Celebrating Chinese New Year In Estonia

Estonia
When you think of Chinese New Year, the snowy capital of Estonia isn’t the first place you think of for celebrating it. Yet Tallinn put on a big show to greet the new year as part of their annual Fire and Ice Festival.

The Chinese community in Tallinn is pretty small, but the Chinese embassy is reaching out to this Baltic state and helped fund a grandiose program of entertainment to welcome in the Year of the Snake. A big stage in Tallinn’s Kadriorg Park had Chinese acrobats, dancers, and musicians doing their stuff.

The Estonians also took part in their own way. A group of Estonian sculptors, plus an Egyptian guest, did a set of five ice sculptures for the theme of the New Year. The artists were Tiiu Kirsipuu, Aime Kuulbusch, Kalle Pruuden and Elo Liiv from Estonia, and Salah Hammad from Egypt. Their works are based on the Eastern Lunar calendar, the central sculpture being the Black Water Snake of this new year. Flanking it were sculptures representing Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

A huge crowd came out to watch the unveiling. The night was a mild one by Estonian standards, dipping down to about 0 Celsius (about 20 degrees Fahrenheit) with a steady snowfall. Last year it was -25 Celsius (-13 Fahrenheit). I’m glad I came this year and not last.

%Gallery-178530%Tiiu Kirsipuu, who sculpted the snake, told me that the ice came all the way from Lapland in northern Finland. Tiiu explained that the ice needs to be at least 40 centimeters thick and that Estonia is too far south to generally get ice freezing to that thickness.

I also talked with Salah Hammad, the visiting Egyptian artist. His usual works are comprised of stone, wood and metal formed into an abstract geometric style. This was Salah’s first time working with ice and he found it a tricky medium to control. Here he is next to his work below.

Once the sculptures were unveiled, the crowd pressed in to see them. Everybody felt the urge to stroke the figures. The festival organizers and artists didn’t seem to mind. I wondered aloud how long the figures would hold up to such treatment. One of the artists simply shrugged and said that impermanence was part of the medium.

As it grew later the mercury began to drop. The Estonians didn’t care. Living where they do they’ve made their peace with winter. Scattered all across the park were hundreds of snowmen, snowbears, snowdwarves and snowdragons. Eager kids were busily adding to the population. Snowball fights broke out everywhere. Parents warmed themselves at stalls selling mulled wine and everybody was wowed by the fireworks show the Chinese put on.

Just as it was really starting to get chilly, I managed to get invited to a reception at the Chinese embassy. Chinese cultural representatives told me how anxious they were to get their nation’s traditions better known in the West. Considering how much money they’d spent on a city of a little more than 300,000 people, I imagine they’re pretty serious. Expect more Chinese shows in your town soon.

Everyone felt the show had come off well and was in a good mood. Estonian artists, Chinese dancers, a Portuguese photographer, and a lone Canadian and Egyptian all mingled and enjoyed Chinese food and Spanish wine. Cultures and languages blended with ease.

I love this new international world!

This is the first in a new series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Estonia

Welcome To Hell: Chinese Lunar New Year Travel Madness

hellish train travel in china hard seatLooking for a nice, quiet place for a late winter holiday this week? Then why not celebrate the Lunar New Year in China, along with a billion plus new friends, many of whom will hit the road to see family members during the chunyun or spring festival travel season that runs from about 15 days before Lunar New Year’s Day, which falls on February 10 this year, for 40 days.

Chinese New Year is the one time of year when everyone returns to their home villages to see family members and it’s been called the largest annual human migration in the world. If you think Disney World is crazy at Easter, you’ve never tried to get anywhere in China during the height of the chunyun season.

According to Xinhua, China’s state news agency, the Chinese will make 3.41 billion trips during the holiday season this year, up from a paltry 3.16 billion last season. In 2012, China’s trains carried more than 80 million passengers across a two-week span during the chunyun. Years ago, I spent a month traveling by train across China, from Urumqi to Shanghai in the summer, and the boarding procedures seemed like chaos personified to me. But during the New Year season, it’s not uncommon for serious melees to break out as harried travelers scramble to board and exit trains.


crowd in chinaAccording to the Financial Times, train tickets are in such high demand during the holiday season that whole trains can sell out in seconds on the Internet. So companies have developed “ticket snatching” plug-ins that help Chinese travelers game the national railway ticket website. Why? According to NPR, the ticket site got 1.4 billion hits in a single day last year and crashed several times.

Some Chinese who can’t get train or plane tickets find creative ways to get home for the holiday. China Daily reports that one adventurous soul took a scenic route home, using “48 buses, a ferry, a free ride and his own feet to carry him 660km to his home town.” And a Ph.D student at Fudan University in Shanghai managed to cobble together a route home by buying eight separate train tickets.

But scoring tickets, fighting the crowds and breathing in near-toxic pollution is just part of the hellish Lunar New Year travel experience. Legions of young Chinese who have moved to cities also face social pressures when they return home to see their families.

It’s traditional to exchange red envelopes with cash inside and there’s pressure to demonstrate one’s status by laying down the yuan equivalent of Benjamins. And according to The West Australian, single Chinese career women with no imminent marriage plans have taken to renting proxy boyfriends to take home for the holidays, to avoid the awkward, “when are you going to get a boyfriend” questions. In Jiangsu province, male escorts were commanding as much as 2,000 yuan ($308) per day for their services.

train station in chinaThe Chinese zodiac calendar works in 12-year cycles and the Year of the Dragon will give way to the Year of the Snake on February 10. The Year of the Dragon is an especially lucky year; the BBC reported last year that births would likely rise 5% in China during the auspicious year. There is some speculation that China’s economy could falter slightly this year from a post-Dragon hangover.

But the Year of the Snake might not be as dicey as it sounds. In the West, the snake is a symbol of deceit but not in China. People born in this year are said to be intuitive, graceful, introspective and refined. However, they are also viewed as manipulative and scheming and can also be excessively proud and vain. The last two snake years were tumultuous ones, in 1989 there was the Tiananmen Square massacre and 9/11 came during the last one.

chinese new yearHuffington Post Canada consulted Paul Ng, a philosopher and who opined that the Year of the Snake will be a great year for the travel industry.

“This year is favourable to [travel by water] because it’s the [year of the] water snake. I’ve said that cruise boats will do well this year and the aviation industry will do well as well,” Ng told HuffPost Canada Travel.

If you’d rather not brave the crowds to experience Lunar New Year madness in China, my colleague Reena Ganga has written a nice piece on where to enjoy this holiday Stateside.

[Photo credits: Harald Groven, Padmanaba01, and rickyqi on Flickr; AP]

The Best Places In The US To Celebrate Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year – or Spring Festival as it’s also known – is a Chinese celebration that marks the start of new life. Each year is associated with an animal from the Chinese zodiac and 2013 will welcome the year of the snake.

New Year is the most important holiday in China (a lot like Christmas is in the West), and Chinese families celebrate by buying gifts, food and clothing. However, it wouldn’t be a Chinese festival if there weren’t a few activities designed to bring in good luck, so families will thoroughly clean their houses – sweeping out any bad luck and making way for good fortune. They’ll also decorate their homes with red paper lanterns, which signify luck, wealth and prosperity.

For Westerners, though, the most prominent part of Chinese New Year has always been the colorful parades put on by local Chinese communities. Lion dances, giant dragon costumes, floats, music and fireworks are all part of the festivities. Want to join in? Read on to learn more about what you can expect at some of the top Chinese New Year celebrations in America.

San Francisco

San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown in the United States, and Chinese New Year Parades (see image above) have been taking place there since the 1860s when Chinese immigrants to the area decided to showcase their culture. The event has grown into the biggest Chinese New Year celebration outside of Asia, drawing nearly a million spectators each year. It has even been recognized as one of the best festivals in the world by the International Festival and Events Association.

San Francisco’s evening procession is one of the few illuminated parades left in the country. So in addition to colorful floats, dance groups, bands, stilt walkers and drummers, expect to see lots of lights. The pièce de résistance? A 268-foot golden dragon, which will require a team of 100 people from the martial arts community to carry it through the streets.

San Francisco’s Chinese New Year parade takes place on Saturday February 23 at 5:15 p.m. The procession kicks off from Second and Market St. and makes its way to Chinatown where it concludes. You can get route and visitor information here. In addition to the parade, the city will also be hosting a Chinese New Year Flower Market, a Miss Chinatown USA pageant and a Chinese New Year Run.

New York City

At nearly half a million people, New York has the largest Chinese American population of any city in the U.S. – so it’s not surprising that the Big Apple puts on several different events to mark Chinese New Year.

First up, there’s the Firecracker Ceremony and Cultural Festival. Here you can enjoy drumming and dance performances, and munch on Asian fare from one of the many food stalls. However, what you’ve really come for are the pyrotechnics – in previous years, the event organizers have set off more than 600,000 firecrackers. The festival is not just about celebrating the New Year with a bang, however – the loud noises from the firecrackers are believed to chase away evil spirits. The Firecracker Ceremony and Cultural Festival takes place on Sunday, February 10 from 11 a.m. at Sara Roosevelt Park.

Next up, there’s the Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade and Festival. This event, which is in its 14th year, boasts decorated floats, performers in elaborate costumes, marching bands and more. The parade takes place on Sunday, February 17 at 1 p.m., starting in Little Italy and winding its way through the main streets of lower Chinatown.

And finally, don’t miss the Chinese New Year Flower Market. Filling the home with flowers and food is a traditional part of Chinese New Year. At this flower market, you’ll find arts and crafts, as well as plenty of blooms to bring prosperity into your new year. From February 8-10 at Columbus Park. For more information about New York’s festivities, click here.

Chicago

Chicago‘s Chinatown is a vibrant community home to 10,000 people and 400 businesses including ethnic shops and restaurants. The neighborhood celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, which it marked with a massive Chinese New Year festival. This year’s event is sure to be another great one.

Previous year’s parades have featured marching bands, colorful floats, lion dancers and the obligatory dragon dance – a team of skilled performers who bring life to the 100-foot-long dragon costume. The dragon is believed to represent power and nobility, and like many things that take place during the New Year celebrations, it is a bearer of good luck.

Chicago’s Lunar New Year Parade will take place on Sunday, February 17 at 1 p.m. along Chinatown’s Wentworth Ave. See here for more information.

[Photo credits: Flickr users Robert Raines, Howard Brier, and Yenna]

Dim sum has a little somethin’-somethin’ for everyone

dim sumI realize that Chinese New Year ended on February 6th, but in an effort to establish that there’s no bad time to visit Hong Kong or eat Cantonese food, I decided that now would be a good time to write about dim sum (also, I’m a terrible procrastinator. Is it really almost St. Paddy’s Day?).

Hong Kong means different things to different people. Some go for the bargains on everything from cameras to couture, others for the booming nightlife and easy access to other parts of Asia. Others just…really like Jackie Chan movies. Whatever your reason, this former British colony is faring well since it’s 1997 return to China (technically the city and environs are considered a Special Administrative Region–SAR–of the mainland). While not as cheap as other Asian cities or destinations, Hong Kong offers plenty of attractions, food and travel options to suit all budgets.

To a little piglet such as myself, Hong Kong means dim sum. In a city positively obsessed with eating, dim sum is perhaps Hong Kong’s most beloved culinary ritual. Dim sum, which is variously translated as “touching or pointing to the heart,” refers to a variety of steamed or fried dumplings, rice flour rolls, and other small savory or sweet snacks. While Westerners have openly embraced dim sum where dumplings are concerned, some traditional dishes such as braised chicken feet (foong jow) and steamed beef tripe with black bean and chili sauce (ngow pahk yeep) aren’t quite the hits they are in China.

Although dim sum is Cantonese (regionally now referred to as Gaungzhou) in origin, today it reflects the multi-regional influences of Hunan, Shanghai, Beijing, and other provinces in various ingredients and styles, such as the inclusion of Hunan ham in a pan-fried root vegetable dish such as taro cake. There are over 2,000 types of dim sum; in addition to the aforementioned dumplings and rice flour rolls, there are spring rolls, pan-fried cakes, baked or steamed buns, crepes, steamed rice dishes wrapped in lotus leaves, bite-size meat dishes such as spare ribs or duck feet, soups, or sweet puddings of tofu with sauces ranging from black sesame to mango.

[Photo credit: Flickr user LifeSupercharger]dim sumStandard dim sum ingredients include dried Chinese mushrooms; sweet lotus seed or bean paste; water chestnuts; bamboo shoots; rice or wheat flour; glutinous rice; Chinese sausage (lop cheong); preserved pork belly; dried shrimp; chives; ginger; garlic; seafood; poultry; beef, and pork, although the Cantonese are widely known for eating “everything under the sun,” so few bits and pieces are off limits.

Dim sum is thought to have originated during the Sun Dynasty of 960-1280 AD, when drinking tea at teahouses became a popular custom after a day of labor in the fields. The term yum cha, or “to drink tea,” came to be synonymous with the supplementation of small snacks, or dim sum. Today, teahouses still abound throughout China, and Hong Kong has it’s fair share. These are gathering places where locals can gossip, drink, eat, and relax, although some teahouses–often in five-star hotels– cater to a more upscale clientele, or tourists.

Dim sum is meant to be consumed communally; diners pick what interests them from passing waiters who push carts loaded with bamboo steamers or domed platters- the serving dish will then be placed upon the table, and waiters will tally up the bill according to how many you accumulate. It’s not considered bad form to pick morsels communally from the central plate, although you should place your individual choices into your own bowl or plate to catch any drips, or break apart large items using your chopsticks. Dipping bowls of sweet soy sauce, hot mustard (guy lath) and chili sauce (lath ju yow) are used communally as well, although it’s also common to spoon some condiments onto your plate for personal use.

For an authentic teahouse experience in Hong Kong, although perhaps not the best dim sum, 79-year-old Luk Yu Teahouse in the city’s Central District is a historic landmark. Fiercely crotchety, white-smocked old woman bustle about the small, marble-floored teahouse, carrying battered aluminum trays filled with assorted buns and dumplings around their necks. Over the din of dining Cantonese businessmen and families, ceiling fans lazily circulate and hazy sunlight filters through stained glass windows. Don’t expect to know what you’re eating, however. During my visit, I was the only Westerner there, and as is the way with most dim sum restaurants, selection of dishes comes down to point and choose. My winning pick was a giant, fluffy cha sui bao, or steamed bun, stuffed with sweet barbecued pork.
dim sum
The dim sum from the immensely popular Super Star Seafood Restaurant in Kowloon, known for it’s whimsical, animal-shaped dumplings is generally excellent. Super Star also offers hands-on dim sum cooking classes by arrangement, and it was there that I (in theory) learned how to pleat my har gow and sek tau yu (rockfish) dumplings. The shaping of dim sum dumplings is an art form that requires skill and dexterity, and the number and style of pleats or shape are specific to each type of dumpling; in the case of har gow, the “shark fin” pleat is said to replicate the shape of a gold ingot. Although my sek tau yu resembled malignant tumors rather than the goldfish they were meant to represent, the instructor was kind, and they tasted wonderful; the airy filling redolent of ginger and garlic, the dough tender and whisper-thin.

My favorite dim sum came from a much-loved Cantonese restaurant chain in Hong Kong called Tai Woo. At the Tsim Sha Tsui location, my meal began with several dim sum-style dishes, including a sweet, moist, steamed turnip cake (loh baak gao) studded with lop cheong and cheung fun, delicate, chewy rice noodle sheets rolled around pungent dried shrimp and chives, both accompanied by both peanut and hoisin sauces for dipping. Cheung fun can also be stuffed with whole shrimp, beef, or barbecued pork, and is often favored as a breakfast treat.

For the adventurous eater, Hong Kong has no shortage of culinary treasures to enjoy, be they in back alley eateries, near street markets, or in high-end restaurants. Explore them all, or enjoy the experience right here at home: every major North American city has its fair share of dim sum restaurants. Most notable for the quality of their dim sum are Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Check out this site; I can’t vouch for every restaurant on it, but I’ll stand by the Bay Area selections.

For more information on visiting Hong Kong, click here.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Chopsticks Using Tips

Video: The Palazzo Las Vegas’ 8,000-pound fire-breathing dragon



We all know Las Vegas hotels and resorts pull some pretty crazy stunts – hello, Treasure Island‘s Pirate Show, Bellagio‘s fountain and Mirage‘s exploding volcano, just to name a few. But this is the first time we’ve seen such a large scale installation to celebrate a single holiday. The 128-foot, 8,000-pound fire-breathing dragon suspended above The Palazzo‘s waterfall took more than 13 months to complete.

Guests can visit the dragon (perhaps during tomorrow’s ceremonial dragon dance ceremony), or stop by through the end of the celebrations (February 5) for themed menus and special events.