Monday, February 19, 2007

New Year in Chinatown

Today we saw the big celebration in Antwerp's Chinatown to ring in the Year of the Pig according to the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac animals. For the record, I'm a Dog, JieJie is a Horse (and how!) and MeiMei and John are both Sheep.

Jiejie and MeiMei loved their new Chinese dresses, which of course look fantastic on them. I tied my Chinese silk scarf around my neck and we headed out. About 2:20 or so, the girls and I headed down to Van Wesenbekestraat on the tram so we could get a good spot for the 3pm Lion Dance parade and ceremonies. I'd never been to one before so wasn't sure what to expect, but there was a big arch by the Sun Wah Supermarket so we just parked there so we could get a good view of whatever was about to happen. VanWesenbekestraat has a tram line running right down the middle, so every so often we all had to pause to let the trams through, which was kind of funny. They went very slowly, thank goodness!

As we waited, we saw several families that look like ours, presumably adoptive families. It's always so great just to make eye contact with the parents and get that knowing smile, that we've been through the same thing and we know how blessed we are. International adoption from China is common in Belgium. There's a little girl from Hunan Province at the girls' school, so that's 3 girls out of a 200-student population.

Just as the girls were getting antsy, the last tram passed by and then I heard cymbals from the other end of the street. I could see red and black banners and people were stepping out into the street to get a look, which meant that we lost our good spot unless we stepped out too, so we did. The arch by the supermarket had cabbages hanging from it and also a rolled up banner, so I knew something was going to happen there.

When the lion dance parade got to our end of the street, the dancers crouched down in front of a long rope of firecrackers, and crowd control people urged us to back up. There was no way the girls would be able to see with all the commotion, and I didn't want to lose hold of them or have them get trampled, so I put MeiMei on my shoulders and held JieJie as high as I could so they could see (it's ok, my back didn't go out this time...).
What a great explosion of color and movement ensued! You can see in this photo that about half of the firecrackers have popped (that's the red paper all over the street), and the rest of the string has yet to go. They were SO loud! MeiMei was crying a bit but clapped by the end. The lion dancers were very skilled, jumping at the firecrackers and shimmying in the smoky street. They climbed ladders, "ate" the cabbages that were hanging from the archway (an offering?) and unveiled a Happy New Year sign before going into the supermarket to bring it good luck for the next year. "Gong Xi Fa Cai" is the happy new year greeting, but it actually means "Hope you make more money next year" so it's an appropriate thing to say to a store owner, eh?
After the lions went into the store, I thought maybe things were over and a lot of people were leaving. The girls said they were hungry so we popped into Bakkerij De Kort, one of the few non-Chinese businesses on that street, and got chocolate croissants. I was hoping there would be some Chinese food being sold from carts or something, but not today.
We were about to leave when we realized that the procession was coming right toward us. I looked at the business next door to us, a Chinese Dim Sum restaurant, and noticed a suspicious cabbage hanging from above the doorway. And framing either side of the property, a long string of firecrackers! The noise of the firecrackers is supposed to scare away bad luck and/or evil spirits, so that's where that tradition comes from. The lions ate the offering, the firecrackers blasted away, and the lions went into that business to bring good luck. As I looked down the street, I saw several more sets of cabbages and firecrackers, but realized that we should probably head home. You know how it is with kids - best to leave while nobody's having a fit!
If you are reading this as a real aficionado of lion dancing, my advice would be not to worry about the big introductory dance as far as fighting to get close in. The longer the ceremonies go on, the fewer people were left, so you can probably get closest to the action by being patient.
As for me, I'm more determined than ever to spend Lunar New Year in China someday. It must be something spectacular. And speaking of spectacle, I can't wait til the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies in Beijing. We're going to get Chinese satellite tv channels so we don't have to have Bob Costas interrupting us to tell us what we're seeing (shut up, Bob! Please! If you want to describe everything to your audience, that's called RADIO. You should check into it.) We will be in China next summer, but we'll be leaving just before the Olympics begin, though it would be tempting to stay.

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