How the UK's Chinatowns are celebrating Chinese New Year in lockdown

Chinatown businesses are expecting a quieter start to the year of the ox in lockdown Credit: James Wong / Lawrence Lee

Words by ITV News Multimedia Producer Ann Yip

Once bustling Chinatowns have been described as "scarily quiet" and "empty" during what would usually be the busiest time of the year as families prepare to welcome the new year at home.

There will be no vibrant lion dances this year. Instead, festivities will be moved online.

The Lunar New Year, which begins on Friday, is the biggest festival in the lunar calendar and it is when many extended families from east and south east Asian communities will come together. But this year, they will be staying indoors, relying on video calls to meet loved ones.

Chinatown businesses are hoping the year of the ox will bring back some kind of normality and prosperity. But many are not expecting much of an uplift in business during the start of the new year.

More lanterns have been put up in London Chinatown Credit: Lawrence Lee

Birmingham Chinese Quarter

“There’s nobody in Chinatown,” Birmingham restaurateur James Wong told ITV News.

Mr Wong, who owns Chung Ying, the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city’s Southside district, believes his business is at just 30% of what it used to be before the pandemic, despite continuing as a takeaway. 

He said: “A lot of the Chinese aren’t coming out. For them, coming out to eat is a social experience. A lot of Chinese people who come over here, they already know how to cook.

“Last Chinese New Year, it was bad already. Because the pandemic just started, it caused a lot of panic within the Chinese community so not many people came out. 

James Wong, owner of Chung Ying restaurant in Birmingham Chinatown Credit: James Wong

“It was a slow decline until lockdown, and we were left in a bit of a predicament. There was a lot of uncertainty. I’ve closed one of my restaurants in the financial district. It was just the fact that I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

The 47-year-old restaurateur is the Lunar New Year festival chairman for Birmingham Southside. He is planning a three-hour Facebook livestream on Friday, with lion dance, singing and dancing videos from previous years, and newer videos from experts teaching calligraphy, painting and Chinese greetings. 

Although Mr Wong lives with his wife and kids, he has chosen to have dinner with just his mum (who is in his bubble) on New Year’s Eve. In normal times, it would’ve been a big family dinner with seven grandkids. 

Despite disappointment from his circle of friends, Mr Wong says: “They all know it’s what it is. People understand it’s a virus. We all want to make sure we can fight it.”

Birmingham Chinatown in the days before Lunar New Year Credit: James Wong

London Chinatown

The most renowned Chinatown in the UK has been described as “scarily quiet” by shop owner Alan Lau, despite more lanterns being put up in recent days.

Mr Lau’s Wen Tai Sun art and crafts shop sells imported Chinese crafts and during this time of the year, he would normally supply New Year decorations and posters to supermarkets, restaurants, major New Year events across the UK, and even schools. 

He has had to move his business online during the pandemic, selling his goods on Amazon. 

Business is “not good”, he said, partly because of difficulties importing goods from abroad - also brought on by the pandemic. He said a container of Lunar New Year goods has not yet cleared customs, as of Tuesday, and will probably arrive after the New Year. 

Alan Lau, owner of Wen Tai Sun art and crafts shop in London Chinatown Credit: Alan Lau

He continued: “We supply a lot of the supermarkets, but they also rely on restaurants to be open to buy decorations. So it has had a trickle down effect.”

London Chinatown’s usual New Year street performances will be replaced by a Youtube livestream from noon on Sunday. To adhere to lockdown rules, the London Chinatown Chinese Association will use videos of performances from previous years.

Lawrence Lee, spokesperson for the association, said: “Chinese New Year is a very important date for the restaurants in Chinatown because the business is usually extremely good. There are a lot of visitors from overseas and locals, lots of students and lots of people having banquets.

“But this year, it’s lockdown and many restaurants cannot afford to open and some are doing takeaway.

Lawrence Lee, spokesperson for London Chinatown Chinese Association Credit: Lawrence Lee

“They are doing very poorly. When the UK started lockdown, they were saying the business amounted to 10-15% of normal business, so they had to cut down on staff, and some staff had to be furloughed or work part time. Many businesses will be very happy if they can break even.

“I don’t think business will improve that much during Lunar New Year. A lot of restaurants are doing a special menu. But because of lockdown, a lot of people will not be able to enjoy it together, so a lot of people are just buying for two people, or a maximum of four, rather than for 10.”

The 63-year-old father said he will “follow the traditions as much as we can” this year. He plans to virtually hand over red packets to his adult children by pretending to give the red envelopes over a Zoom call and then bank transferring the money. 

A dragon dance during Chinese New Year celebrations in central London in 2020 Credit: Yui Mok/PA

Red envelopes with cash are usually given by family members to young children and unmarried adults during Lunar New Year. There are similar traditions in other east and south east Asian societies.

On celebrating Lunar New Year in lockdown, Mr Lee said: “This is what’s happening but we have to accept it. We have to listen to the government. We have to stay at home.”

He continued: “I hope the year of the ox will bring normality and prosperity back, because I don’t know how we can survive. It’s hard on a lot of restaurants.”

Crafts shop owner Mr Lau also said "it's quite sad" celebrations will have to be dialled down.

Performers taking part in a lion dance in Trafalgar Sqare, during Chinese New Year celebrations in central London in 2020 Credit: Yui Mok/PA

“I’ve been helping out with New Year market stalls since I was six or seven. So for me, it’s one of the things I have been doing every year of my life. Lunar New Year has always been a big thing," he explained.

Mr Lau would usually celebrate Lunar New Year with a dinner of at least 20 people. This year, it will be with just his household: his parents, wife and two kids. 

He said: “I’m still going to find some fireworks. We’re going to have a Zoom call with everyone, we did a similar thing for Christmas.”

There will normally be street performances during the Lunar New Year in London Chinatown Credit: Lawrence Lee

Manchester Chinatown

“It’s really quiet,” Lisa Yam, president of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Manchester said of Chinatown in the city. 

She continued: “It’s definitely different from the past but we never give up to celebrate our Chinese New Year. This year, it’s all online.”

The federation has invited people to send in Lunar New Year-themed videos, and it has received more than 40. All video submissions will be uploaded to Facebook and there will be cash prizes for the three most viewed. 

Lisa Yam, president of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Manchester Credit: Lisa Yam

Mrs Yam said: “Because this is the first time we do things online, we find it’s not too bad. We manage to attract the younger generation. But older people will feel a little bit trapped at home. This is what it is. So we encourage them to participate and follow up our event online.”

Mrs Yam believes many households will have a traditional home-cooked meal, but thinks younger people who “aren’t very good at cooking Chinese food” may rely on takeaways. 

She described the impact of the pandemic on Manchester Chinatown restaurants: “The first lockdown is not too bad. The second lockdown and now the third one, as far as I know, at least two restaurants have been unable to recover. 

A new dragon installation in Manchester Chinatown ahead of the Lunar New Year in 2021 Credit: Lisa Yam

“Some of them, they decided not to do takeaway because it’s not worth it because the income is not enough to pay the head chef and the kitchen assistant.”

She said it’s “a bit upsetting” to be seeing in the New Year in lockdown. She explained: “The family is used to be together to have a nice meal and to give red pockets to the youngest. This year, it seems there’s no more physical contact, no hug, no warm face, so it’s quite isolated.”

Mrs Yam will be celebrating with a quiet New Year’s Eve dinner with her husband. She says she will also Facetime her family in Hong Kong and in-laws in Wolverhampton.