities. This year we went for duck. The guy on the phone assured me […]

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