There we were, shuffling along as quickly as possible. We weren’t able to run, because around us was a very large crowd indeed. We were attempting to follow through this crowd a drum and the bottom half of a lion dancer.
It was the Chinese New Year parade in London, and we were making our way down to Trafalgar Square where the big stage was set up. We’d been told that impromptu demonstrations and celebrations would be happening throughout the day, so when we saw the drum we opportunistically decided to follow where it led.
The crowd, however, intervened and we lost track of the drum and the fancy-trousered lion dancer. Merrily we carried on, plodding down Wardour street under lanterns, past stalls selling colorful toys and bright candies. Around us echoed the noise of many small fireworks that popped on hitting the ground.
Suddenly we caught sight of the last fragments of the parade, a ragtag group of animal figures representing the Chinese zodiac. Behind them was our drum and lion dancer, and in front of them was a dragon. All were headed towards the centre of the festivities. “Ah,” said my friend. “Just follow the dragon. You don’t get to say that every day.”
We secured a good place in Trafalgar Square just in front of the Olympic clock. 180 days to the kickoff. In the cold we waited, watching the day’s programme scroll by on a screen. “1 PM-Flying Lion Dance.” We decided that the Flying Lion Dance was absolutely unmissable.
This meant standing through the dreary speeches. There was one, however, that caught my fancy. London’s infamous mayor Boris Johnson was in attendance, called upon to say a few words appropriate to the occasion. Boris expounded upon the theme “Hey, Britain Exports Stuff to China, too!” He told us about television aerials manufactured in Wandsworth and exported to China, and about “tea – ‘T-E-A’ – tea” also shipped overseas. He did tell us about a third thing, but we were so caught up in laughing at him spelling out tea (T-E-A) that we well nigh drowned him out.
The Flying Lion was indeed worth the wait. There has always been a special place in my heart for the lions, with their big blinking eyes, playful head movements and acrobatic antics, but this particular lion was something very special indeed. Starting on the ground, our lion mounted an increasingly high series of small platforms, leaping from one to another, then standing on its hind legs and swinging round, lifting and kicking its forelegs out, leaping back down the series of platforms, then dangling one leg off precariously, all the while wagging its little lion tail.
Immediately before the performance we were edified by the emcees about the history and purpose of the lions. Apparently, they show up at people’s shops and restaurants looking for lettuces, hence the sharp peering motions of the head. If lettuces are forthcoming, the lions give people good luck and chase away all the evil spirits. Now personally I’d never heard of a vegetarian lion, but hey ho, it never pays to argue with the good luck lions. And as I have now witnessed several lions eating lettuces by the front doors of restaurants (by which I mean, shredding the lettuces up and throwing the majority at said restaurants in a most leonine manner), I would be the last one to question the lion logic.
The sky darkened and the day ended with us back in Trafalgar square, packed in to watch the big finale. A dragon made of light appeared on Nelson’s column, shifting and glimmering in many colors. The finale was impressive and the gleaming dragon stayed with me long after the show was over. We are entering the year of the dragon, after all. But it’s in hope of a visit from the lions that I will be leaving out lettuces.