John Grainger caught up with some of Harrogate’s 870-strong Chinese community to find out how they celebrated the coming of the Year of the Snake...
I’M tucking in to dinner with some friends and a dancing lion has just snaffled some of my starter and spat it out across the table.
It’s an unusual thing to happen, but then, this is no ordinary evening: it’s Chinese New Year, and the lion is one of two performing for customers at the Royal Baths Chinese Restaurant and Champagne Bar.
We’re here for a traditional eight-course dinner and the place is packed – due both to owner Hak Ng’s welcoming hospitality and to the entertainment he has laid on.
“Normally people have one lion,” Hak had laughed the day before, “but I’m going to have two so it looks like they’re fighting!”
Lions are important for Chinese New Year, as they scare away the bad spirits from the previous twelve months and bring good fortune for the year ahead.
They wake up sleepy, and then act by turns proud, surprised, boisterous and mischievous – hence the food theft.
Yet despite the tradition and excitement of the night, this is not where most of Harrogate’s Chinese population – the district’s largest non-European community – spends New Year.
Across town, Dr Feng Zhu’s New Year’s Eve is arguably more typical. Feng, a Chinese medical practitioner, is spending the evening with her daughter, Xiaoqing, a former Rossett and Harrogate Grammar pupil who has just started occasional work translating for Chinese patients at Harrogate Hospital.
Feng and Xiaoqing are each other’s only family in the UK.
“It’s a time for family,” says Feng. “If I’m in China, I have to go and see my parents. We see friends maybe the next day – on New Year’s Day.”
A major component of Feng and Xiaoqing’s evening is the meal.
“In the north of China, they eat dumplings at midnight to ensure a good year, but in the south, we have a big meal at 7 or 8 o’clock,” says Feng.
“We always cook fish, which means luck. If you eat fish tonight, maybe you’ll be lucky next year!
“There’s chicken too, and beef, and ‘eight-treasure’ rice pudding – every family has to make that.”
Every family, that is, except Jonathan Lai’s. Jonathan, also a Chinese medical practitioner, is having to postpone this year’s family celebrations because both his sons are ill with colds.
One thing that won’t be put off, though, is the new tradition – as it is for many of the rest of us on January 31 – of watching television “for four hours”.
Jonathan’s family opt for Phoenix TV, which is beamed live from Hong Kong via Sky.
It sounds something like a Chinese version of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny.
At the Zhus’ house, they’ve tuned in to something different.
“We watch it live online on CCTV, China 1 – there’s special singing and dancing,” says Feng.
“They count down the seconds until midnight and then there’s a big celebration. Everybody wishes each other a happy New Year – xin nian kuai le – and in China people set off lots of fireworks. The louder, the better!”
Back at the Royal Baths Chinese Restaurant, the lions are getting hungry. They need to eat something green – an auspicious colour – and tonight it’s a cabbage suspended high on a string. They spit the cabbage out too, and it’s considered extremely lucky to be hit by a leaf.
What the lions really want, though, is the red envelope stuffed inside the cabbage – it’s packed with money for the dancers (who in this case are the national lion dance champions, from Harrogate’s own Lau Gar kung fu school).
In fact, red envelopes are everywhere. It’s traditional in China for married couples to give young, unmarried people red envelopes containing money.
“Chinese New Year is like Christmas in this country,” says Mr Ng, the Malaysian-Chinese owner of the Royal Baths Chinese Restaurant. “But we don’t give presents – we give money.
“The Chinese community, especially the young people, always look forward to it: the money, the holiday, the meal...
“They also like it because they don’t have to clean up the house for a week. If you do, you’ll ‘brush away’ your wealth – so you see rubbish everywhere!”
Last year was the Year of the Dragon, which was said to be very lucky, because dragons are very powerful. But this year is the Year of the Snake – so is that bad?
“No,” says Feng Zhu. “People think snakes are horrible, but they’re not. They’re like little dragons, so the Year of the Snake isn’t as good as the Year of the Dragon – but it’s still good!
“Everybody wants to have a lucky year – good job, good health, good money – so that everything is smooth.”