Chinese New Year in Liverpool

On Saturday and Sunday the oldest Chinese community in Europe, in Liverpool, celebrated the Chinese New Year.

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I went along on Sunday as the Dragon, Unicorn and Lion Dance Street Parade took place along Nelson Street and Berry Street in Liverpool’s Chinatown.  The event traditionally attracts thousands of people who witness a series of spectacular displays against the backdrop of Europe’s biggest Chinese arch, at the top of Nelson Street.  Unfortunately like many days out in the last twelve months it poured down all day and my lenses had large droplets of water on the filters distorting some of my photographs particularly of the Chinese Arch.

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The Chinese calendar is based on the lunar and solar calendars and as such the actual date of the Chinese New Year varies, but it always falls between late January and mid-February.  Each year in the Chinese calendar is represented by one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.  This the Year of the Snake, falls on Sunday February 10th 2013.

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The celebrations also known as the ‘spring festival’ are the most important celebrations in the Chinese calendar.  The spring festival celebrates the start of new life and the season of ploughing and sowing.

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It was estimated that around 15,000 people filled the streets around Great George Square to watch the celebrations this year in Liverpool in amongst the heavy rain and smoke from the ear splitting firecrackers that were being let off in the streets.

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New Year festivities start on the first day of the lunar month and continue until the fifteenth day when the moon is brightest.  The New Year in Liverpool is a huge festival among the Chinese communities starting with Sunday’s procession and ending with a Lantern Festival on Sunday, 24 February 2013.  The first week is celebrated with visits to friends and family following special traditions designed to bring good luck.

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In Great George Square the procession stopped to watch a very noisy firecracker display and there was a special appearance from the ‘Lucky Man’ wearing traditional costume handing out red envelopes to children.

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It is a traditional practice to light fireworks and firecrackers and to make as much of a din as possible to chase off the evil spirits. In Great George Square they let off string loads of ear splittingly loud firecrackers.

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As the ‘Lucky Man’ led the Dragon, Unicorn and Lion Dance Street Parade along the streets they stopped off at each restaurant where the proprietors would provide lettuce leaves and water for the mythical creatures to devour.  At the Hoi Yin Association on Nelson Street children dangled food out of the first floor window for the lion.  This was accompanied by firecrackers being let off in special cages as they stopped at each restaurant.

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I was intrigued by the rituals of the red envelopes, the letting off of fire crackers and the feeding the lion and other creatures.  These rituals go back to ancient China where according to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called the Nian who would come on the first day of New Year to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children.  To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning on New Year’s day. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more of the villagers.  However the people saw that the Nian was scared away by a little child wearing red.  The villagers then understood that the Nian was afraid of the colour red and so from then on when New Year arrived the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors and they would also set off firecrackers to frighten away the mythical beast.  From then on, Nian never came to the village again.

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Traditionally, Red envelopes or red packets are passed out during the Chinese New Year’s celebrations, from married couples or the elderly to unmarried juniors and it is common for adults or young couples to give red packets to children.  Red packets usually contain money and following custom; the amount of money is of even numbers, as odd numbers are associated with cash given during funerals  But sometimes chocolate coins are found in the red packets as I’m sure the ‘Lucky Man’ distributed today.  It is custom and polite for children to wish elders a happy new year and a year of happiness, health and good fortune before accepting the red envelope which are then kept under the pillow and slept on for seven days before opening as this symbolizes good luck and fortune.

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Within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Chinese New Year vary widely.  Often, the evening preceding Chinese New Year’s Day is an occasion for Chinese families to get together for the annual reunion dinner. It is also traditional for every family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck. Windows and doors will be decorated with red colour paper decorations and poems with the themes of good fortune, happiness, wealth and longevity.

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On the streets of Liverpool there were all ages and generations of the local Chinese community.  The first day of the Chinese New Year is also time to honour one’s elders and families visit the oldest and most senior members of their extended families, usually their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

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Many performers later on in the day move out of Chinatown and into Bold Street into one of the main shopping areas in Liverpool city centre to perform outside the Chinese-related businesses there.  All along Bold Street the Liverpool Happy Hookers Crochet Group had adorned the lampposts and bollards with brightly coloured snakes.

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I headed off back into the city centre to dry off and get warmed up after a very interesting day celebrating the Year of the Snake.

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