Chinese New Year Traditions and Celebrations in London
Updated January 2022
It’s the Year of the Tiger on 1 Feb 2021 and the Lunar New Year celebrations goes on for 15 days until the next full moon. Every year, London holds the largest street celebrations outside Asia but this year, the parade in London has been cancelled. Instead, there will be a small-scale lion dance and night market in Newport Place in Chinatown.
However, there are some smaller events being held around London and online. Read more about these below and follow #CNYLondon on social media to see what’s happening.
Chinese New Year Traditions
Chinese New Year is also known as the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year as the date is based on the Lunar calendar.
A lot of the traditions around Chinese New Year are based on superstition and myth. Through the years, this has all evolved into common practices that people follow blindly as that is the way it has always been done.
Chinese families usually prepare for the Chinese New Year with a very thorough house cleaning. On the first day of the new year, no cleaning or sweeping is allowed as this is deemed bad luck, you don’t want to sweep all your luck away. Homes are decorated with auspicious symbols, flowers and new soft furnishings. Red and gold are auspicious colours.
On the eve of the New Year, families get together for a “reunion dinner”, which is the most important date in the Chinese calendar for a lot of people. In China, this day sees the larges movement of people in the country as city workers strive to return to their home villages, sometimes several days of travel away.
You are not supposed to cut or wash your hair, cut your nails, pluck your eyebrows on the first day of the New Year as this is again inauspicious. In our family, we always get new clothes and new shoes. Out with the old and in with the new is very important.
Chap Goh Meh of the 15th Day
The 15th day or Chap Goh Meh is the most important day for the Hokkien people as it is deemed their Valentines day. It was the only day that single women were allowed out in public. It was the tradition to promenade through town in your finest new clothes and if you were looking for love, you would throw a mandarin into a river with a wish. In Penang, where there is a large Hokkien population, the 15th day is celebrated with street parades and parties.
For the Cantonese, the 7th day or Yan Yat is deemed everybody’s birthday. On that day, it is tradition to eat something raw. As there is very little raw food in Chinese cuisine, the Chinese in South East Asia invented Yee Sang, which literally translates to raw fish. This is actually a very colourful salad of shredded vegetables, sometimes raw fish, jelly fish or pear, which is dressed in plum sauce, peanuts, five-spice powder and sesame oil. Then the best part is that everyone at the table has to toss this salad whilst simultaneously shouting out their wishes for the year. This dish is meant to bring prosperity for everyone, hence nowadays, some people call it the prosperity salad.
Chinese New Year Open Houses
In Malaysia, the younger members will visit the elder members of their family on the first day of New Year. Lots of people have “Open House” where you can just drop in for a visit. Everyone will have a day long buffet going as you never know when or how many guests are coming.
“San Nin Faai Lok” (in Cantonese) or “Kung Hey Fatt Choy” is the greeting that we use, which means “Happy New Year2 and “Wishing you much prosperity”.
When visiting, you must bring some gifts, usually food and must include mandarins and you will always get something to take home in return. I know which home to visit on the afternoon of the first day as their clan is massive, there is always lots of delicious things to eat and there is always a couple of mahjong games on the go.
There are usually quite a few open houses around town and you need to have a plan on how to get around all of them, especially if they are business contacts. This goes on for the first 3 days of the New Year.
Kids love the Chinese New Year as married couples have to give them lucky red packets (ang pow) full of cash.
You are also supposed to place a bet on something or gamble to open your luck for the year so head to the nearest bookies or get out the mahjong set.
Chinese New Year Celebrations in London
Every year, Trafalgar Square will be the centre of the Lunar New Year celebrations where there will be dancing, singing, lion dances and fireworks. All around Chinatown, the local businesses will be hosting their own events along Gerard Street, Wardour Street and Shaftesbury Avenue.
You will usually find lion and dragon dances accompanied by loud drums (and sometimes firecrackers). Not this year but hopefully this will return next year. Many restaurants and businesses around Chinatown will invite a lion dance to their door as it is supposed to scare away the evil spirits and brings good luck. These are usually performed by kung fu troupes trained in acrobatics and special kung fu moves.
Chinese New Year Events in London
Celebrate the year of Tiger with Taiwan
Location: Market Mezzanine @ Old Spitalfields Market (Above Flying Tiger & The Real Greek)
9 Horner Square, E1 6EW, London.
Get a bottle of the Zymurgorium’s Mandarin Dynasty Oriental gin, distilled from 8 lucky botanicals: Juniper, Coriander, Sichuan Pepper, Cassia, Cloves, Fennel Seeds, Star Anise & Mandarin.
To celebrate the new Lunar Year, Zymurgorium will also offer 100 voucher codes until Sunday the 6th February, unlocking a unique discount to get a bottle of the Mandarin Dynasty Oriental gin for just £19.99, down from £25.00. Please use CNY22 – only 100 codes are available and subject to availability on a first come, first serve basis.
Special Chinese New Year Food
The most important event is the reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year where the whole family gathers for a massive family meal. We always have a whole fish, prawns, braised shitake, crispy roast pork, noodles, a soup, vegetables and it is always finished off with an auspicious sweet soup of 8 precious ingredients. We never have dumplings as it is not a Southern Chinese tradition.
All the New Year dishes have auspicious names and everything has significance like you have to have a prawn dish as it’s called “ha” in Cantonese and sounds like laughter. All animals are served whole like a whole steamed fish (with heads and tails intact) or a whole suckling pig, as it means unity.
In Malaysia, all restaurants now serve the Yee Sang salad for about a month throughout the new year period. It has got so popular that it has expanded from just the one day, on the 7th, to every single day of the new year and beyond. Unfortunately, in London, the real thing is hard to come by so I tend to make my own version. The ones I have tried in restaurants are poor approximations using the wrong combination of ingredients and a very different sauce.
In some parts of China, the tradition is to make Jiaozi dumplings as the shape resembles gold ingots and is a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
A special gooey new year cake made of rice flour is usually served at the new year as the myth goes that the sticky cake will prevent the Kitchen God from reporting any misdeeds to the Jade Emperor.
When visiting friends and family over the new year, every home will have a tray of sweet fruits and nuts like candied lotus roots, coconut and nuts. In Malaysia, we have an array of biscuits and the now ubiquitous pineapple tarts. In Hong Kong, you won’t find biscuits as the word for biscuits sound like illness, so they will not be inviting this into their home.
What traditions do you have in your celebrations?
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We usually have dumplings but also tang yuan. And in China we used to have fireworks as well.
We have tang yuan for breakfast on the 1st morning and you usually hear the sound of firecrackers all through town in the first few days of the new year too.