Chinese New Year

IAN COLLINS Ian Collins looks ahead to celebrations in the capital for Chinese New Year and the delights of Chinatown.

IAN COLLINS

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Which, of course, is a cheery greeting in the Hong Kong dialect of Cantonese meaning Happy Chinese New Year!

The Chinese New Year starts on February 1, with grand and colourful plans looming to mark the arrival of the Year of the Pig.

People born under this auspicious Chinese astrological sign - that's anyone with birthdays in 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935, 1923 and 1911 - are said to be honest, sincere and genuine. They are also supposed to have hearts of gold and to be always ready to give a helping hand.

Thousands of people from London's Chinese community, regardless of their birth dates, are set to lend a helping hand to spectacular celebrations on February 18.

More than 200,000 people watched last year's street party as dragon and lion dancers snaked their way through central London and the West End to the sound of beating drums and popping firecrackers and beneath the flickering light of countless red lanterns.

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An even bigger crowd is expected next month as the parade route has now been extended and the carnival promises to be more colourful than ever.

This year the illuminated dragons and brightly-costumed dancers will start in the Strand, then head along Charing Cross Road and down Shaftesbury Avenue before ending in Chinatown.

The event, which is being organised by the London Chinatown Chinese Association, will also see the vibrant area between Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road and Piccadilly Circus transformed into an Oriental market - with art, craft and food stalls lining the pavements.

In a fitting finale, there will also be firework displays in Leicester Square.

The new year parade is the highlight of the China in London season which runs throughout February and March. Theatres, galleries, museums, libraries and community centres across the capital will host an array of events dedicated to Chinese culture, film, music, art and dance.

And, during the season, the dynamic city of Shanghai will feature in a series of events.

These include a Shanghai on Screen animation season at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank February 18-27 (full listings on www.bfi.org.uk), and a Shanghai photo exhibition at City Hall (the 'armadillo' building south of Tower Bridge).

Long centred on Gerrard Street, Chinatown is now the largest and liveliest Chinese area in Europe - though it still pales beside the namesake enclaves of New York and San Francisco.

As China rises inexorably to become the world's leading economic superpower - unless and until constrained by environmental and political problems - the greatest Asian tiger is producing anything and everything.

But Chinatown is still best known for food.

I have bought Chinese medicines and cheap china here, but mostly I visit the supermarkets and corner stores just to browse - and also, very boringly, to buy cheap, good soy sauce and jasmine tea.

And while Koreans are now tastefully massed in New Malden, and Japanese eateries are a new delight across the 21st century capital (start with Wagamama if you must, before trying something more authentic), most of us still associate the word Chinese with a great meal deal.

So Chinatown is first and foremost a centre of restaurants.

I'm rather out of sorts at the minute, because my favourite restaurant in Gerrard Street, where I would often repair for dim sung - delicate morsels served in a stack of bamboo steamers - has just changed hands and completely lost its appeal.

Now after a round or two of cider in the French pub in Soho's Dean Street, I must cross back over Shaftesbury Avenue and try to find a new venue.

There's certainly no shortage to choose from. But how to pick?

Well, my first rule of thumb is to patronise a restaurant that is already well patronised - other customers being likely to know far more than I do. I also make sure that I eat where the Chinese are eating.

I'd like to say that I eat what they do too but chances are I don't. Dim sung disappearing from most menus by early evening, I'm most likely to veer between the old favourites of crispy duck and sweet and sour prawns.

Dull, I know. But I must also admit still to be mourning the lost era of chop suey!

Whatever I eat the bill is bound to be remarkably good value, in part because I drink pots of jasmine tea. Those early rounds of cider last me for the rest of the evening.

Chinatown - like China itself - is a brightly-lit and noisy hive of industry at the heart of the bubbling, bustling West End. But, between the 1850s and 1930s, it lay elsewhere and had a very different reputation.

Chinese families came to Limehouse, in the East End, from the Straits Settlements, arriving as seamen or ships' launderers and settling virtually where they docked. Shipowners who paid off a foreign crew in London were supposed to oversee repatriation, but some didn't bother.

By the end of the Victorian era there were separate communities from Shanghai and Canton living in this deprived neighbourhood and soon to be lumped into one as Chinatown.

Far from being famed for its restaurants, this corner of the Far East End was notorious for drugs, gambling and prostitution - not to mention the spectre of the white slave trade.

In the late 1880s Conan Doyle plunged into the druggy dream world believed to lurk hereabouts in his tale The Man with the Twisted Lip, and soon afterwards Oscar Wilde sent Dorian Grey to Limehouse to replenish his supply of opium.

A young journalist with a very vivid imagination (perish the thought) turned a fanciful 'news' report into a new career as a novelist. Like his pen name of Sax Rohmer, the writer's arch villain of Dr Fu Manchu was a complete invention.

That there was widespread addiction to opium among ordinary Chinese in the Victorian era should have shocked no one, however.

In the 1840s Opium Wars - possibly the most shameful episodes in British imperial history - Chinese ports had been bombarded to force the acceptance of opium in return for precious goods such as china, tea, silk and jade.

One small effect of that policy was felt in Limehouse, where opium was indeed common and police raids were frequent. And in the jingoistic years before the first world war, when a Liberal government acted to keep out migrants in general and Jews in particular, there were regular deportations of Chinese people.

The Limehouse Chinatown went dark before the bright lights and better times way out West. t

t For more details of the China in London season and Chinese New Year celebrations log on to www.chinatownchinese.co.uk

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