Rikki Li is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2016, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. An English Writing and Psychology major at the University of Pittsburgh, she is studying abroad in London this semester.
This week, Rikki celebrates Chinese New Year in London's Chinatown where she finds a slice of home.
- - -
Happy Chinese New Year everyone! Technically, my well wishes are a week late, but the sentiment remains the same. As is customary, I wish you all good fortune, good health, and plenty of happiness in the Year of the Monkey.
Despite living in America, my family has always celebrated Chinese New Year, though it was never quite as loud of an affair as Christmas or birthdays. However, that did not diminish its importance. We would wear red clothes for good luck, and my mother would cook a traditional meal with all the important foods, such as steamed fish, braised tofu, and stir-fried bamboo shoots. Every dish had a significance, and I would watch in awe as my mother folded each dumpling like a delicate paper star, her hands a blur as she laid them out on a massive tray, either to be pan-fried or submerged in boiling water. After dinner, as we waited for our stomachs to settle for sweet pomelos and tang yuan, my siblings and I would go out into the cold, our breaths swelling in translucent puffs, and set off the sparklers we had left over from the Fourth of July. We’d dance until our noses were stiff and pink, until we’d burned the last of our sparklers and snuffed the smoking tips in the snow, until the night, once again, returned to darkness.
It’s been a while since I’ve celebrated Chinese New Year with my family, especially because I’ve been away at college for the past three years, and Pittsburgh (my home campus) is woefully in need of a prominent Chinese cultural scene. As such, I had been looking forward to exploring London’s Chinatown ever since I arrived in the city.
My friends would probably agree that I was practically vibrating once we left the bright crowds of Piccadilly Circus and turned the corner at Gerrard Street, only to be greeted by a whole new source of light—Chinatown, in all its bustling glory, lit red and gold by the canopy of lanterns swaying high above our heads. Every restaurant was full of customers, squeezing around too-small tables, and hanging from every other shop window were rows of glistening, roasted duck. There were pockets of visitors in every haphazard direction, laughing and taking pictures and nibbling at custard buns. Rè nào, as we would say in Mandarin. To be filled with teeming, noisy life.
Unlike other Chinatowns I’ve been to in the U.S., I felt that London’s Chinatown was more a plaza than a collection of streets, which gave the area a stronger communal atmosphere. However, as much as I wanted to take my time and explore every nook and cranny, it was still a Monday night, and my friends and I were on a schedule. We ate our Chinese New Year dinner at Leong’s Legend, an authentic Taiwanese restaurant that served anything from spicy beef tripe to soup dumplings. I treated myself to Dongpo pork belly and rice, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, and one that I had previously only had in China many in years ago. For less than £10, you can enjoy a generous portion of fragrant, slow-simmered cubes of pork belly, swimming in a wine sauce that slowly permeates the mound of rice as you tuck in.
We ended up staying at the restaurant for over two hours, which perhaps was a lot longer than we had originally planned. While some of this extension was due to the restaurant service, I think there’s something about London’s Chinatown that inspires comfort and warmth, prompts you to stay an extra moment. To laugh just a bit harder, to smile just a bit longer. Like a glowing ember, perhaps, cupped between your palms and shining through your skin, guiding you to home and family wherever it happens to be.
Rikki's journey continues every Tuesday so stay tuned.