Amid bucketloads of rain and gusty winds, we took a trip to Manchester on Sunday to check out their Chinese New Year celebrations. Lucas was refereeing a volleyball game at the university, so it was just Ares, Raspberry and I braving the weather in Chinatown. We could’ve stayed in Liverpool, but we did that last year and honestly, despite Wikipedia saying that the city is has the oldest Chinese community in Europe, its Chinatown has little more than Chinese restaurants that open late in the day and is just plain disappointing. After that experience, I was determined to head to Manchester for Chinese New Year this year so that’s precisely what we did (even though I contemplated staying home because of the weather). Raspberry has never experienced a proper Chinese New Year with all its red-packet, tasty-treats, visiting-family-and-friends festivities and while I can’t offer her that at this time, I thought it would be interesting for her to at least have a glimpse of some of the other festivities surrounding the new year.
The train to Manchester was ridiculously busy, with standing room only because they only had half the number of carriages as they normally would. I thought the train might end up being a little like those in Tokyo. A girl very kindly offered Ares and I her seat but Raspberry and Lucas stood for most of the journey. Raspberry, being Raspberry, kept complaining that she wished people would get off and she could get a seat. Needless to say, it was quite embarrassing. Lucas got off at Oxford Road while we went to Piccadilly, so we could go to Fred Aldous to get Raspberry’s birthday photobooth portraits done first.
I’d initially thought about heading back to the station to pick up the free shuttle bus to Chinatown but somehow we ended up walking there instead. Chinatown was really busy even though it was raining. I’d hate to think how much busier it would’ve been if it wasn’t that wet. It was hard to navigate through the crowd and nearly impossible to see anything that was happening. I think there was either a dragon or lion dance (surprisingly, not a very loud one) going on in the square, but we couldn’t make our way through the crowds to see and given my short stature and with Ares strapped to me, I couldn’t hoist Raspberry up to see anyway.
Somewhat frustrated by our inability to see or do anything, we ducked into the Manchester Art Gallery to get warm. We had our lunch in a hallway, where Ares didn’t seem all that interested in another baby who kept smiling at him. Unlike Ares, the baby was walking and was likely older than him, but Ares seemed absolutely enormous next to her. The gallery was running a chopstick-decorating workshop (read: wrap strips of stickers around disposable wooden chopsticks), so Raspberry did that while Ares tipped over bowls of stickers and I chatted with an older lady volunteering there. She said babies (Ares, specifically) have inscrutable faces and she was determined to get a smile out of him. The whole time we were there, he didn’t oblige. The room we were in partly overlooked a street where the Chinese New Year parade was happening and standing on a huge tub by the large windows with other kids, Raspberry was lucky enough to see the dragon go by. I’ve seen it before so it didn’t bother me that I couldn’t see very much. I pointed the dragon out to Ares, but I don’t think he could really tell what I was showing him or he really didn’t care.
There were events running at two other locations besides Chinatown, so we went to see what else was happening there. At Albert Square, there were tents selling various Chinese trinkets. Raspberry had the opportunity to write a new year wish in exchange for a fortune cookie and red packet containing a chocolate coin (incidentally, she wrote, “I wish my wish will come true”). I offered to write her Chinese name on it for her and for the first time, I learnt what her name sounds like in Cantonese. There was little else that was interesting, so armed with my map, we headed over to St Ann’s Square where I knew there was at least a craft workshop that Raspberry would like. As I tried to find my bearings, two older Caucasian guys who’d just crossed the street came over and one of them asked if I needed help with directions… except that he asked in Mandarin. I was caught off-guard but told him I was impressed with what he said as I figured out what he meant. For the record, he was able to point me the right way.
I’d been under the impression that there was more happening at St Ann’s Square, but it was even quieter. I guess we’d missed all the activity. Raspberry did some firework origami run by a girl with an interesting accent wearing a shimmery gold skirt and yellow shoes. Raspberry gave up quite quickly when it didn’t work out for her so I had to encourage her to keep trying. Her inability to persevere really frustrates and annoys me; I don’t know where she gets it as neither Lucas nor I are that way. Sigh.
I was waiting for Lucas to text me when he was done but there was still no word from him so for a while, we were at a loss for things to do. We walked for a little bit and came upon the Royal Exchange Theatre and were lured in on the promise of a craft store and a warm, dry place to hang out for a bit. We’d never ventured to this part of the city centre before and had never been into the theatre. The space used to be a trading hall in Victorian times and looks resplendent, with colourful lights contrasting Corinthian columns. It was nice and quiet and Ares was glad to get out of the carrier to stretch his legs. We all had a clementine each and while I was feeding Ares his, he accidentally lost his balance and tumbled off the bench, bumping his head. Of course, a security guard just had to notice him at the exact moment he fell and came over to see if Ares was all right. Having still not heard from Lucas, we wandered around the space briefly until we were told by the aforementioned security guard that the building was closing. I’d initially thought he was being all judge-y when Ares fell (yes, in my two second interaction with him) but he turned out to be quite nice, telling me how he’s worked there eleven years and the building still astounds him. Anyway, we got to see a bit of the space (an exhibition on crafts based on cartography!) but we didn’t fully get to explore the Royal Exchange so another visit there in the future is definitely in order.
Unsure of what else we could do (given that it was past 5pm on a Sunday evening), I suggested we head back to Chinatown in search of some Thai durian cake. We’d picked some up at a Chinese supermarket there way back in September 2013 but haven’t located any in Liverpool. Since then, I’ve repeatedly told Raspberry that the next time we were in Manchester’s Chinatown that we’d pick some up.
The first grocery store didn’t yield any durian cake. In fact, when asked, the cashier looked at me like I was crazy and for a split-second, a look of disgust crossed her face as the words “durian in a tube” spilled out of my mouth. The store did, however, have the exact laksa spice that’s been impossible to find in Liverpool for the past few months, so I excitedly cleaned out their shelf (I’m not as crazy as I might sound. I only bought seven packets). I tried to find the same store we went to back in 2013 but was convinced it’d moved and had been replaced by a gambling place. We went to another supermarket and after trawling the aisles with little luck, I asked a guy cutting shallots at the counter and got overly-excited when he knew exactly what I was talking about. I picked up three tubes and at her request, promised one of them could exclusively be Raspberry’s.
The cashier spoke to Raspberry, who was munching on a rice cake, in Cantonese, asking her if it was sweet. I had to translate for her as she has no knowledge of the language. I was actually surprised by how often people spoke to Raspberry in Chinese. The guy at the table where she wrote her wish spoke to her in Cantonese and Mandarin and when I said she couldn’t understand either, he switched to English. Perhaps the assumption is that she knows either since she’s with me and I’m very noticeably Asian. Although, it irks me that some Caucasians speak to me in Chinese (like the guy who helped me with directions). When I was at Marks and Spencer the day before, a lady giving out milkshake samples unexpectedly wished me “gong hei fat choy” and I just smiled and said thanks. It’s not like I really celebrate Chinese New Year, so argh to that and to white people attempting to speak to me in Chinese.
Anyway. As we were leaving Chinatown to head to Oxford Road station to meet Lucas, I heard all these mini-explosions. I knew exactly what they were, as I used to play with these when I was a kid. There were so many kids with them that I actually stopped a couple with two kids to ask them where they got them. The woman pointed me toward one of the supermarkets, but I suspected someone must’ve been giving them out for so many kids to have that simultaneously. I thought it’d be fun for Raspberry to play with and since we had time to spare, we briefly headed back to Chinatown to try to locate the supermarket that supposedly had these little fireworks. Except that since I’m terrible with directions, I couldn’t exactly find my way (even though I was convinced I knew where I was going) and with only a little bit of time to meet Lucas, I gave up and promised Raspberry we’d try to find them the next time around. Interestingly, it was at this time that I came across that supermarket that I thought had moved. It was just a block directly opposite where I thought it was. Oops.
I can’t believe that with all the times we’ve been to Manchester that we’ve really only been to their Chinatown twice. I really must change that as not only is their Chinatown miles better than the non-entity that is Chinatown here, but their grocery stores have much more too (next time, I’m going to try to locate the individually-packaged seaweed that I used to munch on all the time growing up). Chinese New Year there wasn’t anything like what I had growing up, but I suspect that unless we’re actually in Asia and around Chinese family and friends, it’ll be hard to replicate that experience. Having never actually experinced Chinese New Year beyond seeing a lion dance and hearing firecrackers go off last year, Raspberry said she enjoyed the day though. Lucas and I gave her a red packet for the first time ever (two days late!) so I think that might’ve helped too. Maybe we’ll head back to Manchester again for Chinese New Year next year, or maybe not. Whatever it is, I’ll like to try to swing it so we have at least a bit of a different experience next year.