Chinese New Year
Thais are very lucky in that they can celebrate (and enjoy) 3 New Year festivals - Western New Year, Chinese New Year (a lunar festival which usually takes place in February) and the Songkran Festival (Thai New Year) in April.
The Chinese New Year festival in 2010 started on the 14th of February. Traditionally it continues until the 15th day of the new lunar month, but in Bangkok, the main festivities took place from the 14th to the 17th only.
In the days leading up to New Year's Day, homes were decorated, ducks slaughtered in their millions, and decorations in red and gold strung across the streets. The traditional new year greeting pictured right is Gong Xi Fa Cai, a wish for prosperity in the coming year.
Ducks in a Row
The 13th, last day of the waning moon, is the day when all debts must be settled, houses swept clean, doors and windows hung with red and gold decorations, quarrels patched up, and children of the immediate family receive small red envelopes containing gifts of money. Fruit and flowers are placed at household shrines and Spirit Houses: formerly plates of duck and pork were more popular but, more recently, non-animal food seems to be preferred.
On New Years Day itself, parents and other family are visited, younger relatives receive their red envelopes, employees receive their bonuses, prayers are offered at Chinese temples, Dragon Dancers and Lion Dancers scurry down the narrow streets of Bangkok's Chinatown, collecting money and gifts and presenting good luck in return.
Actually that was the old style - in recent years the dancers appear well before new year's day, ensuring that no-one misses out on the good luck or fails to reward the performers: one enterprising group of Lion Dancers makes regular appearances around Bangkok's Sukhumvit area at ALL times of the year. When asked for a donation by one of these entrepreneurs on a November evening in Soi Cowboy, a friend of mine made the legendary remark: "this is not Chinese New Year and you are not Chinese, so **** off"
New Year's Day in pre-revolutionary China
(from Destination Chungking, Han Suyin, 1942)
"Except for the intermittent splutter of fire-crackers which exorcise devils and malevolent ghosts, the first day of the New Year is strangely quiet. Morning shines down upon empty streets between boarded-up shop fronts, with none of the customary push and struggle of traffic .... For this one day of all the year work ceases ...... No broom is wielded, lest the New Year's luck be inadvertantly swept away; and no water is poured out on the ground for fear the year's wealth be poured out with it"
Chinatown, Bangkok 2010
Many Chinese businesses were closed from 14th to 17th of February, but as this year Chinese New Year coincided with Valentine's Day, many of Chinatown's gold shops were open for business as usual, or even extra business. On the streets were, as you might expect Lion Dancers, Dragon Dancers, the rattle of fire-crackers, Moon Cakes and other traditional Chinese foods, and, a favorite of mine, chestnuts roasted in coffee beans.
Chestnuts roasted with Coffee Beans
The Tourism Authority of Thailand promised cultural performances at Yaowarat Square, but for a few baht, you could dress up Chinese style and make your own show.
Many Thais consider Chinese New Year an auspicious day for making merit. Copious quantities of incense are burned at the Chinese temples; bird sellers roam the streets of Chinatown selling birds for release at 100 baht a cage. I am not sure what effect this has on the karma of the vendors, however.
One of my friends is of the opinion that the sparrows are trained (by the use of exotic herbs) to return to their captors as soon as they are released - homing sparrows, I suppose.
The lions were somewhat of the cuddly rather than the fierce variety this year, and I did not see any dragons; also tigers were there none, apart from the styrofoam creatures in Yaowarat square, assuming they were meant to be tigers. The only street musician I saw was the humble fiddler below, sitting among the vendors of bric-a-brac; and, come to think of it, I do not remember hearing any fire-crackers at all.
Er Hu - traditional Chinese Fiddle
New Year's Day
Not my favorite visit to Chinatown, Bangkok. Lots of people of course - Yaowarat Road was suppposedly closed to traffic, but a couple of green buses got in via a side street. Large numbers of "official" traders lined the sides of the road, but lots more "unofficial" vendors set up in the middle of the road selling all sorts of things from pocket knives to dragons on a stick, causing a total traffic jam - until a squad of police moved them on. Chinatown became a Thai market for the day.
Highlight of the day for us was lunch at the Canton House Restaurant, next to the Chinatown Hotel - Dim Sum, Noodles and cold beer, all at normal prices, and definitely recommended. Overall the restaurant was far more Chinese than most of what we saw outside.
And after it was all over ....
Was it really worth it?
Getting to Chinatown
The best way is probably by Subway or Train to Hua Lampong Railway Station. Leave the station by the main entrance to the south, cross the approach road, and then turn right onto Rama IV Road. Cross the Canal Bridge, and at the intersection ahead take the fourth exit (anti-clockwise), Thanon Mittaphap, which leads to the Chinatown Gate. Yaowarat Road leads North West from the gate.