Ireland raises its profile at new year celebrations

Members of Macnas taking part in Chinese New Year celebrations in Beijing's Chaoyang Park. Thousands of spectators have been drawn to their shows. photograph: clifford coonan

Members of Macnas taking part in Chinese New Year celebrations in Beijing's Chaoyang Park. Thousands of spectators have been drawn to their shows. photograph: clifford coonan

Thu, Feb 14, 2013, 00:00

Macnas and JIG took to the streets in Beijing to welcome in the year of the snake

It’s cold in Chaoyang Park in downtown Beijing at the height of the spring festival. What looks like a three-metre tall deer, accompanied by an equally lanky goat, are meandering through a crowd of bewildered and amazed Chinese people, out to celebrate the year of the snake.

A lion queen in a giant skirt-hoop skirt plays hide and seek with owls and foxes and mice, as a phalanx of bemused security guards keep back hundreds of spectators.

Nothing could have prepared Beijing for the arrival of Macnas, but their show Chaosmos is really going down a treat at the Chaoyang New Year Festival, which this year features Ireland as the guest of honour.

About nine million people have left Beijing for the Chinese New Year holiday. Statistics show that 7.75 million of them are migrant workers returning to their ancestral homes to be with their families and celebrate the spring festival.

The remainder has gone on holiday to places like Macau or Hainan Island.

Not everyone though has gone home. One family – a husband, a wife and their daughter, from Harbin in Heilongjiang province, has lived in Beijing for 10 years. This is the first time they have not travelled back to their chilly northeastern home for the festival.

It is not easy to be away from the extended family, but they are enjoying the show.

“I really don’t know what this is, but I like it. We don’t have anything like this in Harbin,” says the mother.

The stilt-walkers and performers wend their way through the park, while on the main stage it feels increasingly like the Phoenix Park, not Chaoyang Park, as a group of musicians belt out Spanish Lady.

Dance sequences

The show JIG: The Story of Irish Dance has drawn thousands of spectators, especially the dance sequences which have enough Riverdance in them to delight the Chinese audience.

Riverdance is by far Ireland’s biggest cultural export here and JIG is a big draw, especially on the arrival of youthful special guests Christy (14) and Erin (12) Jensen, who have previously performed in the Forbidden City Concert hall.

There are stands selling Kerrygold products, an Irish education stand and the James Joyce bar is selling chuanr, which are Beijing spicy meat on a skewer. However this is not about the hard sell, it is about raising profile and it is certainly doing that.

One man surnamed Li, who is taking photographs with a long lens, is saying what a great place Ireland is.

“I know Ireland well. Ireland, Scotland, England, I know them all,” he says, somewhat cryptically, as it is not clear if he just knows where they are or if he has a deeper familiarity.

A retired man is singing loudly to himself. He gives a thumbs up and says: “Great. Ireland is great.” He is wearing a baseball cap that says ‘Diaoyu Islands Belong To China’, a nationalist sentiment that refers to the current spat between China and Japan over a chain of tiny, unoccupied islands in the East China Sea. Clearly he is selective about which countries he resents.

The exodus has left the city a far more manageable place for the remaining 11 million people to bring in the year of the snake with fewer traffic jams and subway queues to deal with. Many of the city’s five million cars are also not in evidence.

The fireworks have also been less of a barrage than in previous years.

There have been plenty of bangs and whistles and sparkling displays in the sky, but Beijingers have largely followed instructions to keep the fireworks to a minimum this year because of the pollution that has blighted the capital in the past few weeks.

There is also a more austere atmosphere. The Communist Party spent much of the dragon year fighting off one corruption scandal or another, and it will hope that the snake year is one of clean hands for the ruling party or else they could face potentially dire consequences.

Air quality

The air quality has been much better – the factories are closed and the streets far less congested than usual, although Wednesday saw the readings from the US embassy creep back into “hazardous” territory after a few days of blue skies.

Leaving the park, a man in a Mickey Mouse costume shuffles around, smoking a cigarette somehow.

A young couple rushes over to him and the girl lines up beside Mickey while the boy takes the photograph.

Then Mickey speaks in the international language, increasingly the language of New China, as he rubs his fingers together and asks them for money for the photo-op.

It may a big celebration to mark the year of the snake, but mice, even chancers dressed up as cartoon Mickeys, gotta live.