London’s Chinese new year: Internet calls and house parties


For most Londoners, Chinese New Year means lion dancing in Trafalgar Square – part of a lavish programme begun by some of China’s early migrants living in central London’s Chinatown.

But for those newest to the city, it is about house parties, dinners, karaoke and internet conference calls.

Chinese people make up the largest single overseas student group in the UK, according to the British Council, and London is their most popular place to study, with 8,520 students.

Celebrations for the Year of the Dragon, which begin on 23 January and last for 15 days, will be marked in London on 29 January with a parade and a 100-person strong performance in Trafalgar Square featuring, among others, Shanghai Song and Dance Troupe and the National Music Orchestra of Jilin Province.

‘Different rules’

But for many young Chinese people, the season – their nation’s most important – is more about personally plugging the gaps in culture between East and West and much of it happens behind closed doors.

The biggest difference most young Chinese people find is that London’s celebrations are a lot less noisy than the national holiday in China.

In mainland China fireworks and firecrackers are an essential part of the start of the new year, with thousands set off in the street, to ward off the evil monster, nian. Apart from the occasional firecracker let off in Chinatown, it’s a far quieter affair here.

He Jui, 22, from Harbin, studying at Goldsmiths College, explained that a few years ago he and his friends bought a small rocket to let off in the garden, but he wisely chose against letting off any more, conceding “different country, different rules”.

While he went to Trafalgar Square for the celebrations a few years ago – “It’s OK, but it’s not China” – this year he chose to celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve at a house party in Lewisham, entertaining everyone with his Chinese rapping.

Lunar in Lewisham

However, he found it hard to track down the strong white spirit, bai jiu, used to toast the new year back home. “I looked in the Chinese supermarkets in Lewisham,” he explained, “but it was all sold out.”

Chinese students in London are, at least, spared the arduous task of travelling to their home town. Each year the largest seasonal migration of people in the world takes place in time for the traditional reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve.

Lin Xing is studying business management at King’s College London. It is her first new year away from her home in Fujian Province.

She said: “Back home I would go to my grandparents’ house.” That involves a five-hour drive.

Asked if she was going to miss her family she said: “It’s fine because I have friends here and we will celebrate together.”

Jin Heng, 31, who is Malaysian Chinese, works in a shop in Chinatown and lives in Brixton. He explained that internet conferences were vital.

“We are separated from our families so we don’t have the reunion dinner here. We have it by Skype, by internet conference. Because of the time difference we have two celebrations – one with friends in the UK and one over Skype.”

Ying Wang, 27, from Tianjin, works in a restaurant. She explained that in China, people have time off work, but it is, of course, a different story in London.

Making dumplings

“The first year I stayed in London I hung out with friends and we made dumplings but this year I have lots of work so I went to a restaurant for a meal.”

Karaoke, or KTV as it is called in China, is also popular during the holiday season. While London lacks the same number of venues with private singing rooms, there are alternatives. Ting Wang, 19, who lives in Marble Arch and studies pharmacy, said: “We will have a party or go to KTV in some restaurants.”

Like Christmas in the UK, entertainment is a big part of Chinese New Year in China. While some tune in over the internet for the televised gala watched by a reported 700 million, others organise their own entertainment.

Mr He, who performs under the name which translates as ‘Little Fat in London’ and works at Silk Road restaurant in Camberwell, said he rapped last year at a new year show put on by London University, which about 2,000 people attended.

This year, University College London’s Chinese Students & Scholars Association will present a joint event with LSE on 30 January. A trailer online promotes it.

Uniting the youngsters is good because as He Jui puts it, whose father and grandparents are back in China, “I can get sad because it is when families get together”. (Source: BBC)

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