Sunday, 2 February 2014

Gong Xi Fai Cai

Growing up in a multicultural city, I've always enjoyed Chinese New Year; watching the lion dancing through the street, blessing each shop and restaurant. It is not a part of my family culture but it is for some friends and so for a couple of the years we were fortunate enough to get red packets.  That is now years ago, and what has become more memorable are the delectable cakes and biscuits to which we were always treated.

Chinese New Year crept up upon me this year. In fact, Chinese New Year crept up upon me last year too. The Year of the Snake followed by Year of the Horse. Last year I was distracted by a friend's surprise birthday which she kept trying to organise herself - problematic episode if ever I saw one. This year the distraction was my uncle's birthday. But in the midst of it, I remembered with fondness welcoming in the Year of the Dragon in London's China Town.

Trafalgar Square was busier than usual with a stage and several stalls dotted around the edge, but it wasn't until you made your way up into China Town that you truly understood what busy was.

Living in London, one of the things I missed most was the lack of decent Asian food. I'd grown up eating hawkers food; that was my idea of fast food or takeaway. And the food had been good: my family would only frequent where the Asian students went - cheap but authentic. And with Asian friends as well, we'd come to appreciate the wonders of Yum Cha, Steamboat, Moon Cakes, even just the little Asian supermarkets that could be found dotted around the city. Caramel is Filipino-Canadian, and so was in the same boat. Stepping into China town one was confronted with food stalls and an array of bakeries and supermarkets intermingled with the restaurants, and it was in the direction of the former that we gravitated. Neither of us were hungry (or cashed up) enough for a sit down meal, but we kept spying the types of goodies that reminded of us of home and and bygone memories.

Together we checked out the food stalls, partaking of some traditional pastries before spying the Lion approaching, and clamouring onto a small wall, hung on for dear life so that we could watch the Lion dance by. Not only did this elevate us above the crowds, but it elevated us above the crowds. Gerrard St is scarcely 10 metres across but the crowds were packed together so solidly that not only did personal space cease to exist but you felt as though you were unable to retain enough space for your person let alone your personal belongings and projected passage.

What made matters worse was that the crush of people were trying to travel in both directions and mill around the Lion with no sense of cooperation or consideration. From our elevated vantage point not only had we a better view of the action but we were protected from the anger of the stationary crowd, including a number of parents trying to force prams through the bottleneck.

The cause of the congestion was that outside every restaurant was suspended a bunch of cabbage/lettuce and packet. To grant the restaurant luck and good fortune for the coming year, the Lion had to stand on its hind legs and reach up to accept the presents, in the midst of his perpetual dancing and the perpetual presence of hundreds of video cameras... inside and outside the restaurant.

Even inside the restaurants the diners ceased eating to cram in the doorway to witness for themselves the continued prosperity of this eatery.

Escaping from the crowds when the opportunity arose, Caramel and I headed away from the crowds back towards the bakeries and grocery stores. She and I each had memories or expectations that still needed to be met, not just relating to Chinese New Year, but to our general presence in China Town.

I wanted the moon cakes (they do not look like this).

She wanted the supermarket where she hoped to find some of the Filipino food she missed from home. I should say that I can spend hours in a western supermarket where I know the products on offer. In an oriental supermarket I'm even worse and both of us, more so again as we were homesick for some of the brands on offer. Even simple things like tom yum paste, soba noodles, sausage... 

Leaving the grocery store, laden with parcels, we discovered that the Lion had made another loop of the street and the crowds were still thick and equally stationary. So we adopted a simple plan to see ourselves back in Trafalgar Square and heading towards Charing Cross. Caramel was small and slight and with my arm locked through her;s she led the way slipping through the winding crowds, following even the smallest opening.  With my arm locked in her's and my refusal to let go, where she went, I simply had to follow. 

Home, and enjoying a balmy CNY, I feel the need to go in search of Moon Cakes...

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