Ever wanted to have a good beating on your eardrums? Go Chinese! Go New-Year! Go Chinese New-Year!
You'll encounter non-stop drums, in loudness only surpassed by massive chains of firecrackers lit up by your local Chinatown daredevil. "Why all this ear-popping sound to celebrate New-Year?" one might wonder. At least I did. So I did a little research.
Well, it appears that in a time and mythology far far away and long long ago… there was this mythical beast called Nian. At night, when everybody in China was fast asleep, Nian would plunder fields and eat the crops, crawl into mandarin trees and leave them fruitless or sneak into bedrooms and eat… little girls! Or little boys! Brrr. Just the thought… So nobody really liked the beast and its bad manners.
The Chinese were so afraid of Nian they started to put their crops out at the front door. This way the beast could feast on salad and mandarins at people's doorstep, and hopefully not think of going any further. Just to make sure the beast wouldn't break house and nibble on any little girl's toe, huge chains of firecrackers would be hung up which could be lit up in case of imminent danger and scare The Beast away.
Luckily for all the salad crops, mandarins, little boys & girls the beast got captured. But its legend lives on: today, right on to the very pavement of the Van Wesenbekestraat in Antwerp. Which is a beautiful street full of Chinese shops and restaurants, and has an eye-catching entrance gate. Even though it's just one street, people here like to call it China Town. Because it makes them think of big cities like New York. Antwerp is not that big you know, but hushhhh… don't tell the locals.
Anyway, these days, where Nian is dead but not forgotten, Chinese youngsters dress up like lions and shopkeepers hang salad high on a wire, to challenge the youngsters dressed up like lions, giving you and me something to watch. Loud drums start the ceremony, all the lions gather in front of an altar, where they get a red ginger brew painted behind their ears, to wake them up. Then they start to dance. While lion-dancing, they move from shop to shop to eat salad crops in which a red envelope is hidden (money money money!). This red envelope is the reward given to the acrobats in the Lions, to thank them for the beautiful spectacle. Every now and then all H-E-L-L breaks loose when someone lights up a chain of firecrackers. This scares the lions so much they go lie flat on the floor, and everybody is reminded not to be afraid of Chinese lions as long as you can fire up ear cracking firecrackers. The whole ceremony brings good luck to the shopkeepers, but only to those who hung a salad crop with money. And to those who sell hearing aids.
Halfway through the ceremony a Chinese woman and her daughter passed through the street, barely noticing the circus, each with a bag full of soy bean sprouts. Because, at the end of the day, the cooking has to be done. Dancing lion or not, a stir-fry without soy sprouts isn't a stir-fry.
Text by Joris Casaer
Pictures by Joris Casaer