Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Year of the Horse

The Great Wall.
Mao Zedong.
Kung pao, wonton, foo yung, lo mein, moo goo gai pan...
and maybe the Chinese zodiac.
That's all many people know about China.

2014 is the Year of the Horse.  It comes around every twelfth year, because the Chinese horoscope has twelve signs, just like the Western zodiac has twelve months.  (Funny, that!)  The Chinese see the Horse as energetic, bright, warm-hearted, intelligent and able.  Horse signs like to communicate and enjoy the limelight. They’re clever, kind to others, cheerful, perceptive, talented, earthy, exceedingly witty, but stubborn and overly talkative.  (Sounds a bit like our Leos.)
     You may be wondering where I’m going with this, given that I write about France. Well, there is a huge Chinese colony here in Paris, mostly originating from northeast China. The last census counted 2% of the Paris population as being Chinese; that’s about 44,000 people.  France, as a whole, has the largest overseas Chinese community in Europe (if you don’t count Russia), surprisingly surpassing the UK, which comes in second.
     A large part of the 13th arrondissement - the left-bank neighborhood of Manhattan-esque high-rise apartment buildings - is called Chinatown, and you’ll see it if you take a stroll around.  Signs in Chinese characters, even neon ones.  All kinds of wholesale foods for sale, including the banned shark’s fin.  Chinese pharmacies with strange concoctions and exotic dried herbs claimed to cure any affliction.  Shops selling traditional oriental dresses for the ladies, complete with slit skirt and Mao collar (which pre-existed Chairman Mao).  Any number of Chinese restaurants.
     The police have sometimes said this arrondissement has the lowest crime rate in all of Paris, and evil-thinkers say that’s because the Chinese take care of their own business and settle their own affairs... which may be partially true.  At any rate, as an ethnic group, the Chinese usually keep a low profile.
     Except on Chinese New Year.  Which it just was on Friday, January 31st.
     This not being a holiday in France, there were celebrations scheduled for the week-end.  And not just in Chinatown, although that’s where the main parade meanders.  There are other ones in the Marais, including in front of City Hall, and in Belleville, Edith Piaf’s home turf which has been attracting the overflow from Chinatown for a while now.
     These parades include cultural groups that play traditional instruments, women who demonstrate fan and parasol dances that probably haven’t been performed in China since the Old Regime left (although they might be perpetuated in Taiwan).  There are firecrackers galore, tied together in noisy bouquets, and that’s the part I hate, whether it’s Chinese New Year or Bastille Day.  I know they’re supposed to keep the evil spirits away, but I don’t like them anyway.  In addition to that, the festivities have drums enough to warrant ear plugs.  And color?  Reds and golds, sunny yellows and lurid greens.  Candies are thrown to the children, and toy coins to all along the parade route, a wish for prosperity throughout the coming year.

By the time the parade at the Hôtel de Ville starts, the thermometer is inching upward toward a royal 50°F (10°C), which Paris hasn’t seen in a while.   And the sun is out, which also hasn’t happened in a while.  So the Chinese would tell you the year’s off to an auspicious start.  Which is a good thing, because the horoscope isn’t all sweetness and light for 2014.
     A crowd gathers in front of City Hall to see the show. I get there early enough to be in the front row.  I even have time to strike up a running conversation with the man on my right, a Frenchman who used to live in Chinatown.  He’s an unlikely candidate to be here, seeing as the rest of the crowd is made up either of Yuppies with children or Orientals with children.  He’s alone, his grey hair almost shoulder-length and every one of his fingers has a silver ring on it, kind of his own private version of a knuckle sandwich.  One of the rings is a skull-and-crossbones.  The only thing missing from his persona is a Harley, and he may well have parked it around the corner.  He’s a sweet guy nonetheless, as sweet as the nice old white-haired French lady on my left.  With me, we make a trio.  A Chinese television anchorman drops by with a ni-how but opts to interview his compatriots farther down the line, which is a good thing because ni-how is pretty much it for my Chinese.
   The show is presented on the ice-skating rink City Hall sets up every year now.  A red carpet has been spread over part of the ice, and gradually, with help from the sun, it gets soggier and soggier, changing from bright red to dark scarlet.  But the entertainers don’t seem to notice, busy, as they are, with bringing the East to the West.  For starters, strong young men banging on huge Chinese drums and pretty, pony-tailed girls ching-ing away on cymbals provide music for the dragons to dance to.  Then come more pandas than there must be left in the wild, but I saw these ones earlier minus their heads.  Next are lissome ladies performing that fan dance I mentioned.  (Nothing like Sally Rand’s fan dance!)  And then more dragons, of different colors and more musicians.
     By that point I’m getting a sunburn and the people behind me have pushed in so tight that it’s not fun any more. Besides, the show part is almost over, after which the parade will disappear, wending its way through the narrow streets of the Marais, drumming and cymbaling and dancing and firecrackering for hours.  It’s time to head home.
     Whatever comes down the pike, Chinese 2014 came in with a bang (of firecrackers) and was enjoyed by all, Orientals and Westerners, who have learned that Chinese New Year is nothing if not spectacular!

If you want to make a traditional Chinese New Year feast, let me pass on what I’ve been told by my various Oriental friends.  You’ll need some sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf.  And a gâteau du bonheur - a happy cake - because if you want the year to be sweet you have to eat sweet things on this first day.  You’ll also need some lotus seeds so you'll have many children.  And don’t forget a clementine for prosperity.

For a video of the parade, try the link below.  I'm still not sure which of those masks is the wooden horse, and one wonders what they do for The Year of the Pig or the Sheep, although the Year of the Monkey should be fun!

1 comment:

  1. Sandy, thanks so much for sharing Parisian New Year's celebrations. I was just thinking of you last night and realized I had been missing your blogs. I think I'll scroll back to see what else I missed.

    Much love to you from a snowy, icy New York.

    Love, Sydney