For most of us, Chinese New Year will probably involve admiring the red lanterns in St Ann’s Square, gawping at the fireworks display or indulging in a Chinese meal. But for Manchester’s Chinese community, the holiday is steeped in symbolism and tradition. Jemima Forbes spoke to Bonnie Yeung to get some insight into the many traditions associated with the holiday…
The Chinese community in Manchester has increased dramatically since the first settlers arrived in the early 1900s. Centred around the iconic archway on Faulkner Street, Chinatown is now frequented by over 20,000 Chinese people who have immigrated to our great city from all parts of China, bringing with them a host of vibrant traditions.
you have lots
of things to do
and the people
are so friendly”
Interest in Chinese culture has become highly popular here in recent years thanks to increased investment from the council, the visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the much-anticipated Chinese New Year celebrations that bring the city to life each February.
Manchester’s Chinatown is one of the biggest in Europe. How does it differ from Chinatowns in other cities?
Chinatown and Chinese food have huge variations from country to country and it’s always interesting to visit different Chinatowns throughout Europe. People from different areas of China will move to different areas of Europe and as the culture, food and traditions are so varied throughout China itself, the Chinatowns reflect this. The more established Chinese community in Manchester is from more southern parts of China and Hong Kong while the newer immigrants are from the north or central provinces. There is this influx of different areas and each brings with them different traditions that you end up adopting. It’s what makes Manchester Chinatown so incredibly diverse.
Chinese New Year is one of the biggest traditional Chinese celebrations. How do you prepare for this?
We do things like cleaning the house and cutting and washing our hair. For the hair, you are cutting away the weight of the previous year in order to bring in the new and a lot of traditional people won’t wash their hair in the first few days of the New Year because it washes away the luck of the celebrations. Cleaning the house is really important as you have different gods like the kitchen god. You deep clean the kitchen and burn incense and paper money to say thank you for providing food to your home. It also symbolises getting rid of any disharmony from the previous year. We do this at the Yang Sing and the whole team gets involved. It brings positivity and hopefully prosperity and continued employment!
Food is clearly an important part of Chinese New Year. What kinds of food do you traditionally eat?
Dumplings are made and eaten at most Chinese celebratory events. They represent wholeness and an exchange of sentiment and are typically made with pork, chive and cabbage. The whole family will get together and make them and you’ll eat them with things like whole fish. We eat fish whole at Chinese New Year as it represents a good beginning and a good end. In a lot of Chinese restaurants, dishes are served with the head to symbolise wholeness- this includes fish, suckling pig, duck and chicken.
Chinese New Year is primarily a family event. How do Chinese families celebrate it together?
Chinese New Year is a time to spend with family and a time to honour your ancestors. We’ll go to all the gravestones of our grandparents and make offerings. You can buy paper money in a Chinese supermarket so they can be wealthy in their afterlife and incense symbolises food so the more you burn the more food they get. We also take proper food- my grandma really liked cheese and onion crisps so we always take them to scatter! A lot of Chinese people, especially students, like to go back to their hometowns in China, Hong Kong or Taiwan for Chinese New Year. In Manchester, a lot of families eat out for Chinese New Year so it’s a really nice time for the Chinese community as you get to see people who don’t come out to Chinatown all the time.
Can you tell us about the tradition of the Lion Dancers?
Lots of people see Lion Dancing as something nice to look at as it’s noisy and colourful but it is a very important tradition. We have had Lion costumes made with a blessing on them and they are used by the performers in our building. The performers are trained by Master Chu, a specialist, and are volunteers. They will dance from the top of the building to the bottom and scare away the bad spirits. We do this on Sunday the 7th when the restaurant is open so the public can watch. We always invite the dancers in for a banquet to show our thanks for blessing the business.
What other unusual traditions are there?
In some areas of China, there will be a huge flower market on the eve of Chinese New Year. All the flowers have different symbolism so you might buy certain kinds of flowers depending on what you want in the New Year. More traditional people fast in the days before Chinese New Year and it is also common for people to give and receive red envelopes of money.
Do the traditions followed differ from generation?
The Chinese community in Manchester are very good at continuity and a lot of those traditions that were safeguarded by our parents are things we still do now. We’d still go out for a meal and spend time together but it doesn’t necessary mean we go to a Chinese restaurant. The traditions are adapted for where we are but we still try stick to them as much as possible. I think that’s really important as it’s what preserves the spirit of Chinatown as a community. Here in Manchester, lots of the business owners know each other and grew up together and there is interaction, involvement and friendship.
What’s your favourite thing about Manchester?
There are so many things but probably the diversity of the people. I think people really make a city. You can have a fantastic city with all the amenities possible but it doesn’t make up for having unfriendly people. In Manchester you have lots of things to do and the people are so friendly and they’ll take the time to tell you places to visit and where you should be going. It’s so multi-cultural here and it’s nice to see that everyone can be friendly and helpful.
There are a whole host of food markets, live music and events going on around the city to celebrate Chinese New Year including live street art displays by the CFCCA who also celebrate their 30th anniversary this year.
Bonnie’s family own the multi-award winning Yang Sing on Princess Street where they know a thing or two about Chinese food. If you’re looking for a Chinese feast, the Yang Sing is having a Monkey King Lunch Banquet on Sunday, February 7th and will also host a pop-up Ping Pong bar from February 4th-7th. Test your skills whilst snacking on dim-sum and sipping on a pint of Tsingtao, China’s most well known beer.