Chinese New Year
A new year rings in, but in mid-February, this is obviously not in the Gregorian sense. As of February 5th, we entered the year of the pig according to the Chinese calendar, an occasion spent in the joyous celebration by billions across the globe. A day where dumplings and fireworks are enjoyed in huge numbers, children clutch little red envelopes of cash, and wishes of luck and prosperity are freely shared. I had no idea how big a deal this day was, until last Saturday.
I happened to find myself back in town on Saturday for a spot of shooting, meeting my sister Savannah for the afternoon to shoot the shit and generally have a bit of a wander. Before Savannah made it into town I went for a brief stint around Soho and China Town to see what was going on and begin warming myself up to take some shots and happened upon the preparations for the Chinese New year celebrations. Seemed like a great opportunity for a little street photography.
So having picked my skin and blister up from Charring Cross station, we headed across Leicester Square and talked about what I had in mind, and found out that she had never been to China Town before. This couldn't have been a better day to see it, I explained to her as we weaved in and out of the throng of the crowds observing the various street performers, and looking back now I feel that was a total understatement.
I had no idea when the festivities were going to kick off as this was a last minute visit, but as we approached the corner of China Town, the booming drums suggested that things were well and truly underway. We turned onto Gerrard street into the huge crowd bunched up at one end of the street and took stock of the action. This was a little challenging on the senses initially, and being thrown around by a load of random people was a total distraction as well.
It wasn't difficult to pinpoint the action, the sound was incredible, but from the back of the pack it was hard to work out exactly what all the fuss was about. We waited a little while and caught glimpses of the brightly colored dancer's costumes in the middle of the brawl; this patience paid off as the crowd started moving our way leading the charge for the dragon dancers, their band coming up the rear.
We were well positioned for the crowd which was getting on the move, I got low to try and capture the dancers letting the crowd swarm around me. This turned into a complete miss. I figured the dancers would come in low, but instead, they walked across and straight up to the front of the next restaurant where a ritualistic dance was performed to great applause from the crowd.
From this low angle, it was hard to see exactly what was going on, but capturing the dynamic flair of the dancer at the tail was worth it. I paused a little while longer to wait for the dancers to turn to grab another shot as they turned to walk back from the door of the restaurant and up to the next.
If it looks like a dragon, moves like a dragon, it is a dragon?
Well, no apparently not. I looked up the dance to learn a little more about what was going on and it turns out that this is actually the Lion Dance, originating from the legend of the monster known as Nian. The story is acted out by the dragon looking lion dancing from establishment to establishment adorned with a mirror to reflect evil spirits and scare them away. Hanging from the doorway of the businesses is a head of lettuce which the dancer at the head of the lion reaches up and devours, retrieving a red envelope and spreading the shredded lettuce all over the place to signify a fresh new start and spread good luck.
Until I looked into the events I had no idea how big a deal the Chinese New celebrations were in London, but apparently, these celebrations are some of the biggest outsides of Asia. I would have expected a much larger attendance if that was the case, but I'm grateful for the manageable nature of the crowd.
So now I was getting the gist of the unfolding events It was a lot easier to relax and plan my next move, snapping some crowd and people shots along the way. It was incredible to see so much joy and celebration! Even the dancers who were in a relentless combination of dance and full-blown acrobatics were in high spirits doing their thing.
Having now spotted the pattern of the dancers moving from restaurant to restaurant followed by their band and shredding the lettuce I could now plan ahead and move up the street ahead of the crowd. I was trying to imagine the sequence of shots in my mind, with so much unfolding action I wanted to ensure I had covered everything and provide proper documentation of events.
The event stewards did a pretty good job of keeping anyone clear of the action making it tricky to get close enough to take any real intimate action shots, however, I saw a great opportunity up ahead at a small supermarket which had two doors under a porchway separated by a shelf. I moved up way ahead of the crowd into the doorway not containing the lettuce head in the hope of capturing the dance up close and from the front this time.
Once the dance was done, it was time for the crowd to move on again, following the beat of the drum. I thought that I had captured sufficient shots of the action, but there was a figure that had caught my eye early on; a sweet elderly lady dancing her heart out. Moving with the head of the crowd, she was waving a flag three times her size in a crazy fashion to music only heard by her, she was a true inspiration.
As we moved through the street I kept an eye out for her and waited for a great opportunity to take some shots, and as the crowds focused on the lion dancing, they left a sizeable gap so that I could take some shots of the dancing women. Thankfully she was not shy. I'm not sure if her karate kicks were for my benefit or just part of her repertoire, either way, her energy really summed up the day's events for me and was a great capture to finish on before heading off.
Thinking that we had seen all the action, Savannah and I decided to move on through China Town towards Covent Garden, only to stumble on the second set of dancers working the other side of town. This time, there were two 'lions' performing to the crowds with the same sequence of events. The acrobatics of the second set was even more intense than the first, as the dancers climbed on top of each other to increase the size of the lion, piling even more energy into the show.
This time, the two sets of dancers, complete with their band entered the restaurant and performed the dance inside, much to the enjoyment of the diners, well all except for one. Unfortunately, I wasn't quick enough to capture this guy who sat next to the deafening band, clutching his ringing ears. It was fair to say the expression on this guys face was not shared with others I had seen earlier in the day.
Despite the predictable nature of the show, it was difficult to gauge the exact movements of the dancers. On several occasions, I saw a moment in my viewfinder, or on the LCD screen, but was fractions of a second away from nailing a perfect composition. Fortunately, the crowds around this set of dancers were not as dense as the first set, largely because the area was much wider and the spectators, could spread out more so I could get closer to the restaurant door and await the return fo the lion dancers in the hope of capturing a more intimate shot.
There was no preparation for this shoot and I had a little idea for what I was trying to achieve when I started shooting the party; I figured it would make sense to shoot the action and provide a story of the action, but throughout I didn't have a shot that really jumped out at me until I took this one. As the dancers backed up out of the restaurant, my patient positioning by the front door paid off and I caught this shot of the head dancer peaking through the mouth of the costume.
What I like about this shot is the suspended moment between the action of the dance where the lion comes alive, and a regular guy in a costume. The wide angle and depth of the field help to add intimacy and provide some isolation of the subject against the busy background. The low sun isn't perfect but doesn't detract too much from the overall image.
With these final shots on board, it was time to move on, and despite a long day, I didn't take much more. I can't complain though, being a part of one of the worlds largest CNY celebrations (outside Asia anyway) was good fun, far more than I expected. Savannahs first visit to China Town was certainly an event to remember.