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Hong Kong Diaries 12: Going with a Bang

15 February 17 words: Ben Zabulis

Well, it’s that time of year again, when every few minutes’ shock has us momentarily parting with our skin. Yes, Chinese New Year and the detonation of firecrackers throughout the village to keep those dastardly evil spirits at bay; of which there’s clearly quite a few judging by the frequency of reports and the swathes of red debris carpeting the area.

Anyone who has joined in with such a celebration will know of the ear-splitting volume at which these things go off – it makes those bangers we used to throw at bonfire night sound as pathetic as a mardy teen blowing gum. It’s how the start of WW3 might be announced, and it left me wondering if that’s why one of our illustrious residents and war correspondent Clare Hollingworth felt at home here. Incidentally, she died last month at the splendid age of 105, so perhaps a bit of heart-stopping shock isn’t all that bad for you. Funnily enough firecrackers were banned in UK in 1997 and in the sixties at the time of the pro-commie, leftist riots – not that that would bother the villagers too deeply, as sticking two fingers up to authority still offers quite a thrill.

Hope you’ve caught some of the celebrations. Nottingham Lakeside Arts always put on a varied show for Chinese New Year. Many folk don’t realise there’s a lot more to it than loud bangs and noodles. In Chinese culture, it’s also celebrated as the Spring Festival and the end of winter, for us at any rate. As with the nativity, it goes on a bit – for fifteen days in fact – though thankfully we are spared further high-volume detonations. Needless to say, as in the west, a lot of tradition is lost as younger generations grow less fussed with spirits and bangs. Still, it’s interesting to see so many superstitious customs continue in a modern city.

There’s an auspicious routine as what and when to buy, eat, wear, clean, wash, not wash, have a haircut, hang decorations, offer incense to various gods or seemingly explode half the neighbourhood – the list is endless. I quite like the third day on which it’s best to stay home – it’s said to be bad for meeting or visiting people and you’re destined to have a blazing row – not unlike the average Christmas Day, I should think. And the seventh day I like too, it’s the common man’s birthday and according to custom we all become a year older – so, in case I forgot to message you, happy ‘unofficial’ birthday!

Of course, no festival here would be complete without the propitiously vibrant clatter of a lion dance. A bit like a pantomime horse on speed as both ends skilfully transform a flashy assemblage of sequined paper, cloth and wool into a creature of endearingly cocky gait and breathtaking acrobatics. Good business for the martial arts troupes who do these things, youth an advantage as they jump from pole to pole. Hot work too, under all that clobber and, having just recorded our warmest ever January, it’s likely to get much worse.

I’m not sure if they do the pole dancing bit in UK, even here it can be a bit of a safety issue. Where I used to work, the New Year lion was grounded by health and safety. Proud of its accident-free-days tally, the company wasn’t overly keen on having the rear half of a lion stretchered out with broken limbs or mild concussion, as if playing the arse-end wasn’t bad enough. The beating noise is also terrific – I once joked with a practising colleague that the rhythmic drumming was simply a case of hammering shit out of a taut skin, with little obvious skill. “Oh no,” came the miffed reply. “It really is skilful and indeed it is artistry.” I now stand happily corrected. When drum and dancers combine, the lion effortlessly assumes a personality and you can almost believe these creatures are real.

It all ends on the fifteenth day, not only Chinese Valentine’s Day (different to ours) but also the lantern festival in which all shapes and sizes are spectacularly displayed throughout the city. Oddly enough, this always reminds me of childhood in Nottingham during the late fifties, early sixties, and particularly Christmas past. You see, one of our Christmas decorations was a small Chinese lantern. You know the sort – the concertina paper type which collapse flat for storage. Bet you had one too. I’ve no idea how we came by it, but every time I hang one nowadays, it takes me back.

So, this is the year of the rooster, of which I am one. Will it be fortunate? Who knows? I’m not holding my breath. A feng shui master suggested that if roosters wished to avoid dominance by their own sign (whatever that means) they should seek higher ground, this promises to dissolve all worries and leave you well prepared for the challenges ahead – obviously! So, my fellow Notts roosters, I advise you to do likewise, kick off the New Year in high feather and parade your plumage on a trip up Newtonwood Lane. Me? I’ll believe anyone, so hiking it is. See you there!


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