Chinese New Year
"The largest celebration outside of Asia"
What does it take to organise a festival that, for a single day, transforms the heart of London into a massive celebration for Chinese New Year?
Suzannah Kwok is the Vice-President of the London Chinatown Chinese Association (LCCA), a group that primarily represents businesses in Chinatown, but which is also responsible for organising the New Year activities.
"Chinese New Year is a big focal event because we have become the largest celebration outside of Asia, which is great," says Suzannah. "It has grown over the years to be a major free London event and we are very proud of that."
Since 2001, Suzannah has been the English-speaking Master of Ceremonies, but for the last three years she has also operated as the festival's director, playing a key role in coordinating Chinese New Year.
Whereas 2008's celebrations were two years in the planning because of the Beijing Olympics, this year's event has taken only three months to plan. It started with meetings between the LCCA, the Metropolitan Police, Westminster Council and City Hall.
Suzannah describes the relationship between the various parties as 'very strong' and acknowledges that without the support of the Police or City Hall, Chinese New Year would be a more low-key affair.
Under Mayor Livingstone in 2002, the LCCA's Chinese New Year festival was the first private event to be held in Trafalgar Square.
As an example of the organisation that is required, the LCCA has to apply for planning permission to put up its red lanterns. The lanterns go up two weeks before Chinese New Year and come down two weeks after.
The Numbers Game
However, the biggest issue is crowd management and safety. Chinatown itself is a relatively small and confined area that can only hold up to 30,000 people at any one time.
Putting up the lanterns
"Chinese New Year is a happy event and we don't want anything bad to happen. So we have to run a community event and make sure it's safe," says Suzannah. "We have to work closely with the police. Over the last two or three years because the event has become so big, we've had major crowd management issues."
For 2008, a one-way system was introduced to control the crowds. However, this brought its own problems.
"It affected the number of people coming into Chinatown," explains Suzannah. "We had to limit the lion teams, who traditionally go round visiting the restaurants, but because too many people were following the dragons this severely affected business."
Bad for Business
The organisers found that, despite the greater numbers of people attending Chinese New Year, the businesses were not reaping the benefits. After all, the interest of its members, who are mostly the companies and restaurants of Chinatown, is the LCCA's chief concern.
The members said that the one-way system, the fewer lions and the greater focus on Trafalgar Square was affecting their takings on the day – Chinese New Year being one of the most important trading days for them, and even more so in difficult times.
"Chinatown has suffered a lot, particularly in the last few months because of the credit crunch. Businesses have seen a dramatic downturn," says Suzannah.
Ringing the changes
For 2009, the changes have been rung: the one-way system has been scrapped; the lions will be dancing around Chinatown for the whole day from 1pm to 5.30pm and the parade has been judged surplus to requirements.
So, as well as mingling in Chinatown, visitors will be able to enjoy international Chinese artists, traditional dancing, acrobats and martial arts in Trafalgar Square.
Meanwhile, on a specially-built stage in Shaftesbury Avenue there will be local artists performing, including English schoolchildren singing mandarin songs. Leicester Square will host a fireworks display to close the festival.
Chinese New Year 2008
The financial downturn has affected Chinese New Year in other ways as well. The final bill, which includes paying for the police and road traffic management, can be as much as £500,000. A contribution is made from the Mayor's office but the majority of the budget needs to be raised from commercial sponsors – a tough task in the current economic climate.
Nonetheless, despite the problems, the crowd management issues and the concerns of its members, Chinese New Year 2009 is all set for Sunday 1st February: dragons will be dancing in Chinatown, getting rid of evil spirits and bringing good luck to all.
last updated: 22/01/2009 at 14:05