Eight weeks into it, has 1996 already become a year to forget? Never mind, tomorrow is the start of the Chinese Year of the Rat. Fifteen days of celebration follow.
Once upon a time, the story goes, the animals of the Universe used to argue frequently. To settle once and for all which animal was the best, the Jade Emperor invited them to a banquet. The Emperor organised a race for the 12 creatures who turned up, and the rat won. His prize was to head the 12-year cycle of the Chinese lunar calendar.
Chinese New Year is a time of countless superstitions, many of them centring around the idea of personal regeneration. New Year's Eve is a time for clearing all debts. No one does any cleaning on New Year's Day because they would risk sweeping good fortune from the house. Any malevolent comment risks creating misfortune for yourself in the coming 12 months, which makes it perhaps the safest day of the year to visit the Wong Kei restaurant at 41 Wardour Street, London (0171-437 8408), renowned for having some of the rudest waiters in Britain.
what to eat
According to Ken Lo, one of Britain's most famous Chinese chefs, a Peking speciality is pork and leek dumplings, while in Shanghai and the south, dumplings made of flour, rice, sugar and sesame stuffing are customary, as are toasted melon seeds. Fish is associated with wealth, and lettuce is a lucky vegetable (even if that sounds dangerously like one of Mystic Meg's predictions) since the colour green signifies long life.
Around 100,000 people are expected in London's Chinatown next Sunday (11.30am-5pm).The main attraction is in Leicester Square, where a Chinese variety show will be staged, featuring ceremonies and displays such as kung fu, acrobatics and Peking Opera.There is just one dampener on this year's celebrations: no firecrackers. A mixture of cost and council worries has put paid to them. Many local London Chinese associations present their own displays on Sunday 3 March. Three to see are: 1) Tower Hamlets, site of London's original Chinatown, 2.30pm at Cabot Hall, Canary Wharf (0171- 515 5598). Tickets: pounds 3.50, pounds 1.50 concs. 2) Lambeth, with demonstrations of face-painting, calligraphy and acupuncture, 1pm-4pm at the Brix, St Matthew's Centre (0171-274 6470). Tickets: pounds 2.50, pounds 1.50 concs. 3) Islington, 1pm at North London University theatre (0171-263 5986). Free.
around the country
When a huge dragon leaves Manchester town hall next Sunday at about 12.30pm, it will set in train an afternoon of street celebrations. Attractions include martial arts demonstrations and a funfair, with market stalls selling paper dragons and oriental snacks thronging the Chinatown district. Liverpool's offerings include a lion dance in the city centre next Saturday (12pm) and firecrackers in Berry St on Sunday (1pm). Details of these and other activities from Brian Wong (0151-709 3221) and the Pagoda (0151- 708 8833). Glasgow celebrates tomorrow with a variety show at City Hall (1pm-4pm). Admission free with ticket (0141-341 0026).Reuse content