“Every year, we travel to our grandparents’ home for Chinese New Year and the food is so important. The food all has special meanings – for example, we leave a little fish leftover at the end because it means ‘may there be surpluses every year’,” explains Xiabin Chen. “It is usually when we have the most expensive food. My family makes this dish that has seafood, pork, chicken, and duck in – it is very special.”
Xiabin Chen, whose English name is Olivia, is from Guangzhou in Southern China and is now one of the 9000-strong Chinese community in Tower Hamlets – the second largest Chinese community in London after Soho. Living in Shadwell, Olivia is hoping to find somewhere close to home to celebrate in the borough.
Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival, is on Friday February 16, and this year it is the Year of the Dog. And don’t worry if you’re busy – Spring Festival is the longest holiday of the Chinese calendar stretching over 15 days, so celebrations will be happening across the capital until March. The Museum of London Docklands has welcomed Chinese New Year with a day of celebrations for the last 15 years, and this year is no different. The museum will be hosting an event this Friday – so make sure you don’t miss out.
The food is not the only tradition during Chinese New Year, with firework displays all over the country, and houses decorated in red banners and lanterns for good fortune.
“Fireworks are often set off during Spring Festival because it symbolises things flourishing in the New Year. In Guangzhou, they also have a flower market where people often buy flowers to decorate their homes because they feel it brings luck. They have big gates in each district that are lit up with decorations too,” explains Olivia, showing us videos of the vibrant celebrations.
She says that red is the most important colour during the festival, which is why many of the decorations are that colour: “We don’t exchange gifts but children receive red wallets on New Year’s Eve with a little money in. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money but it symbolises good fortune to do it.”
To get involved with Chinese New Year celebrations, you don’t even have to leave the borough and you definitely don’t have to leave the city. If you’re looking for hustle and bustle then head over to London’s Chinatown near Soho. The London Chinatown Chinese Association have organised a day of events on Sunday February 18, where you can experience acrobatics, traditional lion dances and hear Chinese rock hits all in one day – or enjoy an event closer to home.
The Museum of London Docklands is well-known for its day of Chinese New Year celebrations. Cassie Tavares, an event organiser at the Museum of London, spoke to ELL about what to expect if you celebrate in the borough this year.
“There are some wonderful Chinese New Year celebrations taking place throughout London. However, ours is one of the most family-friendly celebrations in the entire city. Some of the larger events elsewhere can be overwhelming with their immense crowds and size of the celebrations, while we provide a safe and welcoming space for families to learn and have fun together.”
But this all-day event couldn’t be done alone, as Tavares explains: “To prepare for the event, I approached Jih Wen Yeh, Executive Producer at Step Out Arts, to help us to continue to make our Chinese New Year celebrations bigger and better each year, so I am always looking for new people to work with to accomplish this.”
Tavares also stresses the importance of the Chinese community in the Docklands, saying: “Britain and China’s shared enthusiasm for tea goes back centuries, and means that by the late 19th century, Chinese settlers had formed a close-knit community within the area. This led to the establishment of London’s first Chinatown in Limehouse, where it remained until the middle of the 20th century.”
For Olivia, spending time with family and friends is the most important part of the celebrations: “It’s important to be with family. You are all sat together for New Year’s Eve eating this delicious food to welcome in the new year.”
Chinese New Year Celebrations – Year of the Dog
Where: Museum of London Docklands, West India Quay.
Date: Friday 16 February
Time: 11am (all day)