The Eve of Chinese New Year we all met at the city's largest Chinese temple to burn paper money (which, in return, gets sent back to us by the gods, if we have good luck), follow the dragon dancers, and search for some good Chinese food.
In front of the temple, we all burned our paper, making our wishes, and watching it curl up in the huge bin filled with flames and charred bits of glowing paper. I had to wonder what Dutch Treat wished for, and Ms. Picasso. What did BB, who flew his paper in as a paper airplane, wish for? And Red Coconut and Pendant? We all know what French Contessa wished for: the end of global warming so we all could have a decent climax.... er, I mean, climate. Come on, George W.! Sign the Kyoto agreement, for god's sake!
But I digress.
I wasn't prepared for the amount of caged birds in the temple square: hawks, falcons, sparrows, parakeets. There must have been over 500 birds at the temple entrance. Paying the bird owners to set the wing-ed creatures free is to be an auspicious start to the New Year. The birds are trained to return, of course, but I would have paid a small fortune to have all the birds freed at once. What a flutter of wings and feathers that would be. But wait. It might also be a flutter of Avian Flu, which this country claims not to have. But, we won't go there. Plus, we all know this country is Avian Flu-free. No infected birds migrating into this country could get their visa approved. :-)
I didn't set any birds free, but I did manage to worm my way into the ornate red and gold temple that was packed full of devotees who were burning incense, getting their fortunes told, and making offerings of fruit on the alter. I could barely breathe in the smoke, and the place was as noisy as a marketplace. But it was beautiful and exotic.
Then, we were off to follow two dancing dragons on their pilgrimage to other temples and what seemed to be urban residences. The accompanying drum and symbol players sent their rhythm into the night air of Y., honoring the past year, the Year of the Rooster, and welcoming the New Year: the Year of the Dog.
After another jaunt of walking through the streets, we finally climbed the steep stairs to Mr. Lee's Chinese Restaurant, a place where the average tourist doesn’t find or frequent. A dozen or so five-gallon glass jars filled with pickled snakes lined one wall while water tanks filled with prawn, crab, mussels, and all sorts of fresh fish lined the other. None of the staff spoke English, so we had to point at the menu, which really wasn't working well. Then, Red Coconut started throwing out Chinese words, and we all looked at each other in wonder. Who knew he spoke Chinese? Ah, the things you find out about your drinking buddies after a frolic in Chinatown.
Soon, a large three-pound grouper was steaming before us, big as you please, so we dug in. And they brought us Chinese tea. And prawn with garlic and butter. And lettuce in oyster sauce, which I ordered double. What a treat it was to sit around a round table bringing in the Chinese New Year with such a lovely group of Brits, Dutch, French, and Scots.
The highlight of the evening was when the sound of the dragon dance drums drifted up to our third-floor restaurant. We pulled back the curtains to look down to see a long, 25-meter green dragon dance and wind it's way into yet another temple across the street. It shimmered and undulated in slithery waves so life-like as it followed the glowing "Pearl of Wisdom."
I felt as if I were in a film: an actress in some an exotic period piece.
A woman in Chinatown.
It could be any city, any decade, any century.
And I could be anyone.
What a great way to begin a new year: full of possibilities.