Dragon's Den: Chinese New Year In London
Today it’s hard to imagine that Chinatown, with its dim-sum restaurants, dual-language signs and sculptures of Chinese lions, was ever anything else. But in the 17th century, it was a verdant meadow across which rang the Duke of Monmouth’s hunting cry of ‘Soho!’ that gave the adjacent neighbourhood its name.
After 1666, when new housing was needed for those made homeless in the Great Fire of London, it was a prime location. Lord Gerrard bought the land – hence the name Gerrard Street – and built a slaughterhouse and livestock market. French Huguenots took over the market’s upstairs floor and it became known as the ‘Butcher’s Church’.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, artists, writers and philosophers flocked to the area, among them Dr Samuel Johnson, author of the English dictionary, who was a regular at Gerrard Street’s Turk’s Head Inn.
Around this time, Chinese immigrants settled in Limehouse, east London, creating the city’s first Chinatown. But after the area was bombed in World War II, many moved to Gerrard Street where rents were low. It wasn’t long before restaurants opened, and the aroma of Cantonese cuisine wafted along the streets.
Officially recognised as Chinatown in 1985, it is now Europe’s largest, with more than 220 Chinese businesses. It’s a real community, too: St Martin-in-the-Fields church binds it together with social events and Sunday services in Cantonese and Mandarin. ‘Our church has had a long history with the local community,’ explains Reverend Paul Lau. ‘A lot of Chinese residents come to our events and luncheon club, which gives them a link with each other.’
Chinese New Year falls on 8 Feb, while the celebrations in London fall on 14 Feb. London hosts the largest celebration outside Asia, attracting up to 200,000 visitors. Mayor Boris Johnson, who in 2012 dressed up in a yellow dragon costume, calls it ‘one of the most colourful events of the year’. The Year of the Monkey celebrations kick off at 10am with a parade, including dragon and lion dances, along Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue to Rupert Street. Trafalgar Square becomes a riot of colour from midday with performances by Chinese musicians and acrobats, and stalls selling goods from lanterns to snacks. A firework display at 5.40pm brings the party to a close. Then it’s time to wish everyone ‘Kung Hei Fat Choi!’, as the Chinese say − or ‘may you have prosperity’. lccauk.com
You know when you’re in Chinatown: with the lucky reds, glowing lanterns and oriental architecture, everything in this area is colourful – even the rubbish bins are painted red and gold. In 1985, Westminster City Council and the Chinese Embassy commissioned the area’s three Paifang-style gateways, which were built and completed between 1985 and 1986.
In keeping with Chinese tradition, these are magnificently decorated with red-painted pillars and intricately designed arches. The Chinese government donated two fierce-looking stone lions to Gerrard Street. Since 2009, visitors have come face-to-face with a more cheerful lion climbing down Wardour Street’s wall.
The Lion is a huge grinning statue, with orange and yellow fur, which was created by graduates from the Royal College of Art in London, Tsai Hsiao-chi and Kimiya Yoshikawa. The bright colours, each cut from Perspex, represent the diversity of east Asians living and working in the UK. A lion statue is usually placed at the entrance of Asian temples or palaces, serving as guardians to these revered places. Other must-see attractions include Horse & Dolphin Yard’s imposing red building with its green-tiled roof, and Newport Place’s splendid pagoda.
For South East Asian delicacies, such as fresh pak choi or pressed tofu, visit supermarkets such as Loon Fung and New Loon Moon. Be adventurous; try Chinese dragonfruit or the smelly, but tasty, durian. Aisles groan with jars of tom yam paste and packs of water chestnuts, leading you to the basements with chopsticks and noodle bowls. Over in Newport Court’s market stalls, a waving white porcelain cat beckons you in to choose the perfect slinky satin cheongsam (traditional dress) or elegant embroidered slippers. For Chinese herbal remedies, visit Beijing Tong Ren Tang, Everwell Chinese Medical Centre or Be Health Centre. ‘Our company in China is 300 years old and little has changed,’ says Beijing Tong Ren Tang sales assistant Ying. ‘You can get herbs for everything from fatigue to skin conditions.
Chinatown’s nightlife has livened up in recent years. The Opium Cocktail & Dim Sum Parlour, for instance, transports you to the glamorous world of 1930s Shanghai. ‘I wanted a place where people could enjoy top-quality dim sum and incredible cocktails using seasonal Chinese fruits sold here on Gerrard Street,’ explains owner Eric Yu. ‘It’s a contemporary late-night hangout which Chinese people would feel proud to visit.’ Sing your heart out to the latest Cantopop hits in karaoke bars that are tucked away in private lounges at restaurants such as Royal Dragon. The Hippodrome Casino, where Claire Heliot performed her lion-taming shows a century ago, remains true to its live roots with its bijou Matcham Cabaret room. February highlights include The Soho Burlesque Club (6, 13 & 27 Feb) and Viva Las Magic (6 Feb).
Most people visit Chinatown for food. In previous years, it was no-frills Cantonese cuisine to suit the local community; now there is a vast array of South East Asian cuisine including upmarket eateries, as well as tempting window displays, from hanging pressed roast goose to arrays of Korean bubble teas. Most restaurants are clustered on Gerrard and Lisle streets – choose from a contemporary spin on dim sum at Plum Valley, or sample tongue-tingling Sichuan dan dan noodles at Bar Shu (on Frith Street) or Baiwei. Try the roast duck with its legendary secret barbecue sauce at Four Seasons, or snack on Taiwanese street food such as homemade sausage at Old Tree Daiwan Bee. For a taste of tradition, New World is one of the few restaurants still using a trolley to wheel baskets of dim sum to your table.