Londoners ring in Year of the Tiger with food and fireworks

On the eve of London’s Chinese New Year celebration, Trafalgar Square stood empty. Standing at the top steps of the National Gallery, I relished this rarity, knowing full well that by noon the next day, every inch of the concrete-covered Downtown space — which is around the same size as Los Angeles’ Pershing Square — would be occupied.

I took the bus early the next afternoon, only to be diverted by routes altered for the day’s festivities. Stranded by public transportation and a haywire sense of direction, I looked like a USC freshman trying to find the Coliseum for the first time and decided to just to just follow the crowd.

But it wasn’t the sound of firecrackers or the Caucasian man dressed in traditional Chinese garb that alerted me of my proximity to the event. From about a quarter of a mile away, I could hear string instrumentals and high-pitched Beijing opera music blasting from the stage.

As soon as I stepped foot on the firecracker shell-strewn pavement of Trafalgar Square, I took a good look at the crowd that enveloped me and was surprised by the turnout, a large portion of which was actually Chinese.

Vendors at promotional booths hawking gift bags that included soy sauce, Chinese-inspired aprons and New Year’s-themed DVDs grabbed the attention of potential customers with special deals.

And true to British drinking culture, a public bar selling Tsingtao beer, a specialty from the Shandong province of China, was set up on the side.

More than 250,000 people arrived the Sunday after the first day of the Chinese New Year to welcome the Year of the Tiger and participate in the most important holiday in Chinese culture. Many attendees flaunted their spirits by buying tiger tails, paper dragons and other celebratory trinkets.

The date of Chinese New Year changes annually in accordance with the first day of the lunar calendar. The celebration lasts for 15 days and consists of cultural traditions for each day, including visiting relatives, setting off firecrackers and, of course, eating good food.

When the emcee came on stage to galvanize the crowd into doing the “Chinese wave,” which appeared startlingly similar to “the wave” performed at sports events, she cited her pride in being British-Chinese.

Britain has one of the largest Chinese communities in Europe, with a large portion of that population residing in London.

The effect of that presence is a robust Chinatown that attracts tourists and locals alike with restaurants, markets and other Chinese-run businesses housed in architecturally traditional buildings.

Organized by the London Chinatown Chinese Association, the massive celebration kicked off with a parade through central London and ended in Chinatown, which was decorated with red and gold lanterns and good-fortune posters to mark the occasion.

Dancers wearing colorful dragon-like costumes mimicked a lion’s movements to the beat of drums, cymbals and gongs, as they attempted to ward off bad spirits and spread prosperity by scattering leaves of lettuce.

By mid-afternoon, the narrow streets of Shaftesbury Avenue in Chinatown were packed with people trying to get a peek at the lion dancers as they tried to eat lettuce hung off of fishing poles outside local businesses.

In exchange for this service, businesses also attached red envelopes with money onto the fishing lines to bestow prosperity in more literal terms.

Chinese custom also dictates the offering of red envelopes — called ya sui qian — and is normally given by married adults to younger children “to crush the spirits,” as the translation of the tradition’s name indicates.

Little did I realize that, by the time the lion dance had finished, the crowd had slowly pushed my friends and me in front of a Chinese bakery selling egg tarts. For 2 pounds ($3.05) apiece, we greedily devoured the flaky pastry crust filled with egg custard, which left us only wanting more.

With our hunger sparked, we popped into Fung Shing Restaurant to order a real Chinese meal.

The food available, however, didn’t include the traditional specialties, such as dumplings and nian gao (or New Year’s Cake), eaten during New Year’s celebrations. But, Fung Shing did have an array of family-style dishes in the communal eating style typical of Chinese culture

At about 5:45 p.m., we followed the masses once again toward Leicester Square for the closing ceremony that promised fireworks. After a lengthy speech, the entire square fell silent in anticipation for the first explosion.

Flashes of red and gold glittered the sky in every direction. With the fireworks shot so low into the sky, I could almost touch the tails of light as they rained down dangerously close to the trees. A line of lanterns was lit to look like rockets ready for launch. Firecrackers popped on the ground nearby, matching in loudness the brightness of their more powerful counterparts.

It was as if the world had stopped for 15 minutes as the crowd watched in hushed awe. When the display ended, the crowd disbanded, and I left with my stomach full and Trafalgar and Leicester Squares as empty as they were the night before.