China Town: Chinese New Year

One very important reason why I believe religion was invented was for the purpose of congregation. It gave people an opportunity, every week or so, to meet other members of their community and engage with other people in a common surrounding. Even though people lead such divergent and uncommon lives with different hardships and successes, it allows people to meet and mingle. Your economic status or social status is secondary to the act of congregation.

Modern society is slightly different. Many don’t follow the congregation side of religion and prefer to practice religion without attending the weekly service at their place of worship. Or they just don’t believe in religion. Sadly, this means that people don’t meet people that they don’t choose to meet. People gravitate to closed social circles and any intruders are shunned. It’s an approach which works with modern life but I think it has made us forget the community of humanity. We can now connect very well with some but we cannot connect with everyone.

As South Africans, it is worse as the only place you truly encounter all facets of society is in a bank queue. I don’t think anyone has ever been excited whilst standing in a bank queue so that’s not really the best place to interact with people. Markets and shopping centres are the next best places to interact with people but even our markets are segregated with the rich going to fancy boutique ones and the poor frequenting ones the functional ones. Our malls are the same. It really is pretty sad.

People have split lives with many having no idea how to take a taxi or a train or use Microsoft Word. We’ve split in groupings that have no way to empathise with other groups of similar human beings living in a neighbouring suburb. I believe human community is important. There’s a great power that people hold. Yet it is something we’re being constantly driven away from as we exist in these boxes we call homes with our white ear buds keeping the world at bay.

Walking through Cyrildene’s Derrick Avenue, I was engulfed and overwhelmed by the mystical power people give off when a melee of cultures and personalities from all walks of life converge in harmonious glory to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The diversity of people gave off this power that I’ve not felt in quite a while.

Chinese labourers were brought into Johannesburg to work on the mines at the turn of the 20th century. Just below Commissioner Street in the Newtown precinct existed Jozi’s original Chinatown where you could pick up all the Chinese wares you needed. With the urban decay of the inner city, these shops were boarded up and the shop owners moved elsewhere. With China becoming a superpower since Jozi CBD started decaying, there has been an influx of Chinese culture into suburban life. There are Chinese Food Stores everywhere and the China Malls of City Deep are spectacular with their grandiosity. A new Chinatown has been set up in Jozi, this time in Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene. Whereas it’s nowhere close to a Chinatown of the scale of the one in New York City, it does give one a wonderful peek into this vibrant culture.

On the strip, you will find restaurants, supermarkets, bakeries, hairdressers, videos shops, supermarkets, tea shops, gift shops, massage parlours amongst a host of other rather interesting shops. The street is not exclusively Chinese with a few other Far Eastern cultures being represented. On the far end of the street is Sai Thai which is apparently one of the best Thai restaurants in Jozi. On the other end is a Thai Supermarket which took me back to the incredibly well stocked 7-11 stores in Thailand. They also had Chang Beer! I’ve heard that Chang is not brewed with the exact processes used to brew the usual SAB beers so the alcohol content in each bottle can vary from a sobering 3% to a monumental 15%!

The street is filled with beautiful Chinese signage and architecture. You do get the sense that you’re in a suburb claimed by an ethnic group rather than it being a half-hearted attempt meant to draw in tourists. Think about the pseudo-shebeens on Vilakazi Street offering an authentic African experience complete with Parmesan cheese and a sprig of cilantro (whatever that is.) Okay, that is quite mean. But yeah, it’s nothing like that.

On a normal evening in Chinatown, you can pick up some tasty treats being freshly made on the roadside. These taste so good!

Anyway, we came to Chinatown for the Chinese New Year celebration. This celebration is held annually at the end of January or beginning of February, this festival of happiness and colour turns this bright suburb into a festival of cheer, happiness, colour and gastronomical splendour.

According to legend, the New Year started off with the fight against the evil dragon Nian. This dragon would enter the house; eat the food and even little children. To scare him away, people would hang little children (not really but they do hang food) outside their houses. They also hang bright red lanterns and red scrolls outside as the dragon is scared of the colour red. Lastly, fireworks are used to scare away the dragon and bring prosperity for the coming year. This is re-enacted outside each shop along Derrick Avenue. Fruit and a bunch of fire crackers are hung outside each shop. The dragon approaches the shop and sometimes peeks into it. The fire crackers are lit as the dragon then eats the fruit hung outside. The acrobatics involved are quite impressive. The crowd lets out a cheer and the dragon moves on. It is quite spectacular and the fireworks are quite an earful. An observation which I found quite funny was when everyone blocked their ears and recoiled in horror as each one was lit. The Indian people in the crowd just stood and watched without batting an eyelid.

We stepped into a supermarket along the strip to sample the wares of this district. The shop just blows your mind. It really does. You’re shocked by the immense selection, then you can’t believe how cheap it is and then you look closely and can’t believe what they’re selling. I ended up getting a pack of some of the coolest chopsticks you’ve ever seen for R12. And my friend bought some wholesome chicken feet. I also ended up with a miniature lucky bamboo. What I need is more luck after all…

In Chinese culture, dragons are seen as helpful and friendly. They bring good luck, long life and wisdom. An important part of the festival is the dragon dance. A dragon made of bamboo, silk and paper is manoeuvred with great agility and finesse by skilled puppeteers using poles. The dragon dances to the beat of a drum whilst being enticed by a pearl of wisdom. Dragons can be hundreds of metres in length. The skill and intricacy needed to perform swift movements with dragons this long mean the longer the dragon, the luckier it is thought to be.

Ever since I watched Disney’s Tangled, I’ve been fascinated by these hot-air balloon type paper lanterns. Okay, I watched Tangled a few months ago but still, these are quite amazing. In abundance, these spray the sky with a bright happiness shimmering in the dark.

I didn’t sample the cuisine this time around but on a prior visit, I ordered a meal that I couldn’t pronounce and received something I couldn’t discern either by sight or taste and got a drink with a multitude of suspended solids. Even with the apparent shortcoming of not being easily identifiable, it tasted oh so good. With food, never go for the safe option. Take some risk. You never know what delectable delight you may stumble upon. If you don’t like it, you have another meal coming up in the next six hours so you can make up for it then.

However, the best aspect of this festival was the power exuded by the people. People from all social and economic walks of life were there. Young and old, rich and poor of all races came by to celebrate this marvellous festival. There was such a beauty to all of this. It’s not a beauty you usually experience.

As the fireworks brightened the night sky, I had this happy feeling that came over me. It was a feeling with no further agenda than to be happy.

When to go: Chinatown is open all week. Generally, the shops will be open during the day with the eating establishments being opened late into the evenings. The Chinese New Year festival is held annually around the end of January and beginning of February. It normally coincides with the 15th day of the Chinese New Year.

How to get there: Coming from the M1, it is a bit of a mission to get there if you don’t know the suburbs of Orange Grove, Norwood and Observatory. If you do, it’s actually pretty easy as it is a right turn off Cooper Street/Friedland Avenue just after the BP Garage. From the N3, at Gillooly’s Interchange, go westwards on the R24 towards Johannesburg. You can turn right into Marcia Street and follow it until you get to Derrick Avenue on your right. This route will take you past the Bruma Flea Market. You can also turn right into Queen Street (which will become Friedland Avenue) and follow it until you get to Derrick Avenue on your left. Derrick Avenue is the road just after you see Tong Lok Restaurant.

Cost: The supermarkets are pretty cheap whilst the restaurants are slightly below the average price of a typical Jozi restaurant. Take cash as not all establishments take cards and the only ATM is at the Engen Garage at the intersection of Derrick Avenue and Marcia Street.

Anything Else: Be a bit bold and try something that you wouldn’t normally try. Also, if you are going for the Chinese New Year festivities, book a table at a restaurant early.

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